Big, Bad, Bold: The Royal Oak OffshoreBy Wei Koh
The expressions on the august visages of the venerable Audemars Piguet board of directors ranged from the rictus of horror in Norwegian Expressionist Edvard Munch’s The Scream to the all-engulfing terror expressed by Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby when she realizes that she’s given birth to the spawn of Beelzebub.
Lying on the table before them was their iconic Royal Oak Offshore but refracted through the madman genius of maverick watch designer Emmanuel Gueit. And while the Royal Oak had become the definitive sports chic watch of the haute monde, this new watch looked like it wanted to batter down the doors of their gilded palaces and impregnate their daughters with a smirk on its face. It was in essence a Royal Oak that had been furiously hitting the weights room and practising Shaolin Kung Fu, while reading Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathusa. It had emerged from the chrysalis an earth shattering; awe inspiring Ubermensch. A symbol of testicular bombast and primal power. It was the watch on Odin and Thor’s wrists while toasting with the skulls of vanquished enemies in the halls of Valhalla. Its definitive characteristic beyond its totemic ursine heft was an all encompassing, never before seen in the rarified milieu of high Swiss watchmaking, unabashed bad-assitude.
Once the shock had passed, the response around the table, recalls former Audemars Piguet CEO Georges Henri Meylan was, “There is no way we can make this watch.” Says Gueit with a laugh, “Fortunately they would change their minds.”
The Royal Oak Offshore has since its launch 25 years ago become the single most dominant high luxury sports watch on the planet. Jay-Z and LeBron both have their own editions. Indeed, Jay-Z commemorated his “Audemars before all y’alls” on Frank Ocean’s ‘Biking’ as well as his own appropriately named track ‘Show You How’. NFL QB Michael Vick rocks his cool millie-costing Offshore encrusted with 7 carats of diamonds. Indeed there is nary a #shotcaller or #baller in Christendom in the last 20 years that has rolled up to the club and popped the cork on a jeroboam without an Offshore on his wrist. So much so that you can say that in the new millennium it has become simultaneously synonymous with success and street cred. But how did it rise to the top?
The roots: The 1972 Royal Oak
It is impossible to discuss the modern day icon that is the Royal Oak Offshore without first detailing the genesis of the original 1972 Royal Oak, famously created by designer Gerald Genta. There are two stories about how he came up with the idea of the unique eight-sided bezel and tripartite construction of this timepiece. The first was that he was inspired by the octagonal portholes of the HMS Royal Oak, the British Navy’s first armored vessel, and decided to base the bezel on this design. This was later corrected in Revolution magazine’s interview with current AP CEO Francois Bennahmias who explained, “Mr Genta’s widow told me that Gerald was inspired by a diver he saw by the side of lake Geneva, specifically the way his diving helmet was screwed to his suit.”
Regardless of which story you connect with the Royal Oak’s eight-sided bezel and exposed screw design has become one of the most recognizable in modern luxury. Says Bennahmias, “The thing about the Royal Oak is it is unmistakable from across the room.” But underlying the aesthetics was a function — the construction of the Royal Oak case was such that both the screws and the bezel are integral elements to the case structure. The entire watch was sealed from the back using flat nuts that were attached to the screws that run through the case — like load-bearing pillars in a house.
The Royal Oak ignited a revolution as the first super high luxury watch steel watch and at the time of its launch, its 3750 franc asking price could buy you 12 Rolex submariners. It was clearly meant for a specific type of customer. As Meylan explains: “The Royal Oak was intended to reach out to a new generation of (very rich) young watch buyers.”
The First Bad Ass Luxury Watch: The 1993 Royal Oak Offshore
The idea of a massive oversized 42-mm in diameter Royal Oak-based watch was sparked in the mind of designer Emmanuel Gueit sometime in the mid-1980s. Working at Audemars Piguet’s design studio, he launched himself into this project with unbridled obsessive enthusiasm. What he created would be a first in luxury watches. At this time, Panerai’s 42-mm in diameter Luminor Marina had not yet been introduced to the market. Thus Guiet’s creation was the first truly oversized luxury timepiece. Even crazier were its exposed rubber gaskets and rubber-covered chronograph pushers, normally considered incompatible with a refined watch.
For its movement, Audemars Piguet selected two products from brands they had long associations with — Jaeger-LeCoultre (at the time Audemars Piguet still owned a large part of the Le Sentier manufacture) and the famous Vallée de Joux module maker, Dubois-Depraz. A nicely reworked Jaeger-LeCoultre automatic caliber and a Dubois Depraz module formed the chronograph movement for the Offshore. The signature magnifying loupe used to enlarge the recessed date of the Offshore results from the movement’s modular construction. Says Gueit, “The dial was really far from the date wheel. So I decided to use the loupe to magnify the date. It’s funny because this has become one of the visual signatures of the watch.”
Yet one more problem existed: the disparity between a very large case and a small movement. The manufacture solved this with one of the best marketing tactics since the advent of their “steel on the outside, gold on the inside” campaign for the original Royal Oak. Every Offshore would feature an anti-magnetic inner case. Gueit explains: “The case was so big and the movement quite slim so we had to find a solution, which is why we decided to cover the movement with an anti-magnetic soft iron cage.” This creates a watch that is anything but slim. But the Offshore’s massive 15.5 mm stack height is part of its Herculean appeal.
