Royal Oak Ref. 5402 - The Watch That Cost As Much As a Jaguar in 1972

Royal Oak Ref. 5402 - The Watch That Cost As Much As a Jaguar in 1972

It’s a tale worth telling time and time again. On the eve of Basel Fair 1971, an eager, Georges Golay, managing director of Audemars Piguet at the time, put through a phone call to a certain Gérald Genta, exclaiming that he needed to show his Italian retailers “an unprecedented steel watch” on his first day at the fair.

Golay described that what he desired was a watch that would be considered stylish, by the style savvy Italians. But it shouldn’t be a watch that is stylish with classical sensibility. Rather it should be a watch that embodies modernity and robust versatility which, therefore, would allow the timepiece to seamlessly transit from the most formal of affairs to the coolest and most epic of poolside parties.

Georges Golay, the boss of AP (known as “Uncle George” to the Bottinelli family, one of the families behind the brand) and a true brilliant leader during over the course of the Quartz Crisis
Georges Golay, the boss of AP (known as “Uncle George” to the Bottinelli family, one of the families behind the brand) and a true brilliant leader during over the course of the Quartz Crisis
Swiss watch designer and artist, Gerald Genta who changed forever the landscape of watches
Swiss watch designer and artist, Gerald Genta who changed forever the landscape of watches

Needless to say, time was not something that Genta had a lot of, to fulfil this brief. But just in that moment he had visions of his childhood run through his mind, where he’s standing on the Pont de la Machine in Geneva, watching a diver have his diving helmet put over his head.

In his mind’s eye, he saw the eight nuts that held the helmet’s visor in place and an initial concept started to form. He began drawing this out and what was finally on paper which would alter horology as it was known.Golay took the drawings the next morning and presented it to his clients who were absolutely thrilled. But he had a caveat for Genta, saying that while his clients had given the idea a go ahead, he himself would’ve never approved it because it deviated too far from the identity of Audemars Piguet that existed before the birth of the Royal Oak. Oh, dear lord, the profound irony in those words.

Genta's original sketch of the Royal Oak
Gerald Genta's original sketch of the Royal Oak
Patent document for the Royal Oak as awarded to Audemars Piguet in 1971

Over the course of the year remaining, Audemars Piguet began prototyping. These were done on white gold, because the precious metal was softer to work with in achieving the multiple brushed and polished surfaces with countless angles to be mindful of. This made the process quite costly, but it was the quicker way to manage the prototyping rather than going straight to steel, which would’ve taken far longer to achieve the desired finishes.

When finally introduced at Basel Fair 1972, apprehension was in the air. Not just that of Golay’s but plenty others in the company, who expressed their concerns about the product being a success. So, a decision was made that only 1000 pieces of the watch would be produced.

The 1972 Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Ref. 5402ST; the instance pictured here is case no. A 26 and part of the Collection Patrimoine Audemars Piguet (Inv. 365)
The 1972 Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Ref. 5402ST; the instance pictured here is case no. A 26 and part of the Collection Patrimoine Audemars Piguet (Inv. 365)
An entry ticket to Baselworld 1972 where the Royal Oak was unveiled to the world for the first time with the asking price of 3,650 Swiss-franc for which, you could actually buy a Jaguar
An entry ticket to Baselworld 1972 where the Royal Oak was unveiled to the world for the first time with the asking price of 3,650 Swiss-franc for which, you could actually buy a Jaguar

In the first year, they would allocate 400 watches each to the Swiss and Italian markets. The remaining 200, well, they’d think about that once the first 800 were dealt with.

Three years past before the 800 were cleared out in Switzerland and Italy. The reason for this alarming lack of traction for the Royal Oak, in the early years, was purely cultural. In that, in the early 1970s, men preferred to wear smaller watches. Particularly in Italy, men were preferring to even wear small watches meant for women. Therein, at 39mm, the Royal Oak simply didn’t appeal to this generation of men, no matter how hard we argue the watch’s high degree of technical complexity and craft. Also, here was a steel watch audaciously priced like a gold watch; in fact, for its 3,650 Swiss-franc asking price, you could actually buy a Jaguar.

What then did it take to change such a cultural mindset? A cultural revolutionary, of course. In 1974, it is said that the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak was seen on the wrist of one, Giovanni Agnelli — style icon, business magnate and boss of FIAT motors. The rest, shall we say, is history.

