The King of Cool: Audemars Piguet’s Game Changing Royal Oak

It was seminal. It was seismic. Like the first time NWA’s ‘Straight outta Compton’ exploded through your car speakers and triggered a million firing synapses, or the first frame of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs leaped off the screen and seared itself indelibly on your median temporal lobe, the launch of Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak shook the world to its very core and changed it forever. In watch history there is only before and after the Royal Oak or as Ferdinand de Saussure and the social semioticians would say “pre-liminal and post liminal” states.

And if liminality is defined by a “state of flux” this is precisely the condition the entire Swiss watch industry found itself in the early ‘70s.

The Quartz Crisis, buoyed by inexpensive electronic oscillator driven watches from the Far East had blown the industry apart, and deracinated it from its very roots. Once glorious manufactures were dismantling and abandoning tooling for mechanical watches and beautiful hand decorated movements were being sold out the back of factories by the pound.

In other words, the Swiss watch brands were collectively on life support. In 1969 in a valiant but ultimately doomed effort, 20 Swiss companies led by Rolex, Patek Philippe and Omega banded together to create their own quartz movement, the Beta 21, as symbol of unified resistance. But it was too little. And it was too late. The death toll was chiming.

The Game Changers

This ominous sound was not lost on Audemars Piguet’s managing director Georges Golay. But he was also unconvinced that replicating the tactics of the Far East was the way out of this seemingly inevitable graveyard spiral. At this point, annual production at Audemars Piguet, considered to be part of the Swiss Holy Trinity of fine watchmaking that included Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin, was down to 6,000 watches. So what gave him the wild impetus and almost suicidal testicular fortitude to, amid one of the most challenging years mechanical watchmaking had ever faced, take the gamble on ordering 1,000 watches based on a wildly avant gardist design by horological enfant terrible, Gerald Genta?

Says Oliviero Bottinelli, nephew of Golay and member of the brand’s board of directors, “He knew that the only way to fight this seemingly insurmountable battle was by creating something the world had never seen before.” Says the brand’s current CEO Francois Bennahmias, “It was about creativity. About making a watch that connected with the audience of today. This is why we always push our creativity. We are sometimes perceived to be the most audacious of fine watchmaking brands but this has its roots in Golay’s decision to launch the Royal Oak, which ultimately saved our company and led the way for the resurgence of Swiss watchmaking. We never forgot this lesson.”

What exactly is a Royal Oak?

Well unless you’ve spent the last 46 years living in a cave, practicing transcendental meditation, reading the collective works of Kierkegaard and lifting rocks with your dick, you should know that it is the most famous modern sports watch that’s not a Rolex or an Omega. And before anyone takes offense to this, bear in mind that those watches are permanently inked onto the collective consciousness because they climbed Everest and went to the Moon. But they were essentially tools.

The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak was made for a very different purpose, and that was to look incredibly cool on your wrist as you piloted your wood-hulled Riva up to the shores of Capri, tipped back a Negroni at the Capri Palace or kissed the hand of a decimatingly beautiful haute monde demoiselle before guiding her back to your bungalow.

Its eight sided bezel can be recognized across the room, its integrated bracelet was a total innovation and its visible gasket resulting from its unique tripartite construction was an act of form follows function that would make Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius green with envy.

Yes, that’s right: the AP Royal Oak was made to floss. And floss you could in the water, thanks to its water resistance; on land, its massive 39mm diameter made it unmistakable from across the terrace, while its 7mm ultra thin profile, thanks to the use of the beautifully decorated ultra thin Jaeger-LeCoultre designed automatic caliber 2121, made it lean enough to slip under the cuff of a ruffled Charvet evening shirt and velvet Cifonelli tuxedo. But how exactly did the Royal Oak come into being? That my friends, is the stuff of legend…

A Lifestyle Statement

The story goes that in 1971 AP’s Italian distributor Carlo de Marchi approached Golay about creating an entirely new timepiece for their market. Something bold, sexy and that responded to the need of the playboys of the nation (whose spiritual leader was Gianni Agnelli) that were equally at home at work or play.

Golay had been simultaneously thinking of a new watch, one that connected the values of his brand with an all-new generation and so he acquiesced. Eventually, Golay decided to call on a young designer that had made waves with his sensual design for Patek Philippe’s Golden Ellipse. His name was Gerald Genta who readily accepted the challenge. There was just one problem. The call had come the night before the 1971 Basel Watch Fair and Golay needed the finished design the next day to present to the Italians.

