There’s a lot of postulation as to why suddenly a whole new generation of watch collectors, myself included, have become so fixated with vintage watches. To me, the charm of an over-half-a-century-old Rolex GMT or a nearly-40-year-old Patek Nautilus Ref. 3700/1A is that when you strap it to your wrist, you realize that, while time has a negative effect on so many objects in the luxury world, for these watches, they have actually grown more beautiful with time. What could be a more emphatic statement of their perennial charm and iconic status than the fact that, half a century later, these watches have become even more relevant, powerfully evocative and heart-stoppingly beautiful than ever?
In contrast, in the last decade or so, the watch industry has, to some extent, been hijacked by the caprices of fashion. Such that in constantly bringing out new products and the endless succession of cosmetic facelifts, the introduction of some new space-age material, or the seemingly endless swelling of case size, the question we should ask is, “Are we now applying the same engineered anachronism to watches as we do to cars or clothing?”
Anyway, at some point, a lot of younger people stopped waiting for the next new and improved model, and instead dug into history to find the very original timepiece that was the foundational cornerstone of a brand’s history. For Audemars Piguet, this watch is the Royal Oak A-Series (ref. 5402ST), the very first Royal Oak timepiece which ushered in a revolution in high watchmaking.
There are many stories as to what cosmic Zeitgeist inspired the world’s most famous watch designer, Gérald Genta, to create his most iconic masterpiece, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. Some have posited that the watch design was inspired by the octagonal windows of the British Royal Navy’s first armored warship, the HMS Royal Oak, which was named after the oak tree where Charles II hid in to avoid capture by the Roundheads during the British Civil War. But during the recent Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, CEO of Audemars Piguet François Bennahmias, a living repository of his brand’s history, finally set us straight.
According to François Bennahmias, who got his version of the story from Genta’s widow, the story goes like this. One day, Genta was genuflecting about watches and he happened to see a commercial dive crew about to submerge. He took particular interest in an octagonal fitting used to attach the helmet to the suit. Says Bennahmias, “His rationale was, if this system could make the seal between the helmet and the suit watertight, then it could certainly also seal a watchcase so that it was waterproof.”
This became the starting point for one of the most audacious watch designs of all time. The design featured an octagonal bezel, through which hexagonal white-gold screws were slotted; these screws travel through the case all the way to the caseback, where they were fastened to round nuts. A decorative slot was fitted into the head of each screw, toying with your perception. Your first instinct is to think that they are used to tighten the screws, until you realize that, because of their six-sided shape, they would be impossible to turn. Further, that all the slots align perfectly to form what is essentially a circle that perfectly echoes the circular shape of the dial, is another clue suggesting that these slots are purely decorative. Looking at the watch from the front, you see that it is a marvelous interplay between three geometric patterns: the octagon of the bezel, the hexagon of the screws and the circle of the dial and crystal.
Now, turn the watch on the side and you’ll see an act of form following function that would have Walter Gropius’s immense admiration: for the first time in a luxury watch, the gasket sealing the seam between the bezel and the case was made proudly visible. Later, Emmanuel Gueit — designer of the Royal Oak’s herculean cousin, the Offshore — would exaggerate this even further with a thick visible gasket complemented by rubber-covered pushers. Audemars Piguet would take the theme of rubber to even more audacious height by actually cladding the iconic octagonal bezel in rubber, but it’s interesting to think that the impetus for this began in 1972 with this simple visible gasket.
The manner in which Audemars Piguet commissioned this watch was also highly theatrical. In the early ’70s, mechanical watchmaking was already suffering from the dawn of the Quartz Crisis. As with other manufactures, Audemars Piguet was struggling to remain relevant in a rapidly changing marketplace. The CEO at the time, Georges Golay, decided that he had to do something drastic. He had heard feedback from the Italian market (historically, the most significant market in the world until recent times when it has been supplanted by the North Asian market) that there was strong demand for an extremely elegant, but aggressively and dynamically designed, steel timepiece. He tapped the rising star and enfant terrible of the watch world, Gérald Genta, then known for designing Omega’s Constellation and Patek Philippe’s Golden Ellipse. The story goes that Golay approached Genta on the eve of the 1971 Basel watch fair and presented him with the challenge. The next day, Genta delivered him a finished sketch of the Royal Oak.
