Perfect Black: Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar Black Ceramic

Team Revolution rolled up on Day 1 at SIHH 2017 and marched straight into Mr. François-Henry Bennahmias’ meeting room, clamoring to see what had already become the most talked about watch at the fair: The Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar in hand-finished black ceramic.

Well, okay, no we didn’t really march up into his office. That would’ve been rude. It was just our good fortune that Audemars Piguet was our first appointment at the fair. The question, however, that Revolution’s founder, Wei Koh asked Mr. Bennahmias point blank right then is possibly not one that too many people had considered at such early hours at the fair.

The question asked was, “Is the Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar black ceramic a direct response to every single third-party company out there, who are buying off-the-shelf Audemars Piguet watches, turning them black and then selling them off for ginormous profits?”

To which, Mr. Bennahmias responded with a sweet, short, sharp, decisive and very elegant, “No.”

Mr. Bennahmias explains, “We never made the watch with the motivation to challenge these guys in the market. It’s a free world, people can do whatever they want with the money they spend. We made the watch to challenge ourselves.

The Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar in hand-finished black ceramic.

When we started delving into ceramic, we started first with the bezel. Then the case and every step onward from there was a huge leap from one to the other, leading us eventually to this point. Believe me, it was not easy.”

So why is the ceramic treatment on the Royal Oak particularly challenging? Even with the knowhow for creating ceramic cases and bezels, why has Audemars Piguet taken this long to create their own black Royal Oak when the likes of such influential beings such as the legendary Karl Lagerfeld had been sporting blacked out Royal Oaks ever since the late 1970s?

Quite simply, because it’s easy enough to color a watch with black paint and it’s common enough to DLC coat watches in this day and age. But a full on ceramic watch? Bracelet and all, given the complexities of the Royal Oak bracelet? That’s a whole other story.

Says Mr. Bennahmias, “Two years ago I told my team that I wanted to see the full, integrated Royal Oak bracelet in ceramic. My team very assuredly advised me, ‘That’s never gonna happen.’

Every single link on the Royal Oak bracelet is different, no two are alike. Which means that for EVERY SINGLE link, we would have to create a specific mould. Which means we’d have to make many moulds and break a lot of things along the way. The resulting cost of development alone would be outrageous.

With our given knowhow at that point, we would’ve also had to make compromises to the Royal Oak form in order to produce a ceramic version. These were compromises that no one in Audemars Piguet would ever agree to. Take for instance the first screws on the Royal Oak bracelet, which otherwise sit beneath the surface of the bracelet sides. These we had no way of doing on a fully ceramic bracelet. It would stick out like a sore thumb.”

Karl Lagerfeld
The Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar in hand-finished black ceramic.

And so, Audemars Piguet put the idea of a fully ceramic Royal Oak on the shelf for a long time to come. What did then result in the beautiful watch we see today?

“It felt almost like every other meeting I was attending with my team, I was asking them, ‘Please tell me we’ve figured out a way around to create a full-ceramic Royal Oak,’” says Mr. Bennahmias. “Fast forward through the two years of fighting with ourselves to create this watch, I cannot begin to tell you how good it feels to see that the watch turned out to look THIS good.”

While Audemars Piguet has figured out very well how to create a ceramic watch — a black one no less — it doesn’t discount the fact that it still takes a vast amount of effort to produce one. Which explains why even with the production capabilities of Audemars Piguet, only a hundred will be produced.

“We did everything necessary for this watch within Switzerland.” Mr. Bennahmias explains. “Because to manufacture ceramic parts, the way we need them to be made — keeping exactly the effect of the Royal Oak with its signature combination of brushed and satin finished surfaces — thus far there’s only one guy who can do this. It’s really tough. I’ll call it good year if we manage to deliver all 100 pieces within 2017.”

All new technologies had to be created within the walls of Audemars Piguet in order to realize the black ceramic Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar. New moulds had to be created to produce every single link, diamond tools had to be made to brush and polish every necessary surface of the watch to get the classic Royal Oak finish. And as if Mr. Bennahmias’ words weren’t enough to drop our jaws, just then, the incredible Giulio Papi walked into the room to make sure our jaws were dropped all the way to the floor.

The Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar in hand-finished black ceramic.
The Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar in hand-finished black ceramic.

Giulio starts, “Never mind the challenge of creating a fully ceramic watch, imagine what we had to put ourselves through to find the right shade of black to color our ceramic with. It had to be the right color; it had to be perfect color.

But, what is this black color? There’s no such thing as black color. What it is, is a treatment and end product that absorbs all other frequencies of light. If what we ended up with captured 90% of the visible light spectrum, there’s then 10% visible light that would reflect off this texture.

It’s all same to the layman; black is black. But you and I, we must understand that different degrees of this ratio will absorb and reflect light very differently. Had we not got this balance right, we’d be having a very different conversation. So, the first challenge really was to find the right substance to treat the ceramic with in order to obtain the right black for the watch.

Secondly, ceramic, while it has hard, is also brittle and can shatter. So, what you have in this watch isn’t 100% ceramic, but a composite of ceramic and metal. It’s not on the surface of the watch, but it is in there in its core.

We mix the ceramic in its powder state with the ‘secret’ metal and then we sinter it to form the core of the watch for the various parts required to form it; its skeleton if you will. I’m not terribly fluent in this knowledge domain, but understand this that a pure ceramic watch would’ve been far too brittle, almost like porcelain.”

That’s a whole lot of pain to go — and grow — through to make one badass watch that wouldn’t crack easily. Surely there were other outcomes of all that research and hard work.

There sure were, Giulio explains, “The Audemars Piguet team did an excellent job, no? Because if the watch was in fact a 100% ceramic, then: 1) it would not be as hardy as it is; we would’ve been unable to satin polish and bevel the watch. It would just shatter at that kind of stress. And 2) it wouldn’t have been as light and comfortable to wear, because as you know, this much ceramic to produce an entire watch would’ve resulted in a really heavy watch.”

The Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar in hand-finished black ceramic.
The Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar in hand-finished black ceramic.
The Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar in hand-finished black ceramic.
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