Audemars Piguet Royal Oak – Stick a Fork In it?

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Audemars Piguet Royal Oak classic

“With its steel case, octagonal bezel, ‘tapisserie’ dial and integrated bracelet, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak overturned the prevailing codes in 1972 and took its rightful place as a true modern icon.” That’s AP’s online intro to their Royal Oak collection. No question: Gerald Genta’s design upset the apple cart, saving Audemars Piguet’s horological bacon during the quartz crisis. But as S. E. Hinton would say, that was then, this is now . . .

Classic Royal Oak in Inky Black Ceramic

In the intervening 48 years, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak has mutated into a 122 watch farrago of high priced models. A number that doesn’t include limited edition watches that aren’t on the main Royal Oak product page or the Royal Oak Concept page. Like the just released $80,300 boutique-only Classic Royal Oak in Inky Black Ceramic (above).

Which isn’t steel and doesn’t have a ‘tapisserie’ dial (“a guilloché design requires a skill and savoir-faire that are no longer taught in horology schools“). But it does have an octagonal case, eight exposed case screws and an integrated bracelet. Characteristics that define the Royal Oak these days, as Audemars Piguet milks Genta’s design for all its worth (i.e. tens of millions).

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak ceramic movement

The new RO IBC is an awesome watch, sporting the double balance wheel mechanism introduced in 2016. “The combination of two balance wheels and two hairsprings assembled on the same axis means the entire system can oscillate in perfect harmony,” The Robb Report rhapsodizes. As well they should, nouveau riche readers being an important Royal Oak fanbase.

That said, I reckon old money collectors at the top of the market have at least one Royal Oak on a winder. They’re enticed by the big money complications AP keeps shoehorning into the octagon: tourbillon, self-winding tourbillon, chronograph tourbillon, flying tourbillon GMT, minute repeater super-sonnerie, perpetual calendar, etc. Not to mention gold, diamond encrusted, platinum and ceramic watches; and extra thin variants.

A. Lange & Söhne Odysseus TTAW's Watch of the Year

There’s an eight-year waiting list for the classic RO. I’m wondering why anyone would bother.

The watch industry has moved on in the last five decades. Everyone and their mother makes a luxury steel sports watch. Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, H. Moser & Cie., Lange & Söhne, F.P. Journe . . . Everyone.

You could argue that few of these watches are as historically significant as the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. All of them enjoy the distinction of not being the Royal Oak – a watch whose basic design hasn’t evolved since The Godfather hit the silver screen.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak classics

The Royal Oak is played out. There I said it. Back when there was one Royal Oak, back when there were I dunno, 10 different models, wearing an Audemars Piguet Royal Oak was a big deal. Now, not so much.

With so many amazing high end, low volume watches clamoring for attention, purchasing an RO shows a lack of imagination. For high end collectors, it does nothing to move the horological ball forward – which they consider a thrill, a responsibility and a point of pride.

Code 11.59 black

Even as it counts its money and works on new ways to keep the Royal Oak “fresh” – adding new complications, movements and materials – Audemars Piguet knows this. Hence the all new Code 11.59.

A watch with none of Genta’s disruptive genius. A timepiece that’s done little to establish the brand as a full line manufacturer like Rolex or Patek Philippe. Audemars Piguet is still the Royal Oak.

I view the Royal Oak ownership the same way I view Ferrari ownership: it’s something wealthy automobile enthusiasts have to go through. For some, Maranello’s magnificent machines remain a single-minded obsession. For others, they’re a stepping stone to better rides. Less obvious? More prestigious? No matter how you slice it, Ferrari ain’t complaining. Neither is Audemars Piguet.

11 COMMENTS

  1. They tell me this was a huge revolutionary thing. I have to trust that it was. Like classic rock, I’m not sure why there is this stubborn insistence on an alleged primacy of something that should just be another somewhat noteworthy piece of history.

    • ^ This. I get who Rolex is for (James Bond, Paul Newman, JFK), Omega (astronauts), G-Shock (musicians, directors, athletes), Zodiac (NAVY Seals), Tudor (La Royale), Tag Heur (Steve McQueen, Formula 1 drivers), and Patek Phillipe (Andy Warhol, Tom Wolfe[?]). I also get that watches are more than the celebrities or institutions that wore them, and that there was a genuine leap forward in terms of innovation and design with watches associated with these brands. Apart from the business saving design, who buys Royal Oak? Rich Uncle Pennybags and Lil Yachty?

  2. It’s an interesting quirk of pop culture that we deify some objects this way. And then this dance of rationalizing it as something other than “I wanted this particular object but not just so other people will immediately recognize it and respect/envy/desire me more for it.” The RO is a nice watch, but so nice? The Burberry trench coat is nice, but the only nice one? The Vuitton logo pattern is cool, but nice enough to justify its esteem in pop culture? Not buying it. It’s all posturing and preening and once you see it, it’s painful to watch…but you can’t look away. Hence great blogs like this.

  3. As long as the luxury steel sports watch is the thing to have the Royal Oak is always going to be the first and the best, with everything else a derivative also ran. Nothing has matched the brilliance of its case design, with screws locked in perfect alignment in the bezel, received by nuts that are torqued down through the caseback. The Nautilus and Aquanaut get by on the singular prestige of Patek, but everything else falls to the background as an “I could not get a Royal Oak or Nautilus” option. It is a problem for AP that the Royal Oak is such an unbeatable design, since they have themselves not been able to beat it.

    • I reckon that analysis – the RO is the Mack Daddy – assumes an informed perspective on watch design in general, horological history in particular.

      It’s a perspective typical of aficionados raised on HoDinkee-style hero worship horo-prop. Venn diagram-wise, there’s another, bigger circle outside that knowledgeable circle of watch buyers who aspire to RO ownership because everyone else aspires to it. The Grail Watch phemom. And then there are buyers who simply fall in love with it because it’s awesome.

      Meanwhile, as I mentioned in the article, the highest of the high horology set (money-wise) have well and truly moved on.

      The question I’ve tried to raise: are there watch guys and gals immune to the RO’s gravitas? Maybe because the RO isn’t as recognizable a status symbol as a Rolex (the stunt and floss set). Or maybe because the RO is like a Mercedes S Class: endlessly admirable but not that exciting? Especially as there are plenty of available-now luxury steel sports watches that are more . . . fun? Interesting? New?

      You’re right: the RO paved the way for the entire genre. It’s OG. But as AP’s designers and Richard Mille (blech!) know, you don’t get anywhere by standing still. I wonder what Genta would make of the 11.59, and what watch – if any – qualifies as the “new” RO?

  4. As long as they are “everywhere” on instagram, does it really matter? I rarely look at watches on insta, but when I do, my feed is basically wrist roll (obnoxious) of RO’s and Rolexes. Maybe so long as it always pops up on social media, maybe it won’t die? Maurice Lacroix does basically the same thing for less.

  5. “Meanwhile, as I mentioned in the article, the highest of the high horology set (money-wise) have well and truly moved on.” That is true, Lloyd Blankfein wears a Swatch.

    The closest thing to a successor to the Royal Oak in terms of brilliant design is the Bulgari Octo Finissimo. The steel version manages to be 100m water resistant while being 6.40 mm thick. And it is available at a reasonable price. Unfortunately Bulgari is not such a great name.

    • Lloyd Blankfein wears a cheap watch in public so that he doesn’t get blasted for being rich more than he already does. He definitely wears other things, just maybe not an RO

      • He does not hide his wealth, it is more of an FU, I don’t need to wear a fancy watch because you all know how rich I am.

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