It was the decade that style itself, having toiled tirelessly and prodigiously throughout the 1960s, had a breakdown and went on a massive sabbatical. Fashion abominations flourished, from garishly patterned polyester shirts to flesh-furrowing shorts to high-waisted jeans that could conceal a badger strapped around the wearer’s shin. Interior designers wrongly assumed that hallucinogenic mind-benders would have the same creatively alchemic effect on their work that they had on rock music recorded during that era, with results that to this day scare burglars away from unrenovated properties throughout middle England.
And yet, in one avenue of life, thoughtful, tastefully avant-garde design prevailed throughout that taste-forsaken decade: the watch industry. That’s not to say the scene’s major players stayed true to their innately conservative instincts: on the contrary, industry honchos and watch designers – and in particular, one Swiss wristwatch visionary by the name of Gérald Genta – became emboldened and energised, and came up with new prototypes which, unfathomably at the time, made sports watches with luxury pedigree become acceptable in highly fashionable circles.
It was, most industry observers concur, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak that took the first step into this new design territory. It was a massive gamble on the part of a company renowned mainly for refined dress timepieces, but drastic action was required given the financial peril the sector was in due to the quartz age. Genta later explained: “Mr Georges Golay, the Managing Director of Audemars Piguet, rings me up and tells me: ‘Mr Genta, I need a steel sports watch that has never been done before. I want it to be something totally new and waterproof… I want the design by tomorrow morning.’ I designed it overnight and my idea was to replicate the system of the scaphander’s [deep sea diver’s] helmet on the watch case, with the eight screws and the joint visible on the case’s exterior.”