The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak: Breaking the Rules of Design

Story has it that the day before the opening of the Basel Fair in 1972 was a challenging day for the director of Audemars Piguet. Having just received the news that an “unprecedented steel watch” would make its appearance from Italian watchmakers, he had the options of either sitting back while assessing the upcoming damages or try for the impossible: order at 4pm the design of a new watch to be delivered in 24 hours. Now, every great accomplishment was believed to be impossible at one time and this is the case for Audemars Piguet and the phone call to one of the greatest watch designers of our times, Gerald Genta. In less than 24 hours, the game- changing “Royal Oak” reference 5402 was born.

Audemars Piguet, Royal Oak, “A-Series”, 5402 ST, Stainless steel, 1972. Sold by Phillips in November 2015 for CHF31,250 (approx. 29,000€). Discover more at Phillips

Nowadays, the octagonal shape of Royal Oak is the trademark of Audemars Piguet and our eyes have been trained enough to consider it a distinctive but common design. At the time it was created though, it was a groundbreaking concept promising to test the design boundaries of watchmaking forever. The watch reminded of diver’s brass helmets and such association should carry a name to remind the nautical roots of the watch. The name Royal Oak came shortly after. Gerald Genta was actually inspired by a vessel of the British Army created in 1862, one out of a series of eight created to honor the day King Charles II of England took refuge inside a hollowed oak tree to escape the “Roundheads”, the supporters of the Parliament, after the English Civil War in 1651. After that day the tree was a symbol of power and protection.

With the AP logo at 6 o’clock, the present steel Royal Oak Jumbo B series is in absolutely mint conditions preserving the perfect shape and unique elegance of this amazing artwork designed by Gerald Genta. Discover more at onlyvintage.com

The initial specifications of the Royal Oak included eight visible hexagonal screws on the bezel and visible water resistant seal. The model was 7mm think with 39mm diameter case, a beautiful twist of perspectives and size. Above all, for the first time in history of watchmaking, the bracelet was integrated in the watch making it part of it, as two elements that cannot exist without one another. The choice of movement was a Caliber 2121 based on the grounds of Caliber 2120, an initial project of Jaeger LeCoultre in 1967, funded and contributed by Audemars Piguet.

Audemars Piguet, Royal Oak A-Series “Oman”, 5402 ST, Stainless steel, 1973. Sold by Phillips in May 2016 for CHF93,750 (approx. 87,000€). Discover more at Phillips

In terms of the series produced for the ref. 5402ST, we find four different each with a specific number of watches produced:

Series A with serial No. between 1 until 2000 and 2000 units (manufactured between 1972-1974)

Series B with serial No. 1001 until 2000 and 1000 units (1974-1975)

Series C with serial No. 1001 until 2000 and 1000 units ( 1975-1976)

Series D with serial No. starting from 1001 and an estimation of 1000 units

It is important to mention that the series A is the most wanted among collectors. Moreover, the Royal Oak was not only produced in steel as the initial inspiration for its creation was but we find examples also in 18K gold, steel with 18K gold and 18K white gold.

Outstandig first series white gold Audemars Piguet Jumbo Royal Oak. White gold Royal Oak are extremely rare, but only a few examples were made with diamonds bezel like the present specimen wich also strikes for the amazing conditions under which it is preserved. Manufactured in the late 70’s. Discover more at onlyvintage.com

The launch of the Royal Oak was followed by strong criticism due to both its futuristic design but also in terms of its price. At that time, dress watches produced in precious metals such as gold, would dominate the price span of high-end watches but Audemars Piguet took a fierce decision of pricing the steel Royal Oak to compete in the market of fine metals watches. When everyone else predicted a financial bankruptcy of the brand, others saw a vision and soon collectors started appreciating the model and not even a year later, Royal Oak was established as an iconic symbol.

Author: Luca Balella