From the CW1 to the Marvel Black Panther: a collector’s guide to Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Concept watches
As one of only 250 watches emblazoned with the Marvel superhero comes to auction, we look back at the AP series of fiercely contemporary timepieces that has captivated collectors for nearly two decades
On 11 April 2021, Audemars Piguet hosted a star-studded event to launch its new Royal Oak Concept watch, the Marvel Black Panther Concept Flying Tourbillon.
Emblazoned with the Marvel superhero, the Black Panther is the latest model in an AP series known for showcasing not only the Swiss watch manufacturer’s celebrated command of complications, but a willingness to experiment with design and materials that is usually the preserve of the independent watchmaker.
The evening included the auction of a unique white-gold model of the watch in aid of First Book and Ashoka — global charities supporting education for children in need and social entrepreneurship, respectively.
It sold for $5.2 million, becoming the most expensive AP watch ever, and drawing the attention of collectors to other models in the Royal Oak Concept range.
As another of the 250 examples produced comes to auction at Christie’s in Hong Kong, Watches & Wristwatches specialist Harmmond Wong puts the Black Panther model in the context of the Royal Oak Concept series as a whole and considers why the latter has proved so popular.
Audemars Piguet counts — with Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin — as one of a triumvirate of great Swiss watch houses known for continued excellence and innovation in watchmaking.
Founded in 1875 by Jules Audemars and Edward Piguet — two watchmakers who had known each other since childhood — it is based in the Vallée de Joux and still run by members of the Audemars family.
The company was known from the outset for its complex movements, and has attracted a glittering cast of brand ambassadors, from Lionel Messi to Jay-Z.
Early innovations included the first minute-repeating movement for wristwatches in 1892 and the first skeleton watch in 1934. However, it was with its Royal Oak luxury sports watch, launched in 1972, that Audemars Piguet really made its name.
Inspired by a traditional diving helmet, designer Gérald Genta imagined a watch with exposed screw heads that became an instant classic, helping to redefine wristwatch design in the 20th century. Two years later, he would design the Nautilus for Patek Philippe.
AP’s Royal Oak Offshore, introduced in 1993 with a larger, tougher case, was another hit.
The first Royal Oak Concept watch was launched in 2002 to mark the 30th anniversary of the original Royal Oak model. Taking his inspiration from the concept car, creative director Claude Emmenegger pondered a small-scale production of futuristic watches that would allow AP’s master watchmakers to not only test the limits of their technical and mechanical prowess, but explore avant-garde design and state-of-the-art materials, some of them new to watchmaking.
The result was the CW1, a groundbreaking tourbillon developed by AP’s subsidiary Renaud & Papi in a limited edition of 150 examples that were offered to the market between 2002 and 2004.
Chief among the new watch’s attributes was a new calibre, the 2896, which housed a clutch system with a mode pusher and indicator to wind the watch or change the time, and electro-erosion-formed titanium shock absorbers to protect the tourbillon cage.
The case was equally innovative, machined from Alacrite 602, a new super-alloy used in the aerospace and medical industries. Light yet extremely durable, it has a Vickers hardness number of 430 and had never previously been used in watchmaking.
In reference to its Royal Oak DNA, the new Concept model was fitted with the trademark AP octagonal titanium bezel and exposed hexagonal screw heads.
The CW1 was intended as a stand-alone model. Such was its success and cult status among AP collectors, however, that it led to other Royal Oak Concept models over the next 19 years, all distinctive but easily recognisable as part of the same family.
Among the most striking was 2008’s Royal Oak Carbon Concept, an all-black tourbillon chronograph crafted from lightweight ceramic, titanium, blackened aluminium and PVD-coated steel, and housing an outstanding chronograph calibre, the 2895.
In 2015, a dual time-zone tourbillon was released as the Concept GMT Tourbillon, which in turn led to two flying tourbillon versions released in 2018 and 2020.
The same year, 2015, also saw the launch of the Concept Laptimer Michael Schumacher, a three-column-wheel, split-seconds chronograph with alternating consecutive lap-timing and flyback functions that celebrated AP’s longstanding relationship with the champion F1 facing driver.
A year after that, following an impressive eight years’ research and development, the formidable Concept Supersonnerie was unveiled. A minute-repeater chronograph tourbillon in a waterproof titanium case, it came with three new horological patents, one for mounting the gongs inside the case instead of the movement, so producing an unprecedented acoustic performance.
The collaboration with Marvel Entertainment represents a new chapter in the Royal Oak Concept story: a series of superhero character watches beginning with the Black Panther. Available in only 250 pieces, it is cased in sandblasted titanium with a black ceramic bezel and crown, and a spectacular dial featuring a sculptural hand-painted white-gold Black Panther.
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In keeping with the Concept tradition, it is a true work of art, pushing the boundaries of traditional design while maintaining watchmaking excellence at the very highest level.