Earlier in the year, Audemars Piguet (AP) launched a deluge of releases – 34 to be exact – to celebrate the epic milestone that is the 50th birthday of the Royal Oak. Whatever opinions you may have on the present scarcity of this icon and what some may define as delusion in secondary market prices, we should put our pitchforks aside, check our disdain at the door and truly celebrate what the Royal Oak represents – an incredible piece of design that has managed to not only remain relevant but has defined the current design output of the industry and in many ways watch collecting itself.
Out of the 34 new releases, from chronographs to flying tourbillons, from case sizes of 37mm to 41mm, all everyone wanted to know was what the new time and date only, 39mm Royal Oak ‘Jumbo’ would look like. And AP did not disappoint. The Jumbo now holds the designation 16202 and there were subtle changes made to the case and integrated bracelet, that accentuates its iconic silhouette and makes it wear more comfortably. But the biggest change of all is the Jumbo is now powered by a brand new caliber 7121. This new movement has been a long time coming and addresses all the niggling foibles of the JLC ébauche caliber 2121 that owners were willing to overlook because the Jumbo just looks so damn good. Finally, our collective prayers have been answered! All that giddy excitement aside, CEO François-Henry Bennahmias and Head of Complications, Michael Friedman were keen to reinforce at the presentation that something else was coming down the pipeline in April. Well, the Royal Oak was born on April 15th, 1972 after all. And here it is we think: The Royal Oak RD#3, the first selfwinding flying tourbillon ever to grace the Jumbo’s case.
Audemars Piguet may not be the brand most closely associated with the tourbillon but it was Gerald Genta’s successor, the extraordinary Jacqueline Dimier, AP’s head of design from 1975 to 1999, who dreamt up the world’s first selfwinding tourbillon wristwatch – The Tourbillon Selfwinding Ra from 1986. Named after the Egyptian sun god, its dial had stripes running across it from the tourbillon at 11 o’clock, which were meant to mimic the rays of the sun. The caliber 2870 in the Ra’s ultra-thin 5.3mm case remains one of the smallest and lightest in the world, and thanks to its pioneering use of titanium, its tourbillon cage measures only 7.2mm in diameter and is 0.123g light. After 1992, when production of the Ra ceased, AP’s tourbillons could only ever be found in Royal Oak cases. We took a deep dive into the complete history of AP’s tourbillon watches and you can get up to speed with it here.
But what is the RD or Research and Development designation then? Well, it is reserved for those exceptional pieces that AP produces as a means to flex its watchmaking chops at the highest level, and the previous two have been award winners at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (GPHG). RD#1 was the most refined expression of a minute repeater AP could make, that focused on improving the volume, quality and harmony of a repeater’s chimes. Its patented gongs and case design were able to produce in a wristwatch a chime as loud and clear as those found in pocket watches. And it was water resistant to 20m, which is 20 more than its contemporaries. The RD#2 was another grand complication in the form of an ultra-thin perpetual calendar (the thinnest automatic one at the time). AP achieved this feat by combining the separate mechanisms of the perpetual calendar’s functions, and reduced the height of the movement from three levels to a single plane, with the dial serving as a top plate as well.
After tackling the minute repeater and perpetual calendar, AP have now turned their attention to the tourbillon and although the RD#3 took five years to develop, it was just in time for the Royal Oak’s Golden Jubilee. But which Royal Oak would be suitable to house one of AP’s premier innovations? It had to be the Jumbo of course! The new Jumbo’s case dimensions remain faithful to the now discontinued 15202, at 39mm x 8.1mm, so there won’t be any surprises to how it wears on the wrist. However, to fit their existing selfwinding flying tourbillon movement, the caliber 2950, which was designed to fit in the 41mm Royal Oak, AP’s research and development team had to find a way to shave off height from the caliber 2950. They decided not to rework the caliber 2950 but to create a whole new movement from the ground up.
For starters, AP clearly had the intention of putting a selfwinding flying tourbillon movement into the Jumbo’s case right when the decision was made to update the caliber 2121 for the new Jumbo. The RD#3’s caliber 2968 was developed in conjunction with the new Jumbo’s caliber 7121, and the two movements share much of the same architecture with one another (position of the keyless works, wheel train and regulating organ). To achieve the caliber 2968’s ultra-thin height of 3.4mm, a mere 0.2mm more than the caliber 7121, AP focused on redesigning the traditional tourbillon’s composition itself. A traditional tourbillon, while seemingly complex visually, its mechanical theory is actually quite easy to understand. Have a look here if you’re still scratching your head about how a tourbillon works. As for a flying tourbillon, it is simply a tourbillon with the top bridge removed, making it seem like it isn’t being held down by any structure.
