The Source Material
To some extent, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore might have been seen as the devil’s spawn when it first made an appearance in 1993. An exaggeration perhaps, but by accounts of witnesses of the period, such a statement would be judged as entirely reasonable with a light perusal of the available evidence.
Much controversy was unleashed at the then-unheard-of 42mm diameter of this stainless-steel behemoth, and Gérald Genta himself — the father of the original Royal Oak — was said to have burst into the AP stand at BaselWorld, denouncing the Offshore as having ruined his original design.
Perhaps he should not have been so harsh.
Like Emmanuel Gueit, the designer of the Royal Oak Offshore, Genta himself had experienced the difficult birth of his original Royal Oak, a stainless-steel watch that was priced above some of AP’s 18K-gold models at the time. Controversial for this fact as it was for its unconventional design, the original Royal Oak of 1972 would be the source material that Gueit would “remix” into his Offshore when his time came in 1993.
There is something to be said for working under pressure, and when deadlines loom, the adaptation effect occurs when the brain, desperate for a solution, starts attempting ways that at more sedate times would seem crazy. These were the circumstances under which the original Royal Oak was created, when Genta was famously tasked to design, in one night, a new luxury steel watch at the behest of the Italian AP distributors who saw a gap in the market for such a product.
Gérald Genta probably did not expect that the feverish, manic pace at which he worked would result in one of the most iconic designs of horology. Indeed, there is a certain magic in the way the Royal Oak was created, and it is entirely fitting that this night of brilliance would lead to what Genta himself would consider the masterpiece of his career.
Graced with an octagonal bezel, integrated bracelet and exposed screw-heads, and imbued with an unrivaled design sensitivity to the stainless steel that would make up its construction, the overall effect was stunning when the watch first made its appearance. Genta had, in the shape, look and feel of the watch, respected the innate characteristics of stainless steel, and achieved the ultimate marriage between this material and the design, allowing both to speak to each other in synchronous harmony.
Now imagine if you will, a world in which the Royal Oak didn’t exist. Likely, Audemars Piguet would be a very different brand — perhaps even unrecognizable. A watch like the Royal Oak, then, acts like an anchor, positioning the brand among an elite pantheon whose icons are known by everyone — think of the Patek Philippe Calatrava, the Rolex Submariner, the Cartier Tank or the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso. For Audemars Piguet, there is no doubt that the Royal Oak belongs to this special group.
The Offshore is Born
The genesis for the Offshore came about when Stephen Urquhart, joint managing director of AP at the time, tasked the young Gueit in the late ’80s to come up with a larger version of the Royal Oak. The purpose behind this mandate was to conceive a watch that would stimulate flagging sales of the Royal Oak by appealing to a younger audience, as well as to give men a chance — in light of the growing trend of women wearing men’s watches — to continue to have the bigger watch.
With the iconic status of the original Royal Oak assured at this point, Gueit did not want to discard any of the signature features of its design. Much has been said of the Royal Oak’s perfection, and it is certainly the type of design that you should not prod too much, as every element had been laid in its right place.
Perhaps plugged into the prevailing mood of the time when an aesthetic shift toward larger watches was about to take hold, or perhaps wanting to bring the original mandate of a larger watch to an unprecedented extreme, Gueit decided on the then-gargantuan diameter of 42mm for the new watch. (These were innocent times when the average men’s watch topped out at 36mm.) The dimensionally larger case of the new Offshore provoked howls of derision from many quarters of the watch industry that denounced “The Beast”, as it had been nicknamed by watch industry insiders, and predicted that it would be a failure and not sell.
Gueit had probably expected such a reaction, having endured similar, if not worse, opposition internally within AP, during the development of the watch. Stories of Stephen Urquhart avoiding him in the hallways of AP are now legend, as well as those famous words of Georges-Henri Meylan, who after seeing the prototype, commented to Gueit, “Look, I’m sorry, but you’re crazy.”
Getting to that point had been difficult: the project started in 1989 and took four years to arrive at the actual launch of the watch (the interim years had seen the project put on hold and restarted many times). One should, in this instance, consider the tenacity that the young Gueit displayed in the face of this continual opposition, never faltering in his belief in his own design.
Still, calmer minds at AP perceived that this radical new watch would surely be a gamble nonetheless, and made arrangements that would mitigate the risk of a failed launch. The most telling way, perhaps as an example of a comfortable backtrack, was to consider this watch as merely a variant of the original Royal Oak, and not, as it were, a totally new offshoot to the line. To this end, the first 100 watches produced did not include the word “Offshore” engraved on the caseback in the manner that you can find now on solid-caseback Offshores. Instead, these first Offshores were marked only with “Royal Oak”. It took some time before this new watch was accepted, but slowly and surely, the Offshore solidified its position within the AP lineup and has today become the premier large-sized sports watch.
