The launch of the Royal Oak 50 years in the past represents one of many final really transformative moments in trendy mechanical watchmaking.
Why? As a result of the appearance of Audemars Piguet’s most lauded mannequin in 1972 marked a sea change within the relationship between a watch and its wearer: from a time when high quality was typically represented by a discreet-looking timepiece in a valuable metallic, to the period we reside in immediately, by which a watch serves as the proper life-style accent.
The Royal Oak at 50
From a easy, time-only with-date mannequin – the unique 5402ST – the Royal Oak redrew the horological map, setting the course not just for a revolution within the watch business, however all the marketplace for luxurious items. It additionally positioned Audemars Piguet’s dwelling within the small village of Le Brassus, in Switzerland’s Vallée de Joux, which has served as a centre of difficult watchmaking because the 18th century, on the coronary heart of a brand new period of haute horology, even because the brisk winds of the so-called Quartz Disaster swirled.
The Royal Oak did so because of a one-of-a-kind, out-of-the-box design, famously drawn in a single night time in April 1970 by the ‘Picasso of Watchmaking’, Gérald Genta. He was likely spurred on by the identical stressed spirit of innovation that had led Audemars Piguet to develop the world’s thinnest computerized motion, Calibre 2120, years earlier, the date model of which might debut within the unique first Royal Oak ‘Jumbo’.
Attempting to nail the innate and imbued qualities of Genta’s design in a sentence is like attempting to catch flames in a fishing internet. Nevertheless, one inalienable high quality units it aside from most different watches in the marketplace then and now – a magical presence on the wrist. However this barely touches the edges of the Royal Oak’s manifest, goal enchantment. For that, it is advisable to plunge deeper – deeper even than the old-time diving helmet, or scaphander, that legendarily impressed the watch’s octagonal bezel.
To know the distinctive qualities of the watch requires an appreciation of classical proportions and of the facility of sacred geometry – Genta was a scholar of Renaissance structure and, particularly, ecclesiastical design – in addition to of the stylistic rules underpinning artwork deco, mirrored within the materiality of its distinctive bracelet meeting (on the time essentially the most complicated ever tried).
The truth that it harnessed essentially the most valued attributes of the previous – the traditions of the Vallée de Joux – in essentially the most radical method attainable was clearly no dangerous factor. Nevertheless it’s additionally vital to recognise the sheer bravado of parading the supposed ‘innards’ of a watch – inside its case the daring show of eight hexagonal screw heads puncturing the bezel. Collectively, these parts have conspired to create a watch with the uncanny capability to match the prevailing ethos of every of the many years by which it has handed.
Many years of favor and innovation
Clearly, when the Royal Oak was being developed, the world itself was altering. The opulence and ostentation related to outdated cash was being changed by a brand new, extra egalitarian strategy to success and, due to this fact particularly, the signifiers of wealth. An instance of this may be seen in trend. When Yves Saint Laurent launched the world’s first ready-to-wear trend couture line, Rive Gauche, he championed luxed-up variations of what would possibly beforehand have been dubbed ‘work put on’ – the well-known unisex trench coat, for instance, and that staple of Seventies menswear type, the ‘safari’ jacket (itself an early code identify for the watch later topped the Royal Oak).
As Western tradition embraced this ‘youth-quake’, Genta’s design met the necessity for a extremely refined timepiece that carried ahead the interval’s fascination with emblems of vitality and emancipation. The Seventies, within the West no less than, was marked by shifting geopolitical sands and a serious recession introduced on by the 1973 Oil Disaster – a time throughout which, it might be argued, a superbly executed stainless-steel watch served as the unique ‘stealth wealth’ choice. On the identical time, a brand new leisure class emerged, worldwide, inclusive – up to a degree – and desirous to embrace the Royal Oak’s invocation of a very good life properly lived.
Certainly, one in every of its earliest adopters was one of the vital designers of the age, Karl Lagerfeld, rapidly adopted by a bunch of what we’d immediately name influencers, however on the time had been merely known as ‘cool’.
The Nineteen Eighties ushered in a brand new period of affluence, usually achieved at a a lot youthful age than for earlier generations, because of monetary deregulation and the trickle-down economics adopted in giant Western economies.