Going back to the use of lightweight titanium for the tourbillon cage like in the 1986 Ra, AP also removed the traditional fixed fourth wheel that is found underneath the balance and escapement and replaced it with a peripheral driving system. And just like that, the height of the tourbillon cage is reduced, which in turn reduced the movement height by one level, and the caliber 2968 can be fitted into the Jumbo’s case. Energy transmission to the tourbillon is also improved due to the smaller angular pitch between the peripheral drive wheel and the rest of the wheel train. Translation: the RD#3 will keep better time over a longer period of time, which is a good thing.
Those are the technical bits but there have been aesthetic changes made to the flying tourbillon as well. Comparing the architecture of the caliber 2950 and 2968, the balance wheel arms can now afford to be made thicker with the use of titanium, which provides more stability to the cage as it rotates. The hairspring stud disc has been removed from underneath the anti-shock unit and the balance wheel itself no longer uses timing weight screws that protrude from the wheel but much more streamlined timing weights that sit flat within the perimeter of the wheel itself. Lastly, the escapement itself has been redesigned to reveal more of the inner workings of the movement. All these changes have been implemented to create a feeling of lightness and airiness that complements the thinness of the Jumbo’s case. According to Michael Friedman, Head of Complications, “The movement architecture was designed to offer a unique view of the smaller case while showcasing an engaging contrast of hand-finishing techniques throughout.”
Looking through the sapphire case back, the feeling of airiness persists with a semi-skeletonized movement with open-worked bridges for the automatic winding wheel train, barrel, and movement going train. The bridges themselves are no longer decorated with traditional Côtes de Genève but the more contemporary straight-graining of traits tirés. In contrast, the exquisite polished beveling of the exterior edges and even for the interior angles of the skeletonized portions showcase AP’s expertise in classic hand finishing techniques. The similarly decorated, bi-directional open-worked oscillating weight is made of 22-carat pink gold which is rhodium plated to match the movement bridges. The commemorative ’50 Years’ logo will only be used for Royal Oaks made in 2022, which could in all likelihood be a Royal Oak collector’s dream.
If the RD#3’s movement is as contemporary in its technical and aesthetic presentation, the dial-side doesn’t disappoint in its use of original Royal Oak dial design cues. The flying tourbillon at 6 o’clock, which replaces the 16202’s ‘AP’ logo, is able to sit on the same level as the dial, bringing it closer to the crystal than ever before. The Petite Tapisserie guilloche-patterned dial is colored in Bleu Nuit, Nuage 50, the iconic midnight blue of the original Royal Oak 5402. The original dial used a galvanic bath to produce the blue shade which tended to oxidize over time (which many collectors prefer), but the new Jumbos have blue dials obtained from physical vapor deposition (PVD). This color coat creates a more uniform and lasting surface on the dial. AP would have you know that the method of creating the Tapisserie pattern is no longer taught in watchmaking schools and will continue to be a design aesthetic that is unique to AP’s watches.
As for the bathtub-shaped, lume-filled hour markers and hands, these are more slender than those of other Royal Oaks, that have thicker, facetted markers and hands. The Audemars Piguet signature at 12 o’clock and minute markers are printed directly on the dial and further harkens back to the original.
The Royal Oak Selfwinding Flying Tourbillon RD#3 may not, on face value, be as extreme in terms of technical innovation as its two predecessors, it is merely a redesign of an existing complication that Audemars Piguet has made since 1986 after all. Yet it fully deserves the RD title for the holistic technical and aesthetic package that it presents. The lightness and airiness of the flying tourbillon and skeletonized movement, housed in the ultra-thin Jumbo’s case with its svelte integrated bracelet is in keeping with the original design vision Gerald Genta had in 1972 – a thin, light stainless steel watch suitable for everyday wear. Once again, Genta’s genius proves its timelessness.
Unfortunately for us, the RD#3 is a concept watch and won’t be available to the public. Not that Royal Oaks of any variety are available at retail prices anyway. It is the 35th release for the Royal Oak’s 50th anniversary but it thankfully won’t be the last. The ultra-thin innovations put forth in the RD#3 will be making their way into the 37mm version of the Royal Oak, which will be released in September. We’re willing to bet that those will be the commercial versions of this concept watch. Huzzah!
Whether you love or hate the idea of the tourbillon, exposed on a dial or otherwise, it is undeniably the ultimate expression of the most important component of a mechanical watch – its beating heart. In the same vein, the Royal Oak Jumbo is the genre-defining, ultimate expression of the luxury stainless steel sports watch. Taken together, it is safe to say that the RD#3 truly is the best Royal Oak money can’t buy but if you are able to snag one of the 41mm or eventual 37mm versions, you would have come really close.
Royal Oak Selfwinding Flying Tourbillon Extra-Thin (RD#3)
Movement: Self-winding Audemars Piguet caliber 2968; 50 hours of power reserve
Functions: Hours, minutes, flying tourbillon
Case: 39mm x 8.1mm; Stainless steel; Water resistant to 50m
Dial: Blue with white gold hands
Strap: Stainless steel bracelet with AP folding clasp
Availability: Concept watch and not for sale