See the following link for a fuller and more detailed history of the watch’s inception: http://www.timeandwatches.com/p/history-of-audemars-piguet-royal-oak.html
But there was also one more thing that contributed to the Royal Oak’s audacity, besides its design, unique shape, construction method, as well as its status as the first watch with an integrated bracelet: its price. In a strategy that amusingly foreshadowed Richard Mille’s price positioning, the Royal Oak was exorbitantly expensive at an asking price of CHF3,200. To put this in perspective, you could have purchased more than 10 Rolex Submariners for that price then. As this strategy was unique to the Royal Oak, it was even more expensive than many of Audemars Piguet’s gold watches, and the price was often integrated into the advertisement, in the same way that the prices for Richard Mille watches were initially a part of his ads. But this had the desired effect — people would stop on the page, shake their heads in disbelief, jump up and down apoplectically and exclaim, “Over CHF3,200 for a steel watch? Impossible.” Of course, this would then compel them to shout, “Let’s see this goddamn watch”, and they would go to seek out the Royal Oak. And when they did, it was hard not to fall in love with it. At 39mm in diameter, it was large for its time; however, thanks to the beautiful cal. 2121 running inside — a movement based on the amazing Jaeger-LeCoultre cal. 920, ultra-thin at 2.4mm — which featured a rotor so low in profile that it was fully supported by a beryllium ring, the watch measured only 7mm in height. The customer would try it on and become enchanted; the watch, an incredible symbol of modernity and advancement, became a standard-bearer for the creative possibilities in mechanical watchmaking.
Audemars Piguet took a huge gamble also in terms of the number of Royal Oaks they produced. At a time when the company was manufacturing 5,000 watches a year, they commissioned an initial run of 1,000 watches. Amusingly, because of how complex the case was, they had to make prototypes out of white gold rather than steel, as they did not have tooling that could cut steel to the exacting standards of Genta’s design. There is no doubt that whoever has one of these white-gold prototypes is in possession of one of the most collectible sports watches on the planet.
While not an immediate success, the Royal Oak eventually caught on and the company made a second run of 1,000 watches. Collectively, these 2,000 watches, which were numbered sequentially with the prefix “A”, are today considered the most collectible of all Audemars Piguet Royal Oak watches. These watches all featured bracelet and clasps made by the company Gay Frères. I probably wouldn’t make fun of their name if their bracelets were any good, but they weren’t — they were horrible. Every single one of these bracelets — or, more specifically, their deployant clasps — that I’ve seen has distorted so much over time that one symbol of a bracelet’s originality is that the safety lock on the clasp never sits flush with the case. As this company also made the bracelet clasps for the first-generation Patek Philippe Nautilus, their safety locks exhibit exactly the same incapacity to sit flush. The problem, however, is that Audemars Piguet no longer has any parts for these clasps, and to replace them with a more functional but anachronistic piece would be to horrendously mar the originality of the timepiece in question.
For an excellent article about collecting the A-Series ref. 5402ST watches, read this piece by my friend Ben Clymer of Hodinkee: http://people.timezone.com/library/extras/201012035459
There is some confusion about how these watches were delineated, with some incorrectly espousing the view that there are actually pre-A-Series watches — the ones without the “A” prefix in the watch’s serial number. This confusion came about because A-series, or first-generation, two-tone Royal Oaks carried inscriptions without the prefix, but all A-Series steel Royal Oaks featured the alphabetical prefix.
The other features that distinguish the A-Series from the B- and C-Series watches are longer, finer indices, non-signature crowns and the “AP” symbol at six o’clock. For the brand’s 40th-anniversary celebration, Audemars Piguet returned the symbol to its original position at six o’clock and brought back the cal. 2121 in a somewhat revised version for their Royal Oak Extra-Thin. This new watch differs from the original in the color of its date wheel, the thickness of the bracelet (the modern one uses a butterfly-closure deployant) and the transparent caseback, which shows off a rather elaborately decorated gold rotor. I have to admit that the modern ultra-thin Royal Oak is a brilliant watch, and I salute my amigo François Bennahmias for reintroducing this magnificent classic.
OK, so armed with all this historical information, two years ago I set off in pursuit of a ref. 5402ST. But my goal was suddenly diverted in a massive way. At the 2012 BaselWorld fair, while I was examining a 1976 Patek Philippe Nautilus Ref. 3700/1A that I would eventually buy, I caught a glimpse of the watch sitting on the wrist of the watch dealer. There sat a Royal Oak in yellow gold, in a hue that I had never seen. It was as if, over time, the color of the gold had changed from a bright, intense color to something subtler and far more antique in appearance. It brought to mind the perfectly suntanned stomach of screen goddess Brigitte Bardot in …And God Created Woman. It was, in a word, breathtaking. I asked him if I could try on the watch.
Sometimes you put a watch on your wrist and you realize you absolutely need to have it. This watch was perfect — its wonderfully slim 7mm stack height made it so comfortable to wear, and the 39mm-diameter size was strong and dynamic in appearance. The only thing I was not sure about was that the fine Clous de Paris hobnail dial was also in matching gold, and this might have been just a bit too much gold, lest I take the path of getting a few gold teeth to match. I examined the octagonal bezel and noticed that while the edges had not been overpolished, they had certainly been rounded somewhat over the years. Over the course of three days, I would try on the watch again and again, and contemplate its merits vis-à-vis the Nautilus. Finally, on the third day, the watch dealer called me to say that a mutual friend wanted it for her wedding present, and of course I agreed that the watch should be sold to her then. Instead, I bought the Nautilus.
