In the 1970s, Audemars Piguet (AP) were in trouble, along with most mechanical watchmakers. The Quartz Crisis was in full swing as Japanese watchmakers produced much cheaper and more accurate timepieces that became very popular. During this time, around 1,000 Swiss watchmakers had to close their doors, but AP was one of the few Swiss watchmakers that managed to see growth and it was all thanks to the Royal Oak.
The Royal Oak was designed by acclaimed Swiss industrial designer, Gérald Genta, (the man behind the Patek Philippe Nautilus and Omega Constellation amongst others) who managed to create the design overnight.
The way Genta tells it, AP’s then managing director, Georges Golay, called him up on the phone at 4pm on April 10th, 1971, the night before the annual Swiss Watch Show (now known as BaselWorld).
Recounting the conversation, Golay told Genta, “… We have a distribution company that has asked us for a steel sports watch that has never been done before – and I need the design sketch for tomorrow morning.”
The distribution was the Italian conglomerate, Société Suisse pour l’Industrie Horlogère (SSIH), who wanted to help expand AP’s reach. In fact, it was three executives at SSIH who came up with the idea of a “high prestige timepiece in steel.”
Thus, in one night, Genta had designed the Royal Oak that would make its debut at the 1972 Swiss Watch Show.
Designing The First Royal Oak
The design of the Royal Oak was unique for the time. It shifted away from the traditional round shape of its contemporaries in favour of a tonneau-shaped case with an octagonal bezel adorned with eight screws supposedly inspired by a deep-sea diver helmet.
“I incorrectly understood him [Golay] to have said, ‘… whose water resistance has never been done before…’ Genta explained. “I remembered as a child having seen a diver being fitted with a helmet on Geneva’s Pont de la Machine. I was very impressed when I saw the eight bolts and the rubber seal designed to protect a person’s life underwater.”
The eight exposed octagonal screws along the bezel are an iconic part of the Royal Oak’s design, but AP archivists found that there are no diving helmets with an octagonal faceplate and eight-bolts and so believe the “octagonal shape definitely stems from another source.” They put forth the theory that it originated from an octagonal parcel weighing machine in the former AP Geneva office. This hasn’t been confirmed and feels lacking as an explanation, and so we may never know the truth.
The name was also nautical in its inspiration. Royal Oak was the name of a series of eight vessels in the British Royal Navy who in turn took their name from the ancient, hollowed oak tree that King Charles II of England was said to have hidden inside to escape the Roundheads (supporters of Parliament) after the Battle of Worcester in 1651, during the English Civil War.
Fun fact, this watch was so revolutionary for the time that the first prototypes were done in white gold because machining pieces of steel to Genta’s specifications was incredibly difficult and expensive at the time. The cost simply couldn’t be justified for a prototype.
The Royal Oak “A-Series” Ref. 5402ST
The first Royal Oak was limited to 1,000 pieces originally and was known as the “A-Series”, though AP would launch another 1,000 in the series before developing the B, C, and D series.
The A-series had a 39mm stainless steel case (a huge size for the time) and was only 7mm thick. The dial was done in a petite tapisserie motif. But the thing that really separates the A-series from modern APs was the “AP” initials above 6 o’clock rather than 12 o’clock.
It featured an integrated steel bracelet made of 154 components in 34 sizes that was very difficult to manufacture. Famed bracelet specialists, Gay Freres, found it so difficult that they couldn’t fulfil the order, so other manufacturing firms had to be brought onboard.
The A-series was also the introduction of the in-house self-winding Calibre 2121. This movement had excellent precision and shock resistance. It was based on APs Calibre 2120 from 1967, which itself was part of a project jointly funded by AP, Patek Philippe, and Vacheron Constantin and led by Jaeger-LeCoultre. This project saw JLC create the ultra-thin Calibre 920 which the other three companies customised to their own needs. This is the same movement the Nautilus’ Calibre 28-255C was based on, as well as Vacheron Constantin’s Calibre 1120 that powered the 222.
Not an Immediate Hit or AP’s Saviour?
As legend has it, the Royal Oak was not an immediate hit. It looked weird and cost far more than a Rolex Submariner or even gold dress watches from Patek Philippe at 3,300 Swiss Francs. It took over a year (some allege four years) to sell all 1,000 of the original pieces by enthusiasts and collectors which led it to be a success after a time.
The problem with that is that it isn’t true.
AP archivists have recently found that the Royal Oak wasn’t a flop at all. Speaking to GQ, AP’s heritage and museum director, Sebastian Vivas, said, “Recently, we found new documents that help us build the picture of the Royal Oak’s early years.”
They found that by 1975, AP had sold all 2,000 A-Series pieces. They then went to sell a further 2,500 of the B, C, and D series in the years that followed.
It’s important to understand that in the early 1970s, AP was only making 5,000 watches a year so being able to sell a fifth of their entire yearly production can hardly be called a flop. It wouldn’t have been a responsible business decision to create 4,500 Royal Oak A-series if they didn’t know whether they would sell. As it turned out, they would.
Documentation rediscovered by archivists showed that AP actually grew in the 70s while other Swiss watchmakers shrank or disappeared altogether. Between 1974 and 1984, production at AP increased from 9,500 pieces a year to 11,000. However, by 1977 it was abundantly clear that the Royal Oak was a hit as the brand created several different models in the line as production grew.
Where did the idea that the Royal Oak was a flop come from? Vivas believes it may have came from Genta himself.
“Oral sources, including from Mr Genta, confirm that the first Royal Oak request came from the Italian market and that it ordered 400 pieces,” Vivas explained.
“Interestingly, the most recent research indicates that less than half of those were delivered. This lack of success seems to confirm Mr Genta’s affirmation. However, it appears that in most of the other markets, the revolutionary Royal Oak was a big hit.”
Not only was it a hit, the Royal Oak saved the company during the Quartz Crisis and became an icon in watchmaking along the way. Today it feels like AP make nothing other than Royal Oaks, but that is a testament to their staying power and reminds us just how revolutionary this was at the time. Genta would call it his magnum opus years later for a reason.