Gianni Agnelli, one of core protagonist within the 1950s jet set whose lifestyle was resolutely committed to a playboy — carousing nights, fast cars, an endless string of romances and, naturally, a sprawling mansion on the French Riviera
Gianni Agnelli, one of core protagonist within the 1950s jet set whose lifestyle was resolutely committed to a playboy — carousing nights, fast cars, an endless string of romances and, naturally, a sprawling mansion on the French Riviera

As the cool factor of the Royal Oak become more widely acknowledged, so rose the demand for the watch. Audemars Piguet, however, had only planned 1,000 pieces. Just at the tail end of that figure is when demand really soared.

Therefore, Audemars Piguet found itself with no other choice but to produce yet another thousand pieces of the very first reference 5402ST of the Royal Oak. A Royal Oak in the instance of these first 2000 is termed an A-series Royal Oak. There was a progressive B-series and C-series (even a D-series), but it goes without saying that the A-series pieces remain today as some of the most coveted watches ever.

It is because of the known, finite number of watches that were made in the A-series run that every time an auction house puts up a watch in the catalog from the series, it’s easy enough to suss out what’s what. For instance, at the November 2021 Phillips Watches auction in Geneva, lot 210 was a piece with its case marked with the number A 40. Meaning to say that this was the fortieth Audemars Piguet Royal Oak to have been produced, since 1972. The watch sold for CHF 132,300 (a little under USD 145,000).

Sold at the November 2021 Phillips Watches auction in Geneva, lot 210 was a piece with its case marked with the number A 40; sold for CHF 132,300 (a little under USD 145,000) (Image: phillips.com)
Sold at the November 2021 Phillips Watches auction in Geneva, lot 210 was a piece with its case marked with the number A 40; sold for CHF 132,300 (a little under USD 145,000) (Image: phillips.com)
A-series Royal Oak 5402s were marked with alpha-numerical serial number on the caseback as seen here (Image: phillips.com)
A-series Royal Oak 5402s were marked with alpha-numerical serial number on the caseback as seen here (Image: phillips.com)

2000 pieces may sound like a large enough number, but the fact that there they were all manufactured in the early 70s puts a good 50-odd years of life on the earliest of A-series Royal Oaks. Which in turn makes finding one in good (or even decent condition) a challenge on top of the challenge of finding an A-series.

For a sense of trajectory on prices for an A-series 5402, we can look to Phillips’ Spring sales in Geneva, where case A840 was sold for CHF 69,300 (lot 153). Another curious instance from the same sale was lot 27, which is an instance of the 5402 without the alpha-numerical serial number on the caseback. Phillips states that according to Audemars Piguet archives, a small batch of less than 100 of these sans-serial number Royal Oaks were produced between A and B series in 1975 and are thought to be transitional models. The watch sold for CHF 81,900.

An instance of the 5402 without the alpha-numerical serial number on the caseback; according to Audemars Piguet archives, these are from a small batch of less than 100 produced between A and B series in 1975 and are thought to be transitional models; the watch sold for CHF 81,900 with Phillips (Image: phillips.com)
An instance of the 5402 without the alpha-numerical serial number on the caseback; according to Audemars Piguet archives, these are from a small batch of less than 100 produced between A and B series in 1975 and are thought to be transitional models; the watch sold for CHF 81,900 with Phillips (Image: phillips.com)
A small batch of less than 100 5402s were produced between A and B series in 1975 with a alpha numeric serial number on the caseback (Image: phillips.com)
A small batch of less than 100 5402s were produced between A and B series in 1975 with a alpha numeric serial number on the caseback (Image: phillips.com)

Looking to the other major auction houses: Christie’s sold an A-series at their Hong Kong sale in November of 2021 for HKD 1,187,500 (a little over USD 150,000). Christie’s however chose to withhold the alpha-numerical serial number on this instance. Lot 20 at Sotheby’s December sale in New York was one of the instances of the sans-serial number instances, which sold for USD 113,400. The last of the auction houses, Antiquorum sold A 120 in November 2021, at the Geneva sale for CHF 118,750 and number A 1521 for CHF 88,750.

The upward and 100,000 US dollar price trend on the A-Series seems to be well and established. What is important to note here is that B-Series prices seem to be on par at the moment. But let’s not forget that 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the 5402 Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and with it the assurance that the landmark reference is poised to break and set all new records across the auction houses and other channels.

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Sumit Nag

Sumit started with Revolution — and as a watch journalist — a mere couple of years ago, having spent the bulk of his professional Iife in digital consultancy. Since then he’s progressed to lead Revolution’s digital efforts, taking on the website and our social media channels.

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