22 January 2024

A Tale of Firsts: A Deep Dive Into The Royal Oak

By Justin Mastine-Frost

In the 21st century, watches like the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak need no introduction, yet here we are. Turning 52 this coming April, the Royal Oak stands as one of the top three “icons” of the watch industry; it’s a watch you can spot from across the room, and a watch that has come to define the steel sports watch category. Now, we could spend days going through the comprehensive history of the Royal Oak, from how it came to be, to how it evolved into the star of fine watchmaking today, but that tale has been told countless times before.

Instead, today’s lesson takes a different line of approach. The current collection of Royal Oaks and Royal Oak Offshore references includes a huge spectrum of complications and materials, but do you know where those evolutions got their start? Where did the Royal Oak Concept come from? Why did AP start offering precious metal variants of a watch that was intended to only be offered in steel? These are the things we’re looking to unpack here.

Photos: Audemars Piguet

From The Beginning: Tapisserie Dials

Of the traits and characteristics to evolve over the years of the Royal Oak, we first need to start with its dial — the tapisserie guilloche dial pattern. The happenstance that led to its inclusion into the Royal Oak is an interesting one, to say the least. As Gerald Genta was going through design processes and speaking with Roland Tille of Stern Frères — the dial-maker he was enlisting for the prototypes — it just so happened that the maker had recently come into the possession of seven old guilloche machines from a neighbouring company who’d recently lost its only guilloche operator.

 

Sifting through mounds of various templates, which the duo eventually trimmed down to 13 potential candidates, they eventually settled on a pattern then known as T21. That was the one chosen for the Royal Oak. Now renamed Petite Tapisserie, this pattern is composed of hundreds of small truncated pyramids, punctuated by tens of thousands of small diamond-shaped holes, enabling subtle and unique light effects. This pyramid grid pattern at the centre of the Royal Oak promptly established itself as one of the model’s defining features. Though it has evolved into an assortment of forms over time, that simple template in a heap of 300 could have just as easily been cast aside, leading the watch in an entirely different direction.

Photos: Audemars Piguet

The Royal Oak Goes for Gold

In 1972, as the Royal Oak shined in the glistening vitrines of the Basel Fair, its supporting marketing was simple. “... a tribute to steel, the metal of the twentieth century.” could be read on brochures and posters. The idea of pushing steel as luxury caught on; contrary to some lore you’ll find online, the Royal Oak wasn’t actually a commercial flop. It took four years for Patek Philippe to follow suit with the Nautilus — a watch destined to nip at APs heels. It was time to shake things up, and what better way to outshine one’s competitors than to flip the script to precious metals.

 

Though AP leaned heavily on the material choice when things first got moving, it also made certain that the expertise of its master watchmakers was part of the conversation. With this in the cards, adding both gold and two-tone references to the entire line of Royal Oak (the 8638, 4100, and 5402, in 29mm, 35mm, and 39mm) wasn’t all that challenging. It remains unclear whose idea it was to offer a gold Royal Oak (according to Audemars Piguet’s own archives), but these gold references never managed to overshadow their steel siblings.

Photos: Audemars Piguet

The First Skeleton: An Unlikely Origin

Chasing the first skeletonised Royal Oak proved to be an interesting endeavour to say the least. We knew they came out of the ‘80s, and we knew that very few makers were dabbling in the category in that era. We also know that production of skeletonised Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar references
(the 25636) started in 1983, though it took a fair bit of time between production start and actual deliveries. In wristwatch form, one could call this the first, but that doesn’t tell the full story.

In 1981, AP unveiled a Royal Oak pocket watch with a dramatically skeletonized calibre inside; the calibre itself measuring only 1.9mm thick. Only 20 of the 5710 pocket watches were produced between 1981 and 1989. There are several Royal Oak references that we’d call “scarce”, but this pocket watch tops that list. At time of publishing, we were unable to track any of these watches trading hands at auction.

The First Perpetual: Of Little Surprise

Far from the brand’s first perpetual calendar wristwatch (the 5516 from 1948), the Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar 25554 was first presented in steel and gold in 1984, though it took another year before the steel reference actually made it to market. Not an especially high demand reference, only 46 of the 25554ST steel models sold between 1985 and 1990. That said, the most scarce of the pack is the platinum version, of which AP claims to have only sold one (to an unnamed client in Germany). The platinum reference is the only one of the pack to receive a tapisserie dial, leading one to believe that this was a bespoke order rather than a planned “production” piece.

 

Why the brand opted for flat dials on these perpetuals also remains a bit of a mystery. We’ve seen subsequent flat dials appear from time to time since, including the gradient green dialed 15202 that was unveiled in 2021, but otherwise these references were clearly not an indication of a turning of tides of any sort.

The First Tourbillon: A Special Occasion

Hopping ahead to 1997, it was clear by now that Audemars Piguet needed to do something special to properly celebrate the Royal Oak’s 25th birthday. Long before every brand under the sun was rolling out tourbillon references left and right, Audemars had already set the bar. Their first tourbillon wristwatch from 1986 had set the bar for the category, being the thinnest tourbillon ever crafted — a record that remained unbroken until 2014. But for the Royal Oak, this wasn’t a place for that level of thinness, at least not yet. This anniversary reference had to lean in on the essence of the Royal Oak, and it does so in its own peculiar way.

 

Offered with either a blue or a salmon dial, the anniversary reference 25831 was limited to 25 pieces in steel, yellow gold, pink gold, and platinum. The salmon coloured dial is not a first for the collection, but rather its second appearance after a 3-hand Royal Oak that was unveiled for the
model’s 20th anniversary. With a pointer date subdial to the right and a power reserve indicator to the left, where AP doubled down on Royal Oak energy was the outer ring supporting its tourbillon cage. Replicating the iconic octagonal bezel, the ring is partly deformed,  as AP chose to move it downward to improve spacing for its time indications.

The First Concept: Pushing Boundaries

Without getting into the intricacies of more modern innovations of the last 20 years, the last major game-changing release in the Royal Oak line is clearly the Concept series. Arriving in 2002, this was the very early beginnings of the “superwatch”. Crafted from a lightweight alloy called Alacrite 602 and topped off with a titanium bezel, the Concept was very much a look forward at how far the boundaries of watchmaking could be moved if engineers went unconstrained by brand bean counters.

We talk a lot about “bulletproof” tool watches, but looking at the peculiar shock absorber bridge that supports the Concept’s tourbillon, this watch is in a league of its own. Capable of surviving shocks of up to 50Gs, having haute horlogerie that can outlive a modern G-Shock is hard to wrap one’s brain around now, let alone 22 years ago. The piece took three years to take from idea to reality, and was originally intended to be a one-off showcase of technical prowess. Instead, the buzz this watch created led AP to produce 150 examples, as well as turning Concept into its own low-volume series. 

As with other titans of fine watchmaking, the story arc that led the Royal Oak to “icon status” isn’t quite as linear as one would expect. A slow build, filled with innovation, experimentation, and occasional error is the kind of progression that creates longevity. After all, the flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long, so the saying goes.

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