While Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak was first designed as a men’s watch, you could say that it has gained equal significance and expressed as much creativity in its role as the most game-changing women’s watch of the last half century. Still, as groundbreaking as the Royal Oak was, Audemars Piguet has been at the leading-edge of design for mechanical women’s watches since its founding in 1875, with designs in each decade remaining in vogue decades after. The fashions beloved by women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — to wear pieces of jewelry that also told the time — provided a testbed for the Manufacture to pursue increasing miniaturization of its movements. Leaving behind the ornate aesthetic codes of the Art Deco period, Audemars Piguet would then innovate on case and dial design through the austerity of the 1930s, the global conflict in the 40s and the post-war boom of the 50s and 60s. From cushion-shaped watches with jump hour complication to rectangular cases that were inverted or askew, geometric and asymmetric forms would take precedence over intricate gem-setting.
Such a spirit of innovation for women’s watches at Audemars Piguet remains undiminished. If we were to attribute the Royal Oak’s longevity, seductive capacity and potential to arouse desire across genders, it would be the direct result of the role played by extraordinary women such as Jacqueline Dimier, the Manufacture’s creative director from 1976 to 1999; Jasmine Audemars, the Chairwoman of Audemars Piguet’s board of directors from 1992 to 2022; and designer Carolina Bucci, who was tapped by CEO François-Henry Bennahmias to reconceptualize the Royal Oak in 2016, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the women’s Royal Oak.
A Tapisserie of Time
The idea of the Tapisserie motif that has characterized the Royal Oak’s dial from the outset has, after 50 years of history, gained a beautiful symbolic significance. It’s as if every one of those minute squares is a window into a chapter of the Royal Oak’s history and a reference to the incredible human beings that each had a role in ensuring its enduring longevity. The first square might represent Georges Golay, the second could refer to Gérald Genta, the third to the aforementioned Jacqueline Dimier, and so on. Indeed, every person, including current CEO Bennahmias, who has played a part in patiently guiding this watch through time to enable it to achieve iconic status, can be represented with each square.
Fittingly, when renowned Florentine jeweler Carolina Bucci decided to celebrate the 34 mm Royal Oak Selfwinding Black Ceramic, it was the Tapisserie motif that became her central focus. The result is a watch that is both wonderfully evocative and thrillingly daring. Taking center stage in her latest collaboration with Audemars Piguet is a dial with a chameleon-like ability to change color — in certain light appearing black, in other light evincing a ravishing iridescent rainbow hue. For the dial, Bucci was inspired by the quiet beauty found in everyday objects, such as the appearance of a rainbow in a puddle of water and oil. These are moments that toy with our senses because they are fleeting, a reminder of the transience of our existence. And it is expressed by the watch, which is constantly changing in appearance, in the same way we are perennially evolving as beings. The technique to create this extraordinary dial involved a great deal of experimentation.
But even as the dial’s color spectrum is in constant flux, a pattern from under the glass, metallized into the crystal, becomes apparent on close examination. And that is how the iconic Tapisserie is now transformed into a series of geometric forms. But the message is still the same. Each square represents the achievement of one brilliant human being to ensure the everlasting longevity of this beloved icon. As such, the last golden square belongs metaphorically to Carolina Bucci.
The Carolina Bucci Royal Oak Watches
In many ways, Bucci is the perfect representative of the Royal Oak woman — independent, innovative and fearless. She was born into the jewelry craft. Her great-grandfather Ferdinando opened a workshop in Florence that specialized in the repair of pocket watches. He soon became an expert in the creation of gold chains used to accessorize these timepieces. Her grandfather and father transformed the family business into one of Florence’s most successful jewelers. But it was her inventiveness with pieces such as “Woven” — shimmering objects that used a centuries-old Florentine textile looming technique to weave precious metal — that brought her family global acclaim. The most recent version of her Woven jewelry is called Color Field and allows customers the opportunity to personalize a gem-set tapestry in diamonds and colored sapphires. Bucci, in other words, is something of a master of nuance and detail.
