Origins of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak
In the early 1970s Georges Golay, then managing director of Audemars Piguet, set his sights on a steel watch that was unlike anything that had been produced before. For this, he turned to Gérald Genta, whose conception of this watch was drawn from the construction of a diver’s helmet.
The result was a large steel sports watch (at 39 mm) that incorporated an integrated bracelet, raised bezel with hexagonal screws, and tapisserie dial. The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak was unveiled at the 1972 Basel Fair to mixed reactions. This was in part because of the design, which was considered futuristic for the time, but also because of the price — the steel Royal Oak cost CHF3,650, which was more expensive at the time than many gold watches. That said, recent and as yet unpublished studies by the Audemars Piguet Heritage Department show that more than 1,000 watches sold during the two first years.
Why collectors pursue the A-Series Royal Oak
Before 1972, the total production of Audemars Piguet was around 5,000 watches each year, made in series of less than 50 pieces, and very rarely of 100 pieces. In 1971, for the first time in its history, the company ordered 1,000 cases for a highly unconventional and complex watch, in steel. Managing director Georges Golay made this risky bet because the company strongly believed in the A-Series Royal Oak, as evidenced by the watch being supported with a dedicated media campaign.
This first batch of 2,000 watches are referred to as ‘A-Series Royal Oaks’ and are distinguished by an engraving on the case back that has the letter ‘A’ and the number of the watch produced. It is therefore possible to tell the approximate chronological order of a specific Royal Oak produced by the number of its case back.
Later, additional series were added (B, C, and D) and were identified by reference 5402 also, but the A-Series Royal Oaks are most prized by collectors. Not only is the Royal Oak highly distinctive, it also inspired numerous important watches produced in subsequent years. Perhaps more significantly, the Royal Oak established the popularity and desirability of the steel sports watch.
While the watch was entirely designed by Gérald Genta, the bracelets for the reference 5402ST were produced by Gay Frères, the most celebrated bracelet maker of the 20th century. The case and bracelet are one and the same on the Royal Oak, with each link connected by two perpendicular smaller stainless-steel links. This allows for a form-fitting bracelet that follows the curvature of the wrist, making it both striking in appearance and comfortable to wear.
The tapisserie dial
The distinguished tapisserie dials were made by the specialist dial-maker, Stern. Tapisserie dials are a hallmark of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and are defined by the small squares that sit in relief.
The squares are engine turned and punctuated by over 60,000 small dots, which creates the three-dimensional effect, but makes the printing of the Audemars Piguet signature extremely difficult.
The automatic calibre 2121 movement
The movement used for the A-Series Royal Oak is the automatic calibre 2121, based on the calibre 920 produced by Jaeger-LeCoultre and finished by Audemars Piguet. Today, the production of this calibre continues, but it has been transferred to the Audemars Piguet workshops.
There were no shortcuts spared by the manufacture in creating the iconic Royal Oak and the quality of the watch speaks to this. Today, Audemars Piguet still produces a range of Royal Oaks in different metals, sizes, and with different complications. However, it is the A-Series that represents the beginning of the most recognisable model line in the AP stable.