Audemars Piguet has a new book out! Published by Assouline and written by British GQ veteran Bill Prince, Royal Oak: From Iconoclast To Icon is an inside look at the 50-year history of the legendary luxury sport watch. Across 287 pages, the text digs deep into the Audemars Piguet archives to unearth behind-the-scenes details of the Royal Oak’s initial development and release, focusing on the business decisions of former AP CEO Georges Golay, the creative choices made by the one-and-only Gérald Genta, and the powerful influence of Audemars Piguet’s distribution network.
Audemars Piguet was kind enough to send me an advance copy of the text to review. Here are a few things I learned.
It Was All About The Quest For Thinness
Audemars Piguet has always been focused on ultra-thin watchmaking, introducing the world’s thinnest pocket watch movement in 1921 (the caliber 17SVF#5, at just 1.32mm) and the world’s thinnest hand-wound wristwatch movement in 1938 for (the Calibre 9ML, measuring 1.64mm). So it’s no surprise that the Royal Oak was initiated around the pursuit of thinness. AP had introduced an automatic movement, the caliber 24898, in 1954, but apparently it wasn’t thin enough. A decade later, in 1964, former chairman of Audemars Piguet, Jacques-Louis Audemars, sent a letter to his manufacturing partner at LeCoultre & Cie., reading, “For the past three or four years we have been keeping our customers waiting, and they are finding it increasingly hard to understand why specialists in ultra-thin high-luxury watches are still offering self-winding watches that are amongst the thickest on the market!”
Ultimately, it would fall to a watchmaker working at LeCoultre & Cie., in nearby Le Sentier, named Maurice Audemars to resolve a problem faced by all ultra-thin calibres required to generate their own energy: the necessary trade-off between the weight (and therefore, power) of the oscillating rotor, and the optimal size required to fit into the movement. Piaget had addressed this issue by using a micro rotor built into the mechanism’s depth. Maurice Audemars’ solution was to use a full-size rotor and support the additional weight by attaching it to ruby rollers running along a circular rail at the periphery of the calibre.
Launched in 1967, the Calibre 2120, measuring just 2.45 mm high, would serve as the world’s thinnest self-winding movement featuring a central rotor for decades to come (as well as equip Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe’s watches as 1120 and 28-255, respectively). More importantly, its power and strength offered up a beguiling number of possible further functions to be added – beginning in 1970, with the addition of a date window in the new Calibre 2121, just 0.6 mm deeper than the base movement and thus the world’s thinnest of its kind. – Royal Oak: From Iconoclast To Icon
An Early Conglomerate Played A Key Role
We all know conglomerates and the role they play in today’s watch industry – LVMH, Richemont, and Swatch Group are three of the biggest players in all of contemporary watchmaking. But what about back in the 1960s and ’70s? Well, despite Audemars Piguet’s uninterrupted status as an independent organization, a precursor to the Swatch Group known as the Société Suisse pour l’Industrie Horlogère was actually a guiding influence in the Royal Oak’s creation
But while the approach had succeeded, Georges Golay – who became Managing Director in 1966 – recognised distinct challenges lay ahead. The distant rumble of quartz technology was becoming something more akin to a roar – particularly after the Japanese watchmaker Seiko released the world’s first quartz-powered wristwatch, the Astron, in 1969. Closer to home, Audemars Piguet’s independence was proving to be a burden as well as an asset; as production numbers continued to rise, Golay knew that if it were to remain in the game, the company would need wider distribution.
At that time, the third largest producer of watches in the world was the Société Suisse pour l’Industrie Horlogère (SSIH), responsible for manufacturing millions of watches each year across twenty brands, distributed through 160 agents to 15,000 retailers. Careful to protect the Manufacture’s interests, Golay spent a year negotiating a deal with SSIH that retained Audemars Piguet’s independence whilst gaining access to the group’s network of agents – several of whom, Georges Golay would soon discover, had their own views on what the new joiner could bring to the horological party.
