Audemars Piguet Royal Oak – Hot or Not?

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Audemars Piguet Royal Oak

When I was in college, I walked into a swanky downtown boutique to try on the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak for the first time. I put on my best shirt in hopes of making a good impression and asked for a face-to-face introduction. I wasn’t ready for the impression the watch would make on me . . .

I was studying industrial design. I thought I already knew the Royal Oak well from the stack of magazines and Audemars Piguet brochures on my nightstand containing technical detail and photographs. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

When the watch arrived and was liberated from its protective plastic film, my eyes grew large. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The Royal Oak, resplendent in steel and blue, positively erupted with prismatic effect. There were so many facets photographs can’t show. It was craftsmanship like I never knew and it has come to set the benchmark for luxury-sports finish as I see it to this day. 

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Self-Winding

In my hands that day, it was a supermodel laying barenaked and I spent all evening admiring it. The photographs I had seen before were simply unable to capture the quality of the finish, the attention to detail given to every surface change, the lightness its proportions achieve in three-dimensions, the complexity of the dial and how its galvanic color pulls you in deeper and deeper. 

When I put it on, it was a revelation. It was so substantial, yet so soft. How could it be? Its low profile embraced me with its infinite charm. I couldn’t stop running my fingertips over its polished bevels, its brushed surfaces, and marvel at the immense joy doing so brought. The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak is the full-sized icon in steel and remains the ultimate high horology sports wristwatch. Needless to say, I’m still crazy about it after all these years.  

Joseph Adams – It Screams Early ’70’s

I want to like the Royal Oak. I really do. It has a lot going for it, not the least of which is AP’s traditional approach to near-perfect finishing and a lot of innovation in the original design. All of which is to be applauded and if it floats your boat, who am I to judge.

But…

Royal Oak Self-Winding Gold

This thing screams “early seventies” like some unholy combination of personal luxury coupes, avocado green appliances, and harvest yellow carpeting. It’s the official watch of The Ice Storm. Like everything else from that period it is trying way too hard. It’s an octagon, mounted on a different octagon, with eight hexagons circling the dial.

Oh yes, and then that dial. Why is there a third geometrical pattern? Oh right, because this thing was designed to scream DIFFERENT since the Swiss were getting their lunch eaten by quartz watches. Well, mission accomplished guys, you built something nobody could confuse for something else. 

The seventies, nearly alone among post-World War 2 styles, has never seriously come back into fashion. The Royal Oak is a perfectly finished, agonizingly expensive reminder of why.

Saad Chaudhry – Do the Math!

To pick the worst of the seventies and try to compare it against one of its best isn’t helping you, old man. I get that the decade might not have been kind to you, but unlike the PLC and the haircuts that drove them, The Royal Oak never went out of style. Besides, it doesn’t matter when it was made. What matters is how it was made.

AP's on parade

The design was done on a grid. The grid was used to determine the dimensions and proportions of the dial appliqués (hence, the descriptive tapisserie). Why should the designer be the only one who gets to see the painstaking detail that went into perfecting harmony? Gerald Genta was being generous.

Six squares were chosen to define the length of the hour indices, the gap between two squares (the space of one square) was to be the width of each index. This informed the width of the hands as well. Mathematical proportions help designers add precision, you see.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak dial close-up

As for the octagons, the inspiration came from a diver’s helmet. Good design is always honest, and here it doesn’t hide what influenced it. To keep the rubber seal effective, an evenly distributed pressure across 45˚ increments about a 37.35 mm outer tangential diameter of the bezel was required. Guess what you get when you divide 360 by 45. 

If you don’t know how to look for the calculator app on your phone, I’ll tell you the answer is eight. Eight sides, eight screws. Makes sense to me. 

AP RO dial

The hexagons are not just a poetic nod to the sixty minutes in an hour, the result of 360˚ divided by 60. The interior wall of the gasket’s housing is cambered at 45˚ off the dial (the outer bezel chamfer is 40˚ to achieve equal volume of rubber surrounding each screw sink) and the thickness of the rubber seal’s section before compression is 0.75 mm. If you still haven’t found the calculator app on your phone, I’ll tell you that 45 divided by 7.5 is 6. Ergo, six sides. 

The sum of these parts is a mathematical relationship that creates an honest aesthetic and an Avant-Garde assertion that’s come to epitomize the high-horology sports wristwatch. The geometry of its svelte figure speaks to the discerning aesthete and the mathematical codes behind it (executed to the tightest of tolerances) help create a functional work of art. These codes have been endlessly imitated but the Royal Oak was the first. And I will maintain that it remains the best.

Joseph Adams – BTDT

Whoa! I didn’t realize that we would suddenly get into the finer points of gematria. It’s cool though, I can dig it. Unlike that labored explanation. Old rhetorical trick: the second you have to explain why something is hot, you’ve already lost.

ROSW Black

The thing about mathematical proportions, though, is that if you look at the truly great practitioners of it – from the Ancient Greeks through Michelangelo to Ruskin and beyond – is that the proper proportions are a necessary component of beauty but not beauty in and of itself.

That’s what the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak gets wrong here. It goes way beyond acknowledging its influences and puts them front and center. It screams ASK ME at people. It begs for the owner to explain why it looks the way it does, and then when he does (and it’s always a he), it comes out as justification, not as appreciation. It is trying way, way too hard.

It’s the Centre Pompidou of watches – a reaction to the  subtlety of dominant midcentury aesthetic. And as is typical, both the building and the watch took the reaction too far. It may be avante garde but is so in a labored, thirsty way – and that’s never hot.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Like with the Nautilus, as long as you keep the RO clean and minimal, it’s a fantastic look. Masculine, yet elegant.
    But once you start heaping on the garnishes, it quickly slides into a hot-mess express for rich people desperate for attention. Just look at that lineup photo…one looks like it was made for a man, and the other two for a man-child.

    Personally, if I had the means, I’d lean towards the VC Overseas 4500v.

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