The road towards the development of any new timepiece can be rocky. Between the doubt, the second-guessing, the technical challenges, the potential for commercial failure or harsh critical reception, it’s almost a wonder new models are produced at all. But thankfully, the world’s greatest watchmakers are undeterred by the unknowns. In 1971 Audemars Piguet took a risk no other company was willing to take, a risk that became its legendary Royal Oak watch.
Before we get to the Royal Oak specifically, we have to tell the story of Audemars Piguet itself. That story begins in 1875, with Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet. The two shared a passion for watchmaking and joined forces to develop watches equipped with complex mechanisms. Today, Audemars Piguet claims to be the oldest fine watchmaking manufacturer never to have left the hands of its founding families.
In the early seventies, the Swiss watch industry was facing troubled financial conditions prompted by the rise in sales of quartz watches from Japan. Audemars Piguet knew that financial collapse was immanent unless they did something drastic. That something drastic was a steel luxury watch – something sporty but elegant, that had never been done before.
The designer tasked with the job was Gerald Genta, one of the most famous watch designers working at the time. He invented the watch that was to become the Royal Oak – just one day before it was revealed at the 1971 Basel fair. A stainless steel luxury watch was a huge gamble at a time when gold was considered the only high-end option, but the gamble paid off. The watch officially went into production in 1972 and went on to become one of Audemars Piguet’s most iconic models.
The name “Royal Oak” comes from British Royal Navy battleships, themselves named after the tree where King Charles II hid from his enemies following the Battle of Worcester in 1651. The watch was slim, but large for its time with a case diameter of 39 mm. Inspired by a traditional diver’s helmet, the Royal Oak featured an octagonal bezel secured by 8 visible hexagonal gold screws and a dial decorated with an exclusive “Grande Tapisserie” motif.
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Audemars Piguet didn’t shy away from making a bold statement. Its never-before-seen steel watch was originally priced higher than a gold Patek Philippe dress watch and the Rolex Submariner. The message was clear: haute timepieces could be made with or without precious metals. Initial criticism was strong, but the allure of the Royal Oak won out in the end. Trendsetters adopted the watch and sales took off. Since 1972 Audemars Piguet has introduced many variations of the original Royal Oak, but the first Royal Oak A-series (1000 pieces) remains the most sought after by collectors.
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