But being completely fixated with this yellow-gold Royal Oak — the horologial equivalent of a barefoot Brigitte Bardot — I spent the next year researching these watches. I love that in many ways it flew in complete opposition to the traditional Royal Oak philosophy of “steel on the outside, gold on the inside”. The Royal Oak’s reputation was built on the notion of an excessively expensive steel watch, yet here I was, going the other way. Interestingly, as I tracked the prices of these watches, I noticed that a solid yellow-gold watch was not significantly different in price than that of a steel ref. 5402.
Being curious as to the productions numbers of the gold A-Series Royal Oaks and their manufacturing period, I dug a bit more. From looking at available watches, including those featured in auctions, it seemed that these A-Series watches were made from 1977 to 1980. The thing is, these watches were not all that easy to find; ironically, the more iconic steel ref. 5402 are actually quite abundant both in auctions and through private dealers online. Also, those I could find were all of the gold-dialed variety.
Then, during last year’s SIHH, my eye was drawn to a watch on my neighbor’s wrist. It was the timepiece I had been dreaming about: a yellow-gold Royal Oak with a gray dial. I turned to the person next to me, and realized he was a friend of mine. Grinning, he said, “I see you’ve noticed my new watch.” He then unbuckled it and handed it to me. I don’t think I exaggerate when I say that I think this was the nicest ref. 5402 I’d ever seen. The dial had aged, but not oxidized. The integrity of the bezel was fantastic — all the lines were clean — and the watch looked like it might not have been polished ever; or, if it had, just once and very lightly, something of a miracle in our age. I was speechless. As he got up and I handed him back this extraordinary timepiece, I mumbled something incoherent, something along the lines of, “If you ever want to sell it…” to which he mumbled back something indecipherable. Then he was gone, taking the watch of my dreams with him.
Anyway, a year passed and I could never get that Royal Oak out of my mind. I kept having hallucinatory visions of it as I was falling asleep. I learned that an Asian retailer would be receiving a special yellow-gold ultra-flat AP Royal Oak for their anniversary with a unique colored dial, and I thought that I could be satisfied with this instead. But the truth was, I was so hopelessly infatuated with that particular yellow-gold AP on my friend’s wrist that I knew in my heart that I would never be happy without it.
Cut to a year later. Before the 2014 SIHH, I tried to get in shape by running between seven to 10 kilometers a day to prepare myself for the ensuing cardio onslaught of dashing between booths. I also drank at least two bottles of wine a night to prepare myself for the nonstop festivities, but that’s another story. While pounding the treadmill in the gym and scrolling through emails, I read something that caused me to trip and shoot backward over the rubber conveyor belt, sending my iPad flying through the air before it, very thankfully, landed on my face, thus protecting its fall.
The friend of mine who had in his possession the most beautiful yellow-gold B-Series Royal Oak I had ever seen was in the process of negotiating to purchase a Dufour Simplicity (a worthy purchase) and was selling a few of his timepieces — and THIS was one of them. “Holy shit,” I bellowed. Dragging myself to my feet, I sent what was probably the quickest email reply I’d ever composed. Despite my garbled spelling, I think he understood that I wanted the watch. I had to have it. It had to be mine!!!
Check out this great Hodinkee post for a bit of gold ref. 5402 trivia: A 1970s Royal Oak Owned By Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez AND Signed By Bulgari: This Is A Special One
In an auction a few years ago, a very interesting yellow-gold Royal Oak, retailed by Bulgari with a double-signed dial and the engraving “CAP 1977”, emerged. The engraving stood for “Carlos Andrés Pérez”, then-President of Venezuela, and the watch was a gift to him from the Omani royal family, who are apparently some damnably generous people. Carlos Andrés Pérez served as Venezuela’s President from the periods 1974 to 1979 and 1989 to 1993, and subsequently did a little time in prison. This watch featured a beautiful gray dial that was beginning to show signs of oxidization (a lot of collectors actually like the patina effect that this creates, and I’ve seen some watches priced higher because of this); the bezel was decent but polished, and the bracelet seemed to have been retrofitted with a later-model skeleton-type clasp. This timepiece was number “151” with no alphabetical prefix.
No, what was really cool was that the watch my friend had wanted to sell was only seven watches later, numbered “157”, making it the 157th AP ref. 5402 in gold that was ever manufactured. Needless to say, when I finally took ownership of this grail watch at the 2014 SIHH, it was a transcendent moment for me. I think I literally did a jig. Amusingly, as I ran into François Bennahmias in the hall outside his booth, he grabbed my wrist and admired the watch for a beat. Then he looked at me and said, “Let me guess — built in 1977, with the number ‘157’.” This completely blew my mind. “How could you tell?” I stammered, but he just winked at me and replied, “Dude, when it comes to AP, don’t ever mess with me.” (He actually used a more colorful term.) And, of course, I never will. Although, knowing François, I suspect it could have been that he was also looking to purchase this incredible timepiece for his own collection. But she’s mine and has been on my wrist the entire time I was writing this — and will be until I am dead and set on my Viking funeral pyre.
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