FOUR DECADES OF THE REMARKABLE ROYAL OAK FROM AUDEMARS PIGUET

There are certainly watches made in larger numbers, but there are few more instantly recognizable than the Royal Oak, from Audemars Piguet. Forty years since its 1972 introduction, the Royal Oak has become not only the watch associated by enthusiasts with the small Le Brassus-based firm of Audemars Piguet. It’s also become the watch desired as a symbol of distinctive elegance by lovers of beautiful watches across the world. The appeal of the Royal Oak and its descendants and variations, including the Royal Oak Offshore models, seems likely to continue for another 40 years or more. And if we’re spared, we look forward to lifting a celebratory glass of champagne in 2072, at the centennial of this most enduring of horological designs.

It’s hard to imagine, against the background of the nearly universal admiration (and desire) that the Royal Oak evokes, that it got off to what, bluntly, was a pretty rocky start. The whole idea of making, in 1970 (when the idea was first floated at AP), an haute-horlogerie-level watch from stainless steel must have seemed, to many, both in the industry and at the venerable firm of Audemars Piguet itself, prima facie absurd. The prevailing sentiment at the time among top-tier Swiss watch firms like Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe was that stainless steel was simply not a respectable material out of which to make a luxury watch. While it had certainly proven its credentials as a material in sports watches long since, it was simply too common, too pedestrian and, above all, too utilitarian a material for use in a luxury watch.

 

In 1972, however, there was increasingly a sentiment at Audemars Piguet that the firm needed a watch that would appeal to a younger, sportier consumer. There were few companies that had a better reputation for technical excellence in movement design, and Audemars Piguet’s history is replete with watches that demonstrate a unique combination of lyricism and audacity not found in other haute-horlogerie manufactures, but it was clear to then-CEO Georges Golay, (head of Audemars Piguet from 1966 to 1987), along with Audemars family member Jacques-Louis (who held the responsibility of technical manager, having chosen to make Golay managing director of the firm after the death of Paul-Edward Piguet, who had no male heirs), that an injection of fresh vision was called for.

To achieve that end, they turned to a man whom history was to inextricably link to the fortunes of Audemars Piguet: Gérald Genta. Genta was an iconoclast in the watch industry. He was extremely independent-minded, for one thing. A graduate of one of Geneva’s jewelry and goldsmithing trade schools, Genta found himself chafing under the routine of work under an employer. And at the age of 20, (perhaps yielding to the Italian blood he’d inherited from his father, a Piedmontese) he walked to the Pont de la Machine (a bridge overlooking the Rhône) and, according to scientist/journalist/watch historian Lucien Trueb, “tossed his tools into the Rhône River and swore two oaths: never to work again as a goldsmith or as anyone’s subordinate”.

It was as a freelance designer, therefore, (and one w

ho already had established a résumé that included work for Universal Genève, Omega, and Patek Philippe) that he entered into initial discussions with Jacques-Louis Audemars, and prepared his initial design for the Royal Oak. The original design was created in a flash of inspiration; Genta claimed that the arrangement of screws around the bezel, holding down a porthole-like glass, was influenced by the sight of a diver working along the shore of Lake Geneva who was wearing a standard hard-hat diver’s brass diving helmet affixed to a breastplate with massive bolts. As if lightning had struck, Genta returned to his atelier, and in one wonderful night, produced the design for the Royal Oak.