Audemars Piguet Royal Oak – The Watch That Saved The Brand

‘One afternoon, at four o’clock, Mr Georges Golay, the Managing Director of Audemars Piguet, rings me up and tells me: “Mr Genta, I need a steel sports watch that has never been done before. I want it to be something totally new and waterproof [and] I want the design by tomorrow morning.” I designed it over night.’ – Gerald Genta.

The Quartz Crisis

During World War II, Switzerland was neutral. This neutrality enabled the Swiss watch industry to manufacture watches for consumers while the rest of the world shifted production to timepieces and measurement instruments for military use. Having created a monopoly, the industry boomed and mechanical watches were being produced in their thousands. A decade later Max Hetzel, a Swiss engineer, developed a watch which used an electrically charged tuning fork powered by a battery. The tuning fork resonated at 360Hz and powered the hands via an electro-mechanical gear train. It was called the “Accutron” and was marketed by Bulova from 1960 onwards. Although not the same as a quartz watch, the Accutron was a catalyst for the development of “modern” timekeeping technology with brands like Seiko, Patek Philippe, and Omega competing to develop the first electronic wristwatch. In 1962 the Centre Electronique Horloger (CEH) was established in Neuchâtel to enable Swiss brands to work together and develop quartz movements to combat increasing pressure from Japanese manufacturers. This didn’t prevent Seiko from unveiling the worlds first quartz watch, the Astron, on 25th December 1969. This marked the beginning of the quartz revolution and within the next couple of years, the Swiss mechanical watch industry was in serious trouble.

Audemars Piguet 

Audemars Piguet is one of Switzerlands finest high-end independent manufacturers and a member of the horological “Holy Trinity” along with Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin. Founded in 1875 by two childhood friends Jules Audemars and Edward Piguet. Both were from the farming community in the Swiss Vallee du Joux, a region with an established horological background built by agricultural workers turning their hands to watchmaking during winter when the land in the valley wasn’t providing income due to heavy snow. Audemars was highly technical and specialised in the production of complex movements and Piguet was adept at finishing, final adjustments, and casing. As the pairing evolved, Piguet became passionate about sales and marketing so took over that role as the company grew and released absolute mechanical innovations such as the first minute repeater wristwatch in 1892 and the “Grand (7) Complication” pocket watch in 1899.

When the founders passed away in 1918 and 1919 respectively, the company was passed to their sons who carried on the family tradition of high calibre watchmaking and innovation such as the first skeletonized wristwatch in 1934 and the worlds thinnest wristwatch in 1946. Despite being one of the greats, AP found itself struggling to stay both relevant, and afloat, when the quartz crisis hit.

They needed something different.

Gerald Genta (1931-2011) 

A freelance watch designer who would later achieve “legend” status as far as modern horology is concerned. Genta designed amongst others the Universal Geneve Polerouter (1955), the Omega Constellation (1959), the Patek Philippe Golden Elipse (1968) and Nautilus (1974).

In 1971 he received a phone call: ‘One afternoon, at four o’clock, Mr Georges Golay, the Managing Director of Audemars Piguet, rings me up and tells me: “Mr Genta, I need a steel sports watch that has never been done before. I want it to be something totally new and waterproof [and] I want the design by tomorrow morning.” I designed it over night and my idea was to replicate the system of the (diving) scaphander helmet on the watch case. With the eight screws and with the joint visible on the case’s exterior. So I was given the ‘green light’ straight away to begin work on the prototype. I completed the prototype myself within a year. In 1970, I designed the watch. And it took one more year before industrial production, which finally came about in 1972.”

The diving helmet which influenced the bezel design of the Royal Oak.

Original design sketch and the Royal Oak (reference 5402) in the metal.

Genta also designed the presentation box.

Georges Golay, the commissioner, wearing his R.O.

This revolutionary 39mm “jumbo” sized watch with its integrated bracelet, visible gasket and strange bezel was a complete gamble on the part of Audemars Piguet. The Swiss industry was on its knees due to accurate and cheap battery powered watches taking over from “obsolete” mechanical technology and the price of the Royal Oak was the highest ever seen for a steel watch soaring far above gold Rolex and Patek. It was released at 3,750 Swiss Francs.

To put that into the context of the era – you could buy 12 Rolex Submariners with change left over for the cost of a single Royal Oak. 

Audemars Piguet made 1000 units and it launched at the Basel watch fair in 1972. The Royal Oak was received well, on the face of it, with applause for the innovative design and assembly, the beautiful finishing of steel, the engine turned tapisserie of the dial and the “bravery” of a brand new aesthetic. Behind the scenes however, detractors and competitors were gleefully announcing the brand suicide of Audemars Piguet. The watch, initially, was not a hit.

Seventies Social Media

The fortune of Audemars Piguet and the Royal Oak were changed overnight by Gianni Agnelli, a phenomenally wealthy Italian socialite, playboy, and style icon.

Agnelli with Jackie Kennedy.

Once Agnelli had been spotted wearing the Royal Oak, its celebrity soared and watches from the initial batch of 1000 sold with unprecedented speed to the Shah of Iran, Prince Michael of Kent and King Juan Carlos of Spain. The explosion of interest that followed the Royal Oak being worn by these social influencers of the 70s prompted AP to commission another thousand pieces.

The watch that was expected to sound the death toll for Audemars Piguet was singlehandedly responsible for its resurrection.

The Royal Oak is still the flagship of Audemars Piguet and has remained true to Genta’s vision. Its design has been joined over the years by chronograph, perpetual calendar, openworked, and tourbillon models as well as the larger Offshore line. You can find the perfect Royal Oak to suit your style at Official Watches.