Audemars Piguet’s collaboration with Carolina Bucci came about like many of the brand’s most successful partnerships — and that is, by an encounter. She recalls being seated next to Audemars Piguet’s CEO Bennahmias during a lunch when he noticed she was wearing a mid-size Royal Oak from the 1980s. He asked why she wasn’t wearing a more modern version, and she replied that she hadn’t found a modern Royal Oak that “spoke to her.” With his typical aplomb, he immediately suggested that she should then design a watch that would indeed resonate with her. His exact words were, “I dare you to come up with your own design.”
When asked how their collaboration came about, Bennahmias explains, “We have always worked with both internal and external designers to inject fresh energy and bring new creativity from outside the watch industry into our world. Carolina was a very natural fit and her ideas for the Royal Oak was something we all loved.”
What is extraordinary about Bucci’s initial work on the Royal Oak is her radical transformation of its appearance using the most deft and subtle of touches. Reworking the surface of the iconic timepiece with her signature “hammered” Florentine Finish means she neither added nor subtracted any material from the Royal Oak. She explains, “When I create a piece of jewelry, I always look at it from two perspectives — from that of the person wearing it and also of the person observing it being worn. Based on that, I realized that the way light reflects off a surface is one of the greatest influences on human perception. It can create intrigue for the senses and arouse the mind. It can visually seduce and compel one in for a closer look. This was the effect that I was after with the Florentine Finish.”
Bucci worked with Audemars Piguet and its team of expert craftsmen to adapt the soft, microscopically nuanced, pointillist technique to the very specific requirements of high horology and specifically, the Royal Oak’s unique geometry. The resulting Frosted Gold effect proved stunning — the repetitive hammering with diamond-tipped tools on the surface of the gold served to heighten and enhance the signature lines of the Royal Oak.
The gossamer-like modulation of infinitesimal indentations washes over the surface of the watch with a unique effect that is at once muted and yet sparkles like diamonds scattered in sand. But what it does most is stand out in stark relief to the pronounced architectural lines of the Royal Oak expressed by its polished bevels. There is a resulting dynamic tension between the urgency and velocity of these high polished planes contrasted by, to appropriate a quote from Baudelaire, the “Luxe, Calme et Volupté” tranquility of the hand hammered surfaces that is irrepressibly and deliciously engaging. So much so that although the first Carolina Bucci Royal Oak watches were a 33 mm in diameter model with a quartz movement, and a 37 mm model equipped with the mechanical caliber 3120, the watches, in particular the larger size model, soon found a following amongst male collectors. So universally lauded and collected were these hand-hammered watches that they soon inspired timepieces for men, such as the 41 mm reference 26240BA, a yellow gold automatic chronograph with stunning Florentine Finish.
Amusingly, Bucci describes showing her designs to her teenage son and getting his approval because she feels that great design is both genderless and transgenerational. As such, it is not surprising that so many male clients also gravitate to her Frosted Gold Royal Oak watches. Given a choice, for me, the ultimate expression of her craft finds its apogee in the reference 15412BA, a yellow gold, openworked double balance wheel watch, with a rainbow sapphire bezel and Bucci’s incandescent Frosted Gold.
In 2018, Bucci pushed Audemars Piguet to new heights of daring with a second Frosted Gold Royal Oak women’s model, this time in yellow gold but with a mirror-polished silvered dial.
“With the first Frosted Gold design, I took the perfection of the Royal Oak case and bracelet and ‘roughed them up’ a little, juxtaposing the perfectly imperfect Florentine finish with Swiss watchmaking precision. Now I’m doing the opposite, taking the textured surface of the ‘Tapisserie’ dial and flattening it out into a perfectly smooth mirror,” Bucci explains. “The motive for both is to create something interesting and unpredictable. It’s a fresh take on an icon made in the image of a contemporary woman. I know women with a great eye for keynote accessories who are going to love this. The mirror is always interacting with its environment, ever-changing according to what clothes you’re wearing, the décor of the room, the lighting, the time of day, the weather.”
