The collars were expansive, the trouser hems vast, the sideburns dangerous near naked flames: but men’s watches, in the early 70s, veered very much towards the diminutive. In Italy, a trend even kicked off amongst metropolitan dandies for wearing watches aimed at women. Precious metals, meanwhile, were comme il faut amongst gents who wished to make any kind of statement in the vicinity of their carpel bones.
So when Audemars Piguet sashayed into the Basel Fair in 1972 armed with a 39mm new offering containing an ultra-thin movement (the legendary caliber 2121), in finely hand-finish steel, costing 3,650 Swiss francs – significantly more than the going rate for gold mechanical timepieces at the time – industry observers’ efforts to conceal their incredulous amusement were no more than tokenistic. Current CEO Francois-Henry Bennahmias has even remarked how competitors came by the stall and offered their congratulations, only to walk off muttering gleeful prophesies of doom.
Despite its inherent elegance – surely many, even then, recognised the extent to which that iconic octagonal bezel secured with eight gold screws would prove timeless – it was a temeritous throw of the dice on the part of a company renown for its refined dress timepieces. But the sector was writhing in the uncertainty of the quartz rage at the time, and derring-do seemed the only way forward: and it paid off – eventually. It took some time for the first production run of 1,000 to find takers, but then Fiat Chief Executive Giovanni Agnelli began wearing the Royal Oak around the mid-70s, meaning that other wealthy denizens of the Portofino and St. Tropez jet-setting scenes would surely follow suit – which they duly did.