Audemars Piguet has teamed up once again with Florentine jeweller Carolina Bucci to give a new, shimmering twist the striking 46-year-old design.
When Audemars Piguet unveiled the Royal Oak in 1972, its concept and design were revolutionary. The Swiss watchmaking industry was under pressure following the quartz power movement’s encroaching tidal wave. Back then, luxury timepieces were closely associated with precious metals. Enter Audemars Piguet, which dared to introduce an oversized luxury sports watch in steel, pricing it at 3,650 Swiss Francs (around US$9,800 at the time), which was more than the cost of a gold Patek Philippe dress watch and 10 times more than a Rolex Submariner.
"The message was bold. There were indeed collectors and enthusiasts seeking watches with powerful and original designs coupled with impeccably hand-finished cases and movements," says horological expert, Michael L. Friedman, the Historian at Audemars Piguet. He also points out that the use of stainless steel for the case "spoke volumes as the value was not based on the inherent cost of the material, but on the exceptional level of craftsmanship required to elevate the material".
The form of the Royal Oak spoke directly to a generation that was witnessing massive cultural change around the world, Friedman adds. The innovative design had been inspired by a diver’s helmet, with renowned independent designer Gerald Genta creating an octagonal bezel with eight hexagonal gold screws and a visible water resistance gasket. And for the first time, a wristwatch included an integrated stainless steel bracelet tapering towards the clasp. The dial itself was adorned with an intricate blue 'petite tapisserie' guilloche motif, while the crown bore an AP monogram, another first for the watchmaker. Furthermore, at 39mm, the proportions of the timepiece were also unusual as very small watches were in fashion at the time.
The avant-garde model drew fierce criticism and initial sales were slow. "With so few watches made that were sold throughout several countries, it simply took a while to become well known. It is ultimately a timepiece that has to be seen and felt in person to be fully understood and appreciated — it is the epitome of tactile," says Friedman. He adds that this took time, and only a couple hundred watches were spread across several countries.
"Any radical new form language in any medium takes time to resonate,” he notes.
While the overall design of the Royal Oak has remained little changed, Audemars Piguet has added numerous complications over the years: including ultra-thin perpetual calendars; chronographs; tourbillons; an equation of time that displays sunrise, sunset and the difference between solar time and conventional time; and even a Grande Complication.
In addition to the technical achievements, the watchmaker also regularly reminds collectors of the avant-garde nature of the watch by pushing the technology and creativity envelope in regards to case materials. Over the years, it has included contemporary materials like tantalum and titanium, classic materials like platinum and gold, the continued use of stainless steel, and in rare instances, these diverse materials have been utilized together in highly collectible two-tone watches.
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Royal Oak in 1993, the Swiss watchmaker launched the Royal Oak Offshore. Designed by Emmanuel Gueit and envisaged as a 'supersized' Royal Oak, with a larger diameter (42mm) and thicker case. It also included push piece-guards fitted to the side to make it even sturdier.
Once again, the design initially proved to be controversial, with Genta himself initially decrying the evolution. Still, it quickly won over collectors and the watchmaker has launched more than 120 references since then in various materials such as stainless steel, forged carbon, ceramic, cermet titanium, gold and platinum.
The latest incarnation of the Royal Oak, the Carolina Bucci Royal Oak Frosted Gold Limited Edition, which was created in collaboration with the Florentine jeweller, introduces an eye-catching Florentine finish in yellow gold (previous iterations were only in white and pink gold). The ancient goldsmith technique, which is regularly used by Bucci in her jewellery creations, creates a sparkling effect thanks to the use of a diamond-tipped tool to beat the gold. This leaves faceted dents on its surface.
Described by its designer as "rebellious" in character, this is an attention-grabbing piece, "made in the image of a woman of today: spontaneous, true-to-life and totally unapologetic", the company says.
"In the 46 years since its introduction, the unconventional and iconic shape, design and construction of the Royal Oak has had a distinct impact and influence on the watch industry," says Friedman.
"With every generation, we witness a selection of cultural objects, works of art, literature, architecture and music that manage to cut through the timeline itself, remaining relevant and influential for decades to follow. These are usually objects and works that were often ahead of their time and controversial upon release, as was the case with the Royal Oak upon its release in 1972."