With the Royal Oak as one of the most desirable watches of our age and the solid expertise in haute horlogerie complications, there are hardly a few manufactures around to rival Audemars Piguet in terms of prestige and respect. Founded right in the heart of Vallée de Joux in the XIX century, the company is still family owned and still operating in the same village. 

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Not following the trends

Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet
Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet

Founded in 1875 by two master-watchmakers Jules-Louis Audemars and Edward-Auguste Piguet in Swiss Le Brassus, the company has aimed at producing exquisite timepieces with complications from day one. Astronomical complications, minute repeaters, chronographs, and, of course, perpetual calendars, – their expertise was really wide. During the next 10 years the brand has gained quite a reputation and started to produce movements or modules for others, in parallel to the regular fine watchmaking duties. Playing more or less its own game, Audemars Piguet has specialized in custom orders rather than traditional serial production. Believe it or not, but prior to mid XX century, there was no such thing as a regular model. So some historical highlights may seem a bit odd when put against their era. For example, in 1925 the company has made the world’s thinnest pocket watch, and around 1930 – a skeletonized pocket watch with perpetual calendar. As you can imagine, both pieces were stunning exemplars of watchmaking art, and both were totally out of the modern context next to booming wristwatches market.

Mastering the complications

Audemars Piguet Reference 5516, the first wristwatch with a leap year indication
Audemars Piguet Reference 5516, the first wristwatch with a leap year indication

Of course, this doesn’t mean there were no contemporary pieces coming out of Audemars Piguet workshops, but this never-ending bond with serious collectors, as well as the aptitude to go beyond the usual demand-and-supply philosophy, resulted in a rather unique business path and watchmaking mastery. For example, Audemars Piguet was the only manufacture aside from Patek Philippe to produce perpetual calendars all the way throughout the 20th century, including the very first wristwatch with a leap year indication in 1955. And even in the midst of the quartz crisis, the brand never seized the production of complicated mechanical watches. Well, one doesn’t become known as one of ‘The Holy Trinity’ for nothing. The same goes to tourbillon wristwatch, produced by Audemars Piguet in 1986, – the first ever piece to feature the tourbillon on the dial. Heavily inspired by the sun and called Ra like the Egyptian Sun God, it was a slim dressy piece with a rectangular case and rounded edges. In some sense, it can be credited for starting the modern trend, although the tourbillon was located in the upper-left corner of the dial instead of the now-common 6 or 12 o’clock.

The birth of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak

Nowadays we all seem to mainly associate Audemars Piguet with one particular collection. The funny thing is, in 1972 when Gerald Genta, the man soon to be known as the most significant watch designer of the era, has created the Royal Oak, the reaction was quite mixed. Yes, you heard it right, the ultimate luxury watch for the decades to come, seemed to break too many watchmaking rules at once. A bold stainless steel case, the octagonal bezel with eight trademark screws, the dial with a peculiar three-dimensional pattern, and a price tag comparable to some prestigious dressy pieces in gold, – it was totally over the top. However, thanks to its loud personality and the meticulous finishings, it not only proved to be the next big thing for a whole generation, but in time, has secured a significant place in pop culture. Start browsing the newsfeed, and you’ll likely see top athletes, musicians and businessmen wearing it as a material proof of the esteemed success in their field. Come on, there’s hardly a single rap album in the last 10 years, not mentioning the Royal Oak in the lyrics as part of the routine rap-peacocking.

Royal Oak Offshore: reimagining the legend

Fast forward to 1993. The young watch designer Emmanuel Gueit gets the mission to create a modern and youthful version of now 20 year-old Royal Oak and presents the Royal Oak Offshore. And again the instant reaction was rather mixed, including some serious beef by Genta himself, who claimed his vision and style were ruined. The watch became bigger, bolder, sportier. Even integrated bracelet – a star in its own right – was slightly re-imagined in favor of a 90s feel. What an outrage! Needless to say the Offshore’s path to a cult and then classic status was extremely short. 

Royal Oak Concept: pushing the limits

The very first Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Concept
The very first Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Concept

In 2002, on the thirtieth anniversary of Royal Oak, Audemars Piguet introduced the Royal Oak Concept with a more than daring futuristic design and an impressive price tag of around $250,000. With the case made of a trademark cobalt and chromium alloy, and the mechanical aspect going completely bonkers, the piece looked like a crazy sci-fi dreamwatch for a fictional megalomaniac. In addition to the main time and a tourbillon, there were several unique complications. The power reserve indicator used the unusual units of measurement – full revolutions of the barrel. Its distant relative, the world's first dynamograph, was meant to display the tension level of the mainspring.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Concept Laptimer Michael Schumacher
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Concept Laptimer Michael Schumacher

Until the pointer crosses the certain mark of the scale, you may not worry about the accuracy, but once the mark is crossed, the watch needs immediate winding. And as if it wasn’t enough, the engineers decided to add the crown position indicator right on the dial side. At first, the idea was to make a commemorative limited edition, but as we now know, the series went on and on, resulting in some of the brand’s biggest technical achievements like the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Concept Supersonnerie – the loudest repeater in the world; or the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Concept Laptimer Michael Schumacher – a crazy cool split chronograph on steroids.

There’s a lot more to Audemars Piguet than just Royal Oaks, in case you didn’t know

While the collections bearing the words ‘Royal Oak’ in the name do accumulate the major part of Audemars Piguet business, there’s definitely something for anyone here. Take the Millenary line with its modern dressy attitude and trademark asymmetrical dials, or Jules Audemars with its classical charm and some of the most prestige complications in the industry, or unbelievable high jewelry pieces like Diamond Fury or Diamond Outrage, set with thousands (no joking here) of diamonds or sapphires. 2019 was the year of another big inception – the Code 11.59. 13 references going all the way up from automatic three-handers and chronographs to perpetual calendars, tourbillons, and a minute repeater, were revealed at SIHH with a bang.

A closer look at the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore Chronograph with some military vibe

And again, just like 45 years ago it was an emotional rollercoaster. Seems like everyone was expecting something totally different, or maybe didn’t quite know what to expect in the first place. Some complained it was too similar to Royal Oak, others argued that there’s absolutely nothing Audemars about it, there were those disliked the dials, and those who disliked the cases, etc. By the end of the fair, the Code 11.59 collection was hands down the most discussed. Maybe it’s just that acquired-taste paradox again, but now half a year down the road, the angry voices have died out and the dust has totally settled. And we wouldn’t be that much surprised to witness some seriously growing appreciation in a year or two. You know, just like some 45 years ago.

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