THE HISTORY OF THE ROYAL OAK
It all started at Baselworld in April of 1972, then known as the Swiss Watch Show, when Audemars Piguet released what is now known as one of the most iconic watches ever. A new daring step in the watch world, a luxury steel watch with an integrated bracelet and a new daring design.
At the beginning of the 70’s the “quartz revolution” shook the watch world as many people started switching to the more accurate quartz movements rather than stay with the mechanicals. With the advent of the Seiko Astron quartz, mechanical watches became unpopular, and the watchmakers’ profitability was in jeopardy. Not only were these new watches cheaper but also did not need to be serviced either as much or at all. The Swiss watch making industry was crashing. Audemars Piguet needed something revolutionary to attract new customers and to hopefully save the brand from a financial collapse. Going off of some feedback received from the Italian market about an interest for a luxury watch made of steel, they decided it was time to introduce a sporty yet elegant watch that would revolutionize watchmaking as we know it. The man of choice to help revive the company was a man born in 1931 in Geneva: Gerald Genta. He was a rather famous watch designer at the time, he already designed for Universal Geneve, Omega and Patek Philippe. The day before the Basel fair in 1971, Audemars Piguet’s managing director, Georges Golay, called Genta requesting a design for an “unprecedented steel watch” in which he needed the next morning. At this time, Audemars Piguet did not have any sports watches especially with steel casing. Genta created the design for the Royal Oak which he called the masterpiece of his career. The chances of the Royal Oak going belly up was high but Audemars Piguet took the chance. At the time, fine timepieces were made of precious metals and using steel in a luxury watch was unheard of. Steel was usually used in tool watches made by Rolex and Omega for a different customer base.
The Royal Oak was inspired by a diving helmet, with the octagonal shaped bezel and the visible hexagonal screws shown on the bezel and decorated with a petite tapisserie dial design.
It was a very thin mechanical piece with a height of only 7 mm while also being a large piece for the time with a diameter of 39mm. The bracelet, as it remains to this very day is a very recognizable integrated stainless steel bracelet that tapers off towards the clasp. The very first models of the Royal Oak were not constructed from steel as Genta had hoped as Audemars Piguet did not possess the high-tech machinery needed as it was too expensive. Instead, they used a much more malleable material that was white gold.
The movement was the self-winding Calibre 2121, which in the Royal Oak Jumbo ref. 15202, is still used today. This was based on the AP Calibre 2120 along with a date complication. The Calibre 2120 was introduced in 1967 from a project by Jaeger-LeCoultre, with contributions from the Holy Trinity of the watchmaking world, Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe. The joint effort was to create an ultra-thin automatic movement. The three brands then took the JLC Calibre 920 and customized it to use in their own watches (Patek Philippe 28-255 C, Vacheron 1120).
Introduced at the price of 3300 Swiss Francs, this timepiece was more expensive than a gold Patek Philippe dress watch and more than ten times the cost of a Rolex Submariner. Audemars Piguet could come up with prestigious timepieces without necessarily relying on precious metals. From this point forward, it was the design, the precision of the execution, and the quality of the movement that counted. It was a copernican revolution in the world of haute horlogerie.
THE AESTHETIC IMPACT OF THE ROYAL OAK
I always look for objects that I truly love, objects that can transcend into something else: one of the two elements that creates what I call the aesthetic entity; the other element being my perception trough senses, given a set of principles, as explained in this article about beauty.
With the AP Royal Oak 15202 it was pretty much love at first sight, I didn’t notice this watch until I was already well in my 20s. I first saw the Royal Oak Offshore, it was too big and too thick for my taste, but there was something about its shape that immediately captured my imagination. When it was time to buy a fine timepiece I visited the official website and I considered the jumbo and the 15400. The latter is a bigger, thicker, more “modern” version of the original with the addition of the hand of seconds. I then visited the boutique and tried them both. There was no doubt, the ultra-slim 39 mm original is a much better proportioned, sleek and compelling watch. The recent one has lost, with its 41 mm dial and thicker case, the original proportions. Being a solo tempo it is also empty in my opinion, too much space occupied by the petite tapisserie. There are also some other disgraced models in the catalogue that I won’t even mention.
The box, inserted in a cubic green cardboard box, is made of green wood and has an irregular shape. The opening button and the logo are golden.
The design is somewhat industrial, with the eight visible screws and the black gasket going all around. The lateral side of the bezel has a polished mirror finish that contrast the brushed top octagon. There’s no shame in exposing the structural elements that compone the patented watch case. I have a romantic view of these screws: 8 stars that surround the night sky made by the petite tapisserie. The crown is pretty intrusive, I got used to it now but it’s probably the weakest part of the front view, I wish it was a bit smaller.
The integrated stainless steel bracelet with the folding clasp is a masterpiece. It is handmade and it needs hours of work to be completed. I love the fact that it tapers towards the clasp, making almost every piece different from the others, this is an effect of the choice to insert an element that converts the octagonal bezel to the straight line required for the bracelet to start. Some watches fail to make this transition smooth. Going to the back, the possibility to watch in awe the self winding calibre is fundamental nowadays.
THE PATEK PHILIPPE NAUTILUS
When Patek Philippe introduced the Nautilus in 1976, the Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak had been around for four years. The Nautilus was positioned at an even higher price point, and the ads for the first model showed the watch with the tagline, “One of the world’s costliest watches is made of steel.”
The watch has a distinctive shape: the bezel is neither round nor rectangular but is an octagon whose sides are curved outward. With a diameter of 42 mm, the Nautilus was ahead of its time in terms of size, and it was 3 mm larger than the Royal Oak. It sits very comfortably on the wrist, also thanks to its thinness. The unusual case shape was inspired by a ship’s porthole, with a rounded octagonal bezel and “ears” on the case for a hinge on one side and a closure on the other. The horizontal grooves on the dial, inspired by the wooden ships’ decks, and the integrated metal bracelet complete the unique personality of this watch. The grooves are the most beautiful single thing of the watch to me, with their elusive blue, black and dark greys shades.
The Nautilus name comes from the submarine featured in Jules Verne’s novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The portholes on Captain Nemo’s submarine were often depicted as having an oval shape. To differentiate it from the Royal Oak Genta decided to smooth out the angles. The peculiar construction was necessary to achieve the watch’s water resistance of 120 meters, which was outstanding for the time. The Nautilus name emphasizes this feature. Like a submarine the Patek can dive into the deep sea and be back on surface in time for an elegant dinner. Infact, in an ad, it was shown being worn on two very different occasions, one in a diving suit and the other in formal evening wear. The movement is a self-winding mechanical derived from the same one of the Royal Oak, only with the hand of seconds.
The Nautilus was originally designed for women and this is where the design looks weak to me. Those rounded curves make the whole result looks “soft” and “weak”, it is exactly what I thought when I had a good look at it, only after I found out that it was indeed designed for women. Also, the bracelet is not as integrated as the Royal Oaks one, the tapering starts before, creating another rounded surface and I find it less aesthetically pleasing with its protruding glossy elements.
The Nautilus is an extremely beautiful timepiece, but the Royal Oak represents the best choice for me, I have found something that I will never get tired of, its shapes has met with my taste and I will therefore always be glad to admire it, if beauty is peace it means that when you find something beautiful you don’t look for something else, you are truly satisfied.
Royal Oak or Nautilus, which one do you prefer and why? Leave a comment below