Thus, on April 10, 1970, the eve of the fair’s opening day, a trio of agents representing SSIH’s distributors in, respectively, Italy (Carlo de Marchi), Switzerland (Charles Bauty), and France (Charles Dorot) gathered for what would turn out to be an auspicious meeting with Georges Golay, for whom the ‘three musketeers,’ as they were known, had a question: could Audemars Piguet produce an ‘unprecedented steel watch’? – Royal Oak: From Iconoclast To Icon
The Bezel Inspiration Came From An Unlikely Source
For some reason or another, I had always associated both the Royal Oak and the Patek Philippe Nautilus as being inspired by the porthole of a ship. Well, according to designer Gérald Genta, it turns out the bezel of the Royal Oak actually has a separate maritime – albeit potentially unlikely – source of inspiration: the old-school dive helmet.
Gérald Genta later remarked that the idea for the bezel came from a childhood recollection of seeing a hard-hat diver being prepared for a descent into Lake Geneva. But the brass ‘scaphander’ helmet he recalled bears no relation to its subsequent octagonal execution. Besides, no diver’s helmet was joined to its dry suit with the sophistication and elegance exhibited in the gently tapering, Art Deco-inspired bracelet Genta drew. – Royal Oak: From Iconoclast To Icon
The First Royal Oak Prototypes Were Produced In White Gold, Not Stainless Steel
It wasn’t long ago that I went Hands-On with the Royal Oak A2, the earliest known production Royal Oak, when it came to auction at Phillips Geneva earlier this year in May. I thought I had seen it all. But, apparently, there’s an even earlier batch of four Royal Oak examples somewhere out in the world – and instead of the characteristic stainless steel construction, these prototype examples are made of precious white gold.
Gérald Genta asked for oversight in the prototyping of the new watch, an unusual request given the fact that Jacques-Louis Audemars, as Technical Director, would more usually have taken this role. Nevertheless, the letter requesting four prototypes to be made in white gold, addressed to the case maker Favre-Perret based in La Chaux-de-Fonds, bears the designer’s name. Given its malleability compared to steel, prototyping in gold would not have been unusual. However, for Favre-Perret it proved a blessing: despite having been in business since 1865 and recognised as a leader in its field, it had never before worked in steel.
The previous year, Audemars Piguet’s Managing Director, Georges Golay, had shown a white gold prototype to his two customers from Italy and Switzerland – Carlo de Marchi and Charles Bauty – with each agreeing to buy 400. With Golay confident he could distribute the remaining 200 in other markets, in May 1971, Jacques-Louis Audemars placed an order with Favre-Perret for 1,000 steel cases. An additional request for a quotation to produce a further 100 in gold indicates that the Royal Oak was perhaps never perceived as being solely a ‘steel watch’. Either way, it was, by some margin, the largest order placed for a single design in the company’s ninety-six-year history. – Royal Oak: From Iconoclast To Icon
I Want The iPod From The Royal Oak/Jay-Z Collab
Audemars Piguet was early to the collaboration game. Starting with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1990s, the company has never been afraid of finding new partners to team up with and see what might be possible, including in 2005, with hip-hop legend Jay-Z. That mid-2000s release was a limited edition of 100 pieces, and it came with an extra-special gift that is distinctly of the era.
François-Henry Bennahmias first met Jay-Z in 2001, when the artist visited his office in New York with the idea to collaborate on a watch. The young hip-hop mogul already owned around fourteen watches. The pair spent time together, the man from Audemars Piguet hanging out in the studio with Jay-Z and his partners in Roc-A-Fella Records, Damon Dash and Kareem ‘Biggs’ Burke. Bennahmias, a music fanatic who’d grown up in Paris, one of the most musically diverse cities in the world, could see that ‘hip-hop was exactly like jazz in the 1920s’ with the same potential to reach a global audience. So he took the idea back to Le Brassus, where, in 2005, he received the green light from the Audemars Piguet Board of Directors to produce a Royal Oak Offshore Jay-Z 10th Anniversary limited edition of 100 pieces to recognise the artist’s first decade in the music industry. Featuring a diamond-set numeral at ten o’clock and sold in a presentation set that included a 40-gigabyte iPod containing the artist’s full discography, the series – fifty in steel, twenty in platinum, and thirty in pink gold – swiftly sold out. – Royal Oak: From Iconoclast To Icon
Shop this story
You can learn more about Audemars Piguet online.
The HODINKEE Shop sells pre-owned examples of the Royal Oak and other Audemars Piguet watches; click here to discover our collection.