Aesthetics aside, the mirrored dial was a challenge to perfect; the least amount of dust altered the dial and its mirrored effect. The mirrored dial of the 2018 watch also gained historic significance as it paved the way for the iridescent, mirrored, micro-pattern emblazoned sapphire dial of Carolina Bucci’s latest Royal Oak edition.
The Design Language of Jacqueline Dimier
But if Carolina Bucci and the watches she’s created are represented by the last squares in the dial of the Royal Oak’s Tapisserie motif, then who do the other squares in this mesmerizing pattern represent? In order to understand this, we need to transport ourselves back to 1976 and get to know a truly extraordinary woman named Jacqueline Dimier. Clearly, Georges Golay, Audemars Piguet’s then CEO, the man who commissioned the Royal Oak from Gérald Genta, and who ordered the women’s version of the watch, was impressed by Dimier. So much so that in 1975, one year before the ladies’ Royal Oak launched, he appointed her creative director of the brand. Her work at the manufacture would become legendary. Amongst the litany of her achievements are the designs of the incredible ultra-thin perpetual calendar reference 5548 in 1978, which truly transformed Audemars Piguet’s fortunes, the Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar in 1984 and the world’s first wristwatch tourbillon in 1986.
Dimier was immediately tasked with adapting Genta’s design in different ways. Because the 5402ST had proved to be polarizingly large, she set about creating its mid-size counterpart, the 35 mm in diameter reference 4100. This watch, also known as the Royal Oak III, would be launched in 1977. But a year previous to that, she had already set the horological world aflame with the Royal Oak ladies’ reference 8638, which was a full 1cm smaller in diameter than the 5402ST that inspired it. It was a historically significant watch in two ways.
Firstly, it was the world’s first sports chic integrated bracelet timepiece dedicated to the feminine market. If the original Royal Oak captured the zeitgeist of a decade of change, where the lines between work and play were blurred to the point of obliteration, the reference 8638 symbolized this very same spirit of the luxury vagabond, chasing a nonstop 52 weeks a year party from Mustique to Gstaad following our planet’s circumnavigation of the sun. Secondly, it was the first time that a men’s watch had been re-cast and reconceptualized as a women’s watch. Admittedly, the original Royal Oak also carried within it a certain femininity — for instance, the integrated bracelet and polished angles that reference the facets of a diamond. All were fodder for Dimier in her ‘miniaturization’ of the Royal Oak. In tapping on these with great sensitivity, Dimier managed to create a wearable feminine alternative while still retaining the powerfully expressive lines and edgy modernism of the original Royal Oak.
Looking at Dimier’s design heritage today across the Royal Oak’s feminine collection, you can see the myriad expressions that subtle differences in dimensions play. There is, as the successor to Dimier’s original 8638, the 33 mm in diameter quartz-driven Royal Oak, which epitomizes classic femininity. There is also the 1997 quartz-driven Royal Oak mini with its impressive 20 mm in diameter, which took this play with dimensions to new extreme, continuing the company’s strong legacy of miniaturisation.
Then, there is the 34 mm in diameter Royal Oak, with a mechanical 5800 caliber created by Vaucher and customized by Audemars Piguet. Particularly in the stunning black ceramic version replete with rose gold screws, these watches have become amongst the most sought after women’s watches in the world. There is the 37 mm mid-size reference 15551 watches which are rendered in some striking versions with diamond-set bezels and vivid hue dials. Also at 37 mm in diameter are the incredible Royal Oak Double Balance Wheel Openworked watch references 15466 with a transcendent white Frosted Gold case and bracelet, 15467 in rose gold, and the 15468BA in yellow Frosted Gold with a rainbow sapphire-set bezel. For those with the truly sporty intent, there are the 38 mm in diameter Royal Oak Chronograph models. Of course, it is worth mentioning that these watches are conceived not just for the ladies, but to appeal to all genders.