Whether he was emboldened by a truckload of triple espressos or a little Absinthe, a bit of both or just plain genius, Genta put his head down and in one night sketched out what would become the single most iconic watch of the last half-century. He would later say the sight of a diver working off the shore of Lake Geneva inspired him – specifically the way in which the man’s scaphander diving helmet was attached to his suit using visible bolts.

Refracted through his vivid imagination he imagined an eight-sided bezel attached straight through the case and to the caseback using slotted screws. But the brilliant mind-fuck here is that if you look at the screws you realize that they are hexagonal and therefore can’t be rotated. This trompe l’oeil results from the hexagonal blots being fixed from the back of the watch, which also explains why the screw slots are always perfectly aligned on a Royal Oak.

Also audacious was the selected material for the watch, which was stainless steel but at a heretofore-unseen level of fine finish. A steel Royal Oak, in terms of case finish, is a thing of exquisite young Heidi Klum like beauty, with fine brushed textures contrasted by stunning highly polished bevels, creating a watch that comes alive on the wrist.

Calculated Insanity

Also impressive was the watch’s price which at its release in 1972 was 3,750 Swiss Francs, making it the most expensive steel watch in existence. To put this in context, in 1972 you could buy 12 Rolex Submariners for the price of one Royal Oak and still have change leftover for dinner and drinks. Recalls Martin Wehrli, former director of AP’s museum, “Everyone made a big positive reaction when they first saw the watch. Then around the corner from our booth they said, ‘They’ll be bankrupt in 6 months.’” But nonetheless AP proceeded with the bold and some felt suicidal plan to produce 1,000 examples of this revolutionary watch.

How did the watch fair initially? Not so good. Despite the fact that it single-handedly ushered in the modern world of the sports chic watch and soon innumerable imitations would follow. Despite the fact that its integrated bracelet format would go on to inspire even Rolex in their design of the Oyster Quartz, at the time of introduction the design was so modern and polarizing that the old guard couldn’t wrap their heads around it. Conversely, the younger generation that instantly connected with the timepiece were not in a position to fork out its significant cost of entry.

What brought about the reversal of fortune for the initially beleaguered Royal Oak? Somewhere around 1974 the watch was seen on the wrist of the single most revered male style icon since Edward Duke of Windsor – L’Avvocato himself, the ultimate playboy industrialist and the richest man in modern Italian history. Gianni Agnelli. This ignited a wellspring of desire for the Royal Oak that swept the circles of the global social elite like a tsunami. Suddenly it became the ne plus ultra watch. Its adopters include Prince Michael of Kent and King Juan Carlos of Spain. The watch became so successful that Audemars Piguet was compelled to make a second 1,000 piece run of the watches. Collectively, this 2,000-watch run of the initial model reference 5402ST is considered the A series Royal Oak and are today some of the most collectable watches on the planet.

Embodiment of Cool

Today the Royal Oak is the modern watch world’s unequivocal King of Cool. Yes, I know Steve McQueen wore a reference 5512 Submariner, but if he was to be embodied by watch, his ability to be effortlessly stylish is best encapsulated by the AP eight-sided panjandrum of cool. Over the next decades the proliferation of the Royal Oak’s popularity happened across different social stratifications and across different channels. Its explosion in popularity in particular in America can be attributed to its starring role television mega-hit series Entourage.

Over the last 46 years the Royal Oak has been extrapolated into stunning chronograph and multi time zone versions, while the Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar is one of the most desirable complicated watches on the market.

It has also has given birth to an all-new family of watches derived from its original blueprint. The Royal Oak Offshore that has risen in its own right to become one of the most famous and recognizable icons of the modern luxury age and become the requisite timepiece of rappers movie stars and assorted #ballers. In 2012 Bennahmmias relaunched the Royal Oak “Extra-Thin” in its original proportions and with its AP logo at 6 o’clock. Demand so rapidly exceeded supply that today it is impossible to find one unless you’re willing to pay a premium on the aftermarket or take a spot on a waiting list, demonstrating that the legend that is the Royal Oak is destined to never go out style. Browse our available Audemars Piguet Royal Oak’s below and happy hunting.

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