Gueit labored endless hours, making numerous prototypes until he had the opportunity to present his baby to the Audemars Piguet board. Their response as detailed above was to recoil in collective horror, Meylan recalls: “I remember looking at him and saying, ‘You’re crazy.’ “Gueit didn’t handle the rejection well. With fanatical zeal he tracked down board members in the hallways, boardrooms and even in the parking lot of the brand’s headquarters at Le Brassus as they climbed into their cars. Finally, they agreed to make a few watches to get Gueit off their back. And so after several years of delay, the world’s craziest, most audacious luxury timepiece, the Royal Oak Offshore was born in 1993 and soon exploded into the public consciousness.
Larger than Life: The Offshores Rise in Populartiy
What was the reason for the Offshore’s success? Much of it came down to how totally original it was. Its hugeness was unique and totally audacious. At the time it would have been the rejection of all propriety for a member of the horlogical Holy Trinity to walk down this dark path. But at the same time there is a prevailing quality from finish to the touch of every surface on the watch that reinforced its authenticity as a true luxury product. It is highly entertaining to observe a man the first time he handles a Royal Oak Offshore. His eyes light up as he turns the watch around admiring the faceted case, the incredible workmanship and the sheer titanic size of the watch. When he straps it on, a look comes over his face. Adrenal glands flood his blood stream with a powerful opiate, and desire consumes him. You can see it all in the wide grin on his face: he’s hooked and addicted.
Something about the watch taps instantly into the male psyche. It was part luxury watch and part superhero. And it soon became the preferred timepiece of two of pop culture’s most iconic figures. The first was Austrian body-builder-turned action star Arnold Schwarzenegger. And as you know, the single greatest rapper of all time, Jay-Z. And while Schwarzenegger wore special editions of the Offshore in films like End of Days and Terminator 3, Jay-Z turned the likes of Kanye West and Pharrell onto his favorite timepiece and soon the entire rap world was flossing with AP ROO’s on their arms. At the same time, the Offshore appeared on the wrist of Ari Gold and Vinnie Chase on HBO’s Entourage. And collectively this pop culture triple tap ignited an explosion in popularity for the watch.
Over the past 25 years one of the magical qualities of the Offshore is its ability to keep evolving and stay ahead of the curve. Each new version of the Offshore sets the trend for the current generation of sports watches. Case in point was the famous End of Days, the first blacked-out high luxury watch the world had ever seen. And while the eponymous movie tanked at the box office, the watch soon reached cult mythological status trading for many times its asking price. This was followed by the famous Rubber Clad Offshore. By coating the huge bezel in rubber, Audemars Piguet protected this vulnerable unit against scratches. Its rubber strap merged organically with the rubberized pushers and crown, and turned a classic design into a uniquely modern sports chronograph.
AP scored another major hit with the rose gold rubber clad version of the Offshore in 2003. Says Bennahmias, “When the distributor in Italy saw this watch, he said, ‘Come on, rose gold and rubber? You’ll sell 100 pieces worldwide maybe.’ He called back a few days later to tell me demand was so strong, he needed 100 pieces for Italy alone.” What’s particularly cool about this watch was revealed when a Japanese owner had an accident wearing his is that under the rubber coating on the gold watch, the bezel is still a solid piece of gold. Says Bennahmias, “Of course it is. We are AP. If you pay for a gold watch. You’re going to get a gold watch even on the parts you can’t see.”
The Offshore also perfectly showcased AP’s increasing emboldened design braggadocio. Unique editions of the Offshore for F-1 drivers, the carbon fiber festooned Juan Pablo Montoya and the race car derived Rubens Barrichello are some of the most stunning modern watches created and still command massive premiums on the aftermarket.
The Royal Oak Offshore and Material Innovation
Over the past 25 years the Offshore has also been a platform for Audemars Piguet’s passion for material innovation. Pioneering the technology for carbon fiber cases, the first luxury timepiece featuring a forged carbon fiber case was the legendary Alignhi Team Offshore made for the Swiss America’s Cup team. AP then followed the success of this ultra light model with what we at Revolution consider the most undervalued and coolest Offshores of all time, the Bumblebee. This extraordinary watch featured a carbon case combined with a totally scratchproof ceramic bezel and bold yellow and black styling that endowed it with its nickname.
>>To learn about the End of Days
>>To learn more about the Bumblebee
>To learn about material innovation and AP
Launched before the prevailing fashion for oversized watches, Bennahmias admits that AP didn’t expect to sell more than a few hundred Offshores before he ended production. Two and half decades later, the Royal Oak Offshore is the most sought-after luxury sports watch on the market. Says Bennahmias “We are usually out of stock in most of the classic models. If you want an Offshore, you put your deposit down, and then you wait and wait. Until they say your watch has arrived. Our volume is small because this is what we can produce to the level of quality we require.”
Amusingly for the 25th anniversary of the Offshore this year, AP has launched a limited edition of the watch that is identical to the very original watch that Gueit designed 25 years ago and set into motion the greatest revolution in luxury sports watch the world had ever seen. Apt demonstration that the Offshore in every version is here to stay.
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