If any watch is synonymous with Audemars Piguet, it’s surely the Royal Oak — which celebrates its Golden Jubilee this year. Even those with little interest in horology will know the collection and its skyrocketing demand, and may even have heard how the audacious Gerald Genta-designed timepiece made seismic waves in the watchmaking industry when it was first released in 1972.
It’s no secret the watch had controversial beginnings. Audemars Piguet’s then-managing director Georges Golay had instructed Genta to design a sports watch in stainless steel – a material unheard of at the brand – to keep pace with the era’s changing sensibilities. Genta complied in the span of one night, drawing inspiration from portholes and AP’s wild-child spirit to come up with the design we know today.
The industry’s best came together to create the watch – Stern Frères worked on the guilloché Petite Tapisserie dial, Favre & Perret put together the steel case and Gay Frères contributed the integrated steel bracelet. Inside, the watch was fitted with the Calibre 2121, then the world’s thinnest self-winding movement with a date indication.
Debuting in April 1972 at the Basel Fair, the watch was both loved and panned – and, with its 39mm case, it was immediately dubbed “Jumbo” despite a thickness of just 7.15mm. Indeed, it was the contrast between the watch’s perceived oversized diameter and its slimness that made it so iconoclastic and modern. Four years after the introduction of the 5402 (the Royal Oak’s first reference), the brand debuted a 29mm Royal Oak (ref 8638) for women, designed by Jacqueline Dimier, while the later 35mm intermediate model (ref 4100) rounded out the Royal Oak offerings.
It was now becoming a true collection. In the 1980s, it reflected the decade’s glorious excess by exploring new possibilities in sizes and materials. White-gold, yellow- gold and two-tone models were joined by versions in platinum and pink gold, often accompanied by gem-set dials or bezels. And though the brand dabbled with quartz technology, it did so while also reviving classic complications. This was the period when the Royal Oak became enriched with calendar functions, from the Day Date to moon phases and, eventually, the release of the ref 5554, which was equipped with the world’s thinnest self-winding perpetual-calendar movement, the Calibre 2120.
That ushered in a new era of reinvention and opened the doors to a new decade of extremes. By the 1990s, the Royal Oak took even more radical turns. The Royal Oak Offshore, designed by Emmanuel Gueit, was launched in 1993 in the then-beastly size of 42mm.
More complications joined the family: in 1997, during the watch’s 25th anniversary, the Royal Oak Tourbillon, the first Royal Oak Chronograph and the first Royal Oak Grande Complication made their debut.
Stepping into the new millennium, the Royal Oak Concept of 2002 and the Royal Oak Tradition d’Excellence No 4 in 2004 reflected the noughties’ avant-garde spirit and futuristic underpinnings. The 2000s also heralded a new direction for the brand through the relationships it was building with athletes and ambassadors. The era of collaborations had begun.
But it was the 2010s that marked a turning point in the Jumbo’s history. The 15202 of 2000 was the first Royal Oak to play with the original Jumbo codes, but to mark the Royal Oak’s 40th anniversary in 2012, Audemars Piguet released a version of the 15202 that was completely faithful to the original 5402: a 39mm size with the AP monogram at 6 o’clock, the Petite Tapisserie motif and Bleu Nuit, Nuage 50 colour. The move set the watch world on fire, with the Jumbo’s renewed popularity setting in motion several decisions within AP to further elevate the model. The Grande Tapisserie variants of the 15202 disappeared from the catalogues in 2014 and the 15202 became the only 39mm model in the collection.
That decade also marked a period of pure refinement and technical mastery for Audemars Piguet. Upholding its reputation as a master maker of complicated wristwatches, AP launched the Royal Oak Double Balance Wheel Openworked in 2016, with a patented mechanism that was as complex as it was beautiful to look at. 2018 saw yet another breakthrough, with the Royal Oak Selfwinding Perpetual Calendar Ultra-Thin, also known as RD#2 (RD#1 was in the Royal Oak Concept line), which broke records as the world’s thinnest automatic perpetual calendar wristwatch.
And so, what does 2022 bring? Paying tribute to 50 years of unwavering innovation, AP has already kicked things off with a new generation of Jumbo models, the ref 16202 that’s powered by a new selfwinding extra-thin movement, Calibre 7121, replacing the Calibre 2121 that’s been at the heart of the Jumbo since 1972.
But it wouldn’t be Audemars Piguet if it didn’t kick things up a notch. The 50th anniversary of the Royal Oak also marks the introduction of the Royal Oak Extra-Thin Selfwinding Flying Tourbillon – the first time the maison has equipped its 39mm Jumbo with a flying-tourbillon complication.
The stainless-steel case is complemented with a Petite Tapisserie dial in the Bleu Nuit, Nuage 50 hue, with a printed Audemars Piguet signature at 12 o’clock. The Calibre 2968 beats within – a technical challenge, as the team had to combine a self-winding mechanism with a flying tourbillon without altering the 39mm Jumbo’s proportions. AP’s tourbillon cage design on existing 41mm models had to be completely rethought, but the team solved it – the development of a self-winding flying tourbillon movement only 3.4mm in height earns the new watch the title of RD#3.
And those aren’t the only surprises AP has in store for us this year. In the works already is an additional Royal Oak Extra-Thin Selfwinding Flying Tourbillon in 37mm that will complement this 39mm model. Audemars Piguet knows we’re hungry for more – and at the age of 50, the Royal Oak is reaching peak performance. We just need to be patient.
This story first appeared on Prestige Hong Kong