The iconic Royal Oak celebrates 50 years. Few watches have so completely altered the industry or impacted our conception of watchmaking as the Royal Oak. A model that not only saved a brand, but also created a new class of watches.
To realize the importance of the Royal Oak, one must first understand the era that preceded its creation. In the early 1970s, Audemars Piguet, like many other Swiss watchmakers, was facing troubled financial conditions. Japan’s cheaper and more accurate quartz watches caused a crisis in the Swiss watch industry, which had no clear ideas on how to stop the dramatic drop in sales.
In 1971, Audemars Piguet realized that without disruptive change, a financial meltdown was inevitable. Following a request from an Italian distributor for a luxury watch in steel, the brand decided it was time to present something totally new: a sporty and elegant watch like never before.
So, on the eve of the 1971 Basel Fair, Georges Golay, then CEO of Audemars Piguet, called Gerald Genta (one of the most famous watch designers of the time) at 4pm, tasking him with designing an “unprecedented steel watch” for the next morning. And so, literally overnight, the Royal Oak, Genta’s masterpiece, was born.
Inspired by a traditional diver’s helmet, this revolutionary steel watch featured an octagonal bezel secured by eight visible hexagonal screws, a visible water-resistance gasket and a dial decorated with the exclusive blue Petit Tapisserie motif. At only 7 mm thick, the case was, however, quite large for the time, with a diameter of 39 mm, which earned it the designation “Jumbo”. Completing the model was an integrated – and very complex to build – bracelet in stainless steel. The nautical inspiration also extended to the name – Royal Oak – which referenced the historic British warships of the same name.
In 1972, at the Basel Fair, the Royal Oak was presented. It was a steel model, something unprecedented for a Haute Horlogerie watch, with a very high price (more expensive than a classic Patek Philippe in gold and more than ten times the cost of a Rolex Submariner), which surprised the industry with its bold, angular design, incredibly thin case and bold message: haute horlogerie could create prestigious timepieces without necessarily relying on precious metals; the focus shifted to design, execution precision and movement quality (in this case, the automatic caliber 2121 was chosen).
But there was no immediate take-off for this line. The Royal Oak has come under fierce criticism. However, after the initial market bewilderment, the model became a huge international success and one of the most iconic watches ever. In the following years, Audemars Piguet introduced numerous variations of the original Royal Oak adopting precious metals, leather, and rubber straps, as well as new technical solutions and complications.
Today, the Royal Oak collection ranges from robust, officially certified diver’s watches made from exotic materials such as titanium, ceramic, or carbon fiber, to delicate haute horlogerie pieces that can guess the difference between average time and the time of the stars. However, no matter how different the intent, design or size of a given Royal Oak, this one is linked to the rest of the range through the innovative design of the original. The “Jumbo” has remained in Audemars Piguet’s repertoire over the years, constantly sought after by collectors and aficionados. To this day, it continues to receive regular updates and new variations.
This is the case of the new Royal Oak “Jumbo” Extra-thin 39 mm ref. 16202, created to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the brand’s most successful watch, whose main novelty lies in the self-winding movement of Caliber 7121, which replaces the Caliber 2121 introduced in the original. The result of five years of development, the new movement guarantees more autonomy and features a gold skeletonized central oscillating mass, mounted on ball bearings, with the “50 years” logo.
It is a case to say that 50 years later, the legend lives on.