Predictably, these first 100 watches that represented physical manifestations of the Offshore’s troubled birth, have become sought-after collectibles. This is nothing less than a testament to Gueit’s vision, and resounding proof that he was right all along. As a souvenir of his determination, he now owns the watch no. 39 of this initial batch.
Departures in Design — Gueit’s Take on An Icon
The original Royal Oak of 1972 came into being with a decidedly masculine design, which come across as a rebellious expression of what a luxury watch could be. As acceptance grew and a new aesthetic took hold, it became firmly entrenched as a signature piece in AP’s product line, transforming from young rebel upstart to becoming a part of the establishment. There was no doubt as to its sporty character, yet its relative slimness and sober design meant that there were limits to how far away it could break from its genteel nature.
When the new Offshore came with its bulkier and larger case, the masculinity quotient was supersized, but more than that, this move was the first of a series that upset convention, setting into motion a train of actions in which move after move was aimed at challenging expectations.
Size, after all, was not the only significant difference that the Offshore embodied. A hint of the Offshore’s future could be seen in the little details that Gueit introduced. More obvious to anyone handling the watch than just looking at a picture of the dial, is the massive rubber gasket lining the area under the bezel. The shock of seeing this for the first time must have been significant, considering how, even now, this practice is not very common. As a design conceit, it speaks to the would-be owner of the watch, loudly proclaiming: “I’m a water-resistant watch and this rubber gasket here is how I keep the water out.”
There is no facade behind which its true purpose hides, and in many ways, this came across as emblematic of a postmodern tendency to resist conventions and to subvert notions of what the right way should be. This visible expression of water-resistance was also true to the chosen name of “Offshore”, conceived to evoke associations with maritime adventures and the sea. Carrying this on further was the use of silicon rubber pushers for the chronograph, which added even more shock value, given their appearance in what was no doubt a luxury watch. One could almost hear the exasperated cries of industry watchers screaming, “Mon Dieu!” at the sacrilege that was being wrought.
Yet, these were the little details that contained in them seeds to a very different future for the Offshore. The first Offshore was merely a hint for things to come, for while it broke from the original in intent, it was more or less conceived to look the same, only bigger.
The ref. 25721ST.OO.1000ST.01 — the first Offshore — came with a blue “Petite Tapisserie” dial, echoing the original Royal Oak and keeping the historical link with its ancestor. Fitted with the comparatively small cal. 2126/2840 from Jaeger-LeCoultre, it was adjusted to run at 21,600vph instead of the 28,800vph of the original JLC cal. 889/1. Further, the automatic movement, 26mm in diameter, 3.25mm high and with a 45-hour power reserve, was fitted with a Dubois Dépraz chronograph module. In order to lessen the disparity between the size of the movement and the case, the solution was found to add a soft-iron core, thus giving the first Offshore excellent antimagnetic properties.
The sum of all these features then came to become the ultimate expression of a massive, fortress-like watch that could take anything thrown at it. Yet, despite all this, one could not yet at this point, perceive the fissure in the rocks that the Offshore would represent for AP, and indeed the watch industry in general.
This larger, bulkier Offshore, clad in rubber and with exposed gaskets, was not merely a breakthrough watch, but a doorway into the future for the acceptance and further experimental use of materials not traditional to watchmaking. We accept it today when watch companies use ceramic, some newfangled alloy or even silicon to improve aspects relating to performance or durability. Yet, the things that we accept today, like larger case sizes, were bitter pills to swallow 20 years ago.
Today, the Offshore could not be more different, or varied, and the spirit has evolved to embrace myriad forms. The first models in stainless steel, gold and platinum, have given way to ever-more-exotic materials, with titanium, carbon, ceramic, cermets and even rubber versions on offer. The materials innovation hence propagated has even resulted in a forged-carbon Offshore in the form of the limited-edition Alinghi Team model of 2007.
Take the original Offshore and put it next to all the other Offshores that have since been produced, and you’d be hard-pressed to wonder how all these variations could have come about. Yet, it would be easy, if such a line-up of Offshores were to present itself in front of you, to see the evolutionary journey that the product line has taken. Each new form, while moving further and further away from the original, continues to retain the fundamental aspects that make it work as a definitive luxury sports watch.