Then, there are two intriguing outliers that are also part of the Royal Oak family but that stand decidedly apart from the rest. Launched in 1996, in the last few years Dimier presided over Audemars Piguet in her capacity as the Manufacture’s creative director, the Royal Oak Offshore ladies’ chronograph brings a decidedly sporty nature to the Royal Oak’s iconography. The men’s version of this watch was launched in 1993. Designed by Emmanuel Gueit, it was a profoundly polarizing watch that bristled with larger than life aggression. While the original Royal Oak had always been svelte and elegant, the Royal Oak Offshore was simply titanic. If you can associate the Royal Oak with the thin elegant dueling swords men at court used to wear, then the Offshore was the equivalent of walking around with a Viking war hammer slung across your shoulders. What was impressive about the Royal Oak Offshore ladies’ version was the selective use of many of the Offshore’s signature codes — the rubber bracelet, oversized crown and chronograph pushers, for example — while imparting an overall sense of elegance to the timepiece. For over two decades now, the ladies’ Royal Oak Offshore has offered a distinct alternative to the traditional Royal Oak while still forging a powerful lineage with the original.
True Horology for Women
For those looking for the greatest avant-gardist departure from the traditional Royal Oak, I’m inclined to say all roads lead to the Royal Oak Concept Flying Tourbillon Ladies. Created in 2002 by Claude Emmenegger, the Royal Oak Concept celebrated the iconic timepiece’s 30th anniversary. It looked like a watch that time travelers had gleaned from 100 years in the future and brought back to our time, so wildly futuristic was its appearance. Its design featured a more sculptural and faceted case made from a lightweight high corrosion resistant cobalt-based alloy named Alacrite. In 2018, Audemars Piguet adapted the Concept case to create an all-new ladies’ timepiece. What is extraordinary is that this watch featured the very first flying tourbillon ever offered by Audemars Piguet, a testament to the Manufacture’s belief in creating true horological substance for their women’s watches. From a design perspective, the watch masterfully wove a multi-part dial, exposed movement and decorated bridges to create a unique sculptural horological art form, which is to my mind the most daring and ambitious women’s high complication to date. At 38.5 mm, it is not precisely for the faint of heart or diminutive of wrist, but I like to think anyone choosing to wear this incredible timepiece must be in possession of a rather extraordinary character.
Custodians of an Icon
There you have it, the significance of the Royal Oak in Audemars Piguet’s history of ladies’ watches as a canvas for challenging aesthetic norms around femininity and pushing all aspects of watchmaking, not just in terms of design and finishing but also mechanics, in new directions. Therefore, the Tapisserie pattern on the Royal Oak — mimetic, repetitive and unforgettable — can be said to be symbolic of a ceaseless and unbroken chain reaching back across time to the past while also stretching inexorably into the future. Each small square represents a guardian of the Royal Oak, an individual person that has worked tirelessly to uphold this beloved watch’s status and enabled its longevity through creativity, courage and determination. A great many of these people have been remarkable extraordinary women, like Jacqueline Dimier, Jasmine Audemars and Carolina Bucci. Some of them are well known to the world. Some of them are unsung heroines, who have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure the Manufacture’s market leading relevance in the context of contemporary culture. When I look at a Royal Oak, the Tapisserie speaks to me like a codex, a multi-generational legacy bearing the efforts made by each member of the Audemars Piguet family to ensure that their watch is the vessel of their love and affection, so that like a child, it continues to grow and mature in the perfect way.
Even at the age of 50, it strikes me that the Royal Oak is still in its infancy. And I, for one, can’t wait to see what the next 50 years of this exceptional icon will bring to us.