10,000 years ago a meteorite blasted through the stratosphere and slammed into earth. Into what would be the modern day location of Wakanda, depositing a seemingly infinite supply of the world’s rarest metal Vibranium. Hold up you say, this all sounds eerily familiar. Kind of like the first five minutes of Marvel’s box office-shattering Black Panther? Just go with it. OK so we know two things. First, Black Panther is awesome. Wakanda salute Ryan Coogler. And two, Vibranium is a fictional metal that absorbs sound waves and energy and when used for the Black Panther’s suit, redirects bullet strikes into a kinetic blast wave. Badass right? Remember it was also used to construct Captain America’s shield. And yes it would be a hell of a material for the ultimate anti-shock watch. Could you imagine any blow to the watch is transformed into a concussive beam that could be redirected to foes, mimes, Donald Trump supporters or surly affected maître d’s. What’s that, you don’t have a table? Ka-blaam. Got one now, Pendejo?
Actually while we’re at it, the watch could feature a bezel, made from Adamantium, which unlike the naturally occurring Virbanium was cooked up in a lab to be the world’s hardest and most indestructible metal. Yes, it’s the material of choice for Wolverine’s claws and yes his skeleton is also coated in it, making his capacity to resurrect from the most brutal beat down veritably Lazarus-like. And woe be to those who forget this. SNIKT!
But trust me if these two superhero grade metals were real, then by now Audemars Piguet would have made a Royal Oak Offshore from them, such has been the fabled Le Brassus manufacture’s pioneering status in alternate material research and implementation over the past two and half decades.
The point is that once Vacheron Constantin, Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet were considered to be the so-called Swiss high watchmaking Holy Trinity. But somehow along the way, AP cut loose, became the leader in audacious disruptive design while simultaneously blazing a path beyond the traditional luxury material lexicon of gold and platinum, making it arguable the most exciting watch brand around. AP has never been afraid to be a lightning rod for contemporary aesthetics. The following is a retrospective of AP’s role in material innovation.
Steel: Rethinking a Base Metal
AP’s tradition of rule breaking all began in 1972 with the advent of modern watchmaking’s biggest game changer, the Royal Oak. (To read about the Royal Oak click here) Sure there had been plenty of steel watches before 1972, but never one that had been finished to the levels of platinum or gold the way Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak is. This was evinced by its stunning contrasting brushed and high polished surfaces. The use of steel was an intentionally disruptive choice as it was meant to symbolize AP’s intended link with the modern world, while the watch was the world’s first true expression of contemporary sports chic.
It was the ultimate in adaptability equally at home at Marie Helene de Rothschild’s Surrealist Ball held the same year or ensconced in the Hotel du Cap’s swimming pool. Audemars Piguet played the Richard Mille game way before Mille came on the scene, by pricing the Royal Oak at the staggering sum of 3,750 Swiss Francs. To put this in context a few years earlier in 1968 you could have bought a platinum Patek Philippe Golden Ellipse, also designed by Gerald Genta, for the same amount. The brand enhanced the notoriety of the watch and its cost with the provocative advertising campaign, “Steel on the Outside, Gold on the Inside,” referencing the watch movement Caliber 2121’s solid gold rotor.
Tantalum: Blue-blooded Baptism into the High-Tech Age
Ok, this one may sound like it was created by the writers at Marvel Comics but Tantalum, named for Greek mythological villain Tantalus is very real and Audemars Piguet was the first brand to feature it in a high luxury watch. It is one of the most resistant metals in the periodic table and can be immersed in acid with no ill effects. It is dense but of medium surface hardness and can be alloyed to create parts for jet engines, nuclear reactors and missiles.
One of the earliest adopters of the Royal Oak was King Juan Carlos of Spain. Seeking to create a stealthed-out version of his favorite watch he gave a Royal Oak to his gunsmith to attempt bluing it with the same technique used for his hunting rifle barrels. The results were not up to his expectations and finally he reached out to Audemars Piguet who mulled it over and came up with the idea with using tantalum because of its natural dark grey blue lustre for his watch.
Crafting a case out of this incredible dense material took chewed up CNC machinery like crazy. But the result was absolutely stunning to behold. Tantalum was most frequently combined with other materials such as steel in the small size quartz driven Royal Oak ref. 56175TT and also with rose gold for one of the most stunning Royal Oak iterations (ref. 14790) ever created.
There was even a small series of tantalum and rose gold Royal Oak skeletonized perpetual calendar watches. The material was selected for the bezel and lugs of the 2012 Royal Oak chronograph Leo Messi. Tantalum has also been used in the Royal Oak Offshore, famously in 2004 for the bezel in the Sincere Limited Edition and more recently in 2014 tantalum and rose gold were combined to create the Royal Oak Offshore Diver Queen Elizabeth Cup.
Titanium: The Essence of High Performance
While not exactly bullet proof as David Guetta would have you believe, titanium has one of the highest corrosion resistances and boats the highest strength to density ratio of any metal on the planet. And it was a logical material of choice to bring a higher level of comfort and ease of wear to one of AP’s most revered timepieces.
Steel was of course the material of choice in 1993 when the herculean Royal Oak Offshore was born out the mind of mad man genius Emmanuel Gueit. (to read this story click here) At 42 mm in diameter, with a stack height of 15.5 mm and featuring a soft iron inner cage to shield the movement from magnetism, on its steel bracelet the resulting timepiece was titanic in appearance and bombastic in gravitas and weighed almost a kilogram.
So it was a stroke of genius when in the 1990s AP approached its case maker Donze Baume about creating a version with all the same ursine presence but at a much lighter weight. The decision was to make the Offshore in titanium.
Today titanium is used ubiquitously throughout the watch industry, however at the time in the Swiss watch world only IWC and Panerai had used titanium as a material for watches. IWC had in collaboration with Porsche Design created the world’s first titanium watches from 1980. And while those timepieces are some of the most historically significant and collectable in particular the Ocean 2000s used by the German military, looking at these cases you can see they are relatively simple in execution, devoid of any great embellishment or decorative charm. Panerai launched its first titanium wristwatch the PAM 36 in 1998 (with a case also made at Donze Baume) as an alternative to the cool looking but ultimately fragile PVD coated steel watches from the band’s Pre-Vendome era, but it was also, from a perspective of finish, relatively simple.
One the other hand, Audemars Piguet’s titanium watches showed the same level of finish we have come to expect, particularly in the level of polish and crisp facets of the famous Royal Oak bezel. Over the past 25 years AP has consistently created some of our favorite Offshores using this material.
Titanium has continued to be used for both the Royal Oak and Royal Oak Offshore models and in each instance brings a higher level of comfort due to its light weight. Titanium was combined to stunning effect with a platinum bezel and smoky fume dials for 2018 Royal Oak limited edition collection resulting in some of the most sought after timepieces on the modern market.
Titanium has also been used by Audemars Piguet for its sonic qualities (it transmits sound very well), and is the case material of choice for the brand’s super sonnnerie, which in conjunction with a sound amplifying membrane that sits within the case results in the world’s loudest minute repeater.