The rising Royal Oak assortment responded with daring dials and valuable metals, all designed by a girl whose position within the story of this timepiece can by no means be overstated: Jacqueline Dimier.
The Nineteen Eighties additionally noticed the introduction of issues into the Royal Oak assortment, first a calendar mannequin in 1983, adopted a 12 months later by the landmark Mannequin 5554, which featured the world’s slimmest self-winding perpetual calendar – the epochal Calibre 2020/2800.
For a lot of, the arrival of Mannequin 5554 represents the consecration of a brand new period in mechanical watchmaking, one by which emblematic issues, together with the perpetual calendar, had been free of the spherical watch/valuable metallic conformity of the previous.
The Royal Oak can thus justly declare to have led the sector on this regard. Having jumped the guardrails of typical watch design 50 years in the past, immediately the Royal Oak assortment continues to function an envoy for the most recent developments in ultra-high-end watchmaking, not least the work of Audemars Piguet Le Locle, the developmental arm of Audemars Piguet arrange by Dominique Renaud and Giulio Papi.
Heralded by the Royal Oak Idea in 2002, this outstanding new technology of actions developed by Audemars Piguet’s grasp watchmakers – together with the breathtaking RD#2 ultra-thin Perpetual Calendar unveiled in 2019 – has now been joined by Calibre 7172, the alternative for the hallowed Calibre 2121, the world’s thinnest computerized motion with date perform when it debuted within the unique Royal Oak ‘Jumbo’ in 1972.
Hyperbole hardly ever survives scrutiny, but it surely’s truthful to say that the Royal Oak is each an outlier and a unicorn – a watch that continues to disrupt the conventions of mechanical watchmaking while serving as a timepiece that ranks as one of the fascinating on earth.
Just lately, I requested Audemars Piguet’s world CEO, Francois-Henry Bennahmias, why we’re nonetheless speaking in regards to the Royal Oak 50 years after its launch. His reply was characteristically simple and on-the-money: ‘Why are we nonetheless speaking immediately about Neil Armstrong? About Leonardo Da Vinci? Why are we speaking about Elvis Presley or Mozart or Beethoven? They wrote historical past. That’s why.’
Listed below are 5 extra the explanation why I imagine the Royal Oak continues to be talked about immediately.
5 causes Audemars Piguet Royal Oak endures
1. Its singularity
The Royal Oak was born as one mannequin, produced for a scant six years in a single case materials and dimension – Mannequin 5402ST or ‘Jumbo’. Through the years it has been joined by over 850 completely different fashions in quite a few sizes and types, to which have been added an enormous array of issues, from chronographs to perpetual calendars to Grande Issues. However at its core stays the important trinity of the 5402’s defining traits: its bezel, hexagonal screws and, in most cases, the totally built-in bracelet.
2. The symmetry of its design
There isn’t a denying the watch’s unifying presence on the wrist – one of the harmonious watch designs of all time, unfettered by pointless ornamentation but extremely ornamental in its personal, rarefied, means.
3. Its tactility
A wine connoisseur would possibly recognise it as ‘mouth really feel’; right here, it refers back to the means by which the watch’s finely honed angles and the mellifluous articulation of the articulating bracelet supply a dexterous embrace by no means earlier than present in such a resolutely strong timepiece.
4. A coherence throughout all the assortment
The watch’s lineage now extends to as many as 24,000 particular person types. Issue within the Royal Oak Offshore (which celebrates its personal anniversary in 2023) and Idea watch items, and it’s clear the Royal Oak retains an uncompromising fealty to Genta’s unique design – a rare achievement given the sheer variety of issues, supplies and ornamental executions it has embraced.
5. The cadence of its evolution
If the rhythms of a life will be discerned, they are often seen clearly within the method by which the Royal Oak assortment has developed – rising from a solitary mannequin to change into an prolonged household of difficult, and ever extra complicated, timepieces. A course of, furthermore, that has saved tempo with an ever-changing world with out ever demoting its forebears within the course of.
Proof of this may clearly be seen within the present appreciation of earliest Royal Oak fashions, and the unprecedented demand for the fiftieth anniversary assortment launched earlier this 12 months.
Additional studying: Royal Oak: From Iconoclast To Icon, printed by Assouline (2022).