To most outside the watch community, Audemars Piguet could seem to be somewhat of a dark horse, appearing from the background but responsible for one of today’s ‘hype’ watches, as we often call them. Along with the Rolex Daytona and the Patek Philippe Nautilus, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak is one of the three most famous, and sought-after, watches of the moment. The history of the Royal Oak, and of the Audemars Piguet brand, are fascinating. A look at these is very timely given that 2022 is the 50th anniversary year of the release of the Royal Oak, their most successful watch to date. We were delighted to offer one of the original 2000 Royal Oak watches made in 1972 in our March 2022 auction of Select Watches, where it achieved an impressive £106,250*.
Audemars Piguet may not quite be a household name but they reported a turnover of over one billion Euros in 2020 and are on track to hit 1.5 billion euros this year, producing around 40,000 watches annually. The company is independent, which is relatively unusual in the watch world today. Unlike many larger brands including Omega, IWC, Jaeger-leCoultre and Longines, the company is also family-owned.
The brand was founded in Le Brassus, Switzerland, in 1875 by Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet. Already watchmakers by trade, initially they worked solely on creating quality, often complicated, movements. Significantly, they did so by hand, despite increasing mechanisation of the industry at home, and significantly in the USA. By the 20th century, Jules and Edward had begun to co-ordinate the production of complete watches by bringing together the component parts from a number of local sources.
Like many of the most prestigious Swiss brands, AP boasts a number of technical innovations in its history. They are credited with making the first jump hour wrist watch in the 1920s and the first skeletonised watch in the 1930s. In the 1940s they produced the world’s slimmest watch, with a movement of only 2.45mm. They continued to create technically-superior slim movements through the late 20th century and the 1950s and 1960s saw them follow industry trends, creating many of what we now refer to as ‘dress’ watches.
That brings us to the Royal Oak, but how does it? If we know one thing about this undeniably iconic wrist watch, it is that it broke with all traditions, within AP and beyond. Taking a step back and looking at a simplified timeline, the Royal Oak is not a culmination or crescendo to all that came before it in terms of its design, materials or price point. AP’s previous watches lend just a little to the appearance of the Royal Oak. We can, for example, note that many of the brand’s watches from the 1960s feature baton hour markers and a slim case profile (thanks to those impressive movements.) These predecessors, including many ‘Ultra Thin’ models fit nicely into the ‘fashionable’ watches available from all brands at the time; simple dials housed in gold (mostly round) cases, on dark leather straps. So where did the Royal Oak come from?
The answer lies in the wider situation within the watch world as a whole: the Quartz Crisis. In the late 1960s, new technology from Japan lead to the mass production of inexpensive, battery-powered, or quartz, wrist watches. Robust in their simplicity, and affordable, the Quartz Crisis when viewed through the eyes of the consumer at the time, is not really a crisis at all. We can call it a democratisation of watches, a revolution; they were now available to all, at a variety of prices, and many could now have multiple watches, should they choose to.
For countless traditional watchmaking firms, this revolution was of course catastrophic. Many folded but many firms ploughed on, knowing that their more expensive mechanical watches offered something completely different to the perhaps more traditional or discerning consumer. Many also began to offer quartz models alongside mechanical ones, even Rolex had their Oysterquartz (released in 1970.)
AP’s managing director of the time, Georges Golay’s response was to offer something that was truly revolutionary, the Royal Oak 5402, created by a designer whose influence on watch design in the 20th century is second to none. In 1972, they released this larger-cased (39mm) steel sports watch with a super slim movement, one that was more expensive than their staple gold watches. Gerald Genta (1931-2011) was the Swiss watch designer responsible. In his career he worked with brands including Omega, IWC and Patek Philippe. Not only is he responsible for the AP Royal Oak (inspired he said, by a traditional diver’s helmet) he also designed another of the top three most coveted watches of today, mentioned earlier – the Patek Philippe Nautilus.
AP, and Genta, did not invent a whole new genre of timepieces, and yet the Royal Oak is often referred to as the ‘first luxury sports watch.’ Among others, brands including Rolex had been making sports or tool watches since the 1950s – the GMT Master, Submariner and so on. (A sports watch is one with a purpose, used for diving or car racing and so on.) With design driven by purpose however, those watches were bound to elements including their coloured bezels (for timing or calculations) and very legible dials (to be seen in the dark.) The Royal Oak, when viewed in this wider context, really is something different then. The word ‘luxury’ here is key; quite the juxtaposition with ‘sports’ or ‘tool.’
Firstly, the tapisserie dial, or watch face, has quite the unique appearance for a watch at the time (and even now.) Made by dial specialists Stern for AP, it is textured in form and is created by engraving a brass disc to form raised pyramidal squares. The disc is then painted to the desired colour. Going further than this that iconic bezel. The bezel (the section of metal acting as a border to the glass) is octagonal, a striking shape in what was a world of otherwise round sports watches. It is the single feature that makes the Royal Oak so recognisable across a room, and the industry. The bezel features hexagonal screwheads, eight in total, and although these are not ‘screws’ in the strictest sense (a hexagonal shape cannot be screwed into a hexagonal hole; there’s no scope for movement) they are in fact structurally integral to the case itself – they are not just decorative.
The bracelet also marked a departure from the norm. Steel bracelets had been a stalwart of the sports watch since their invention; leather straps could not be used - water, sweat and punishing activities do not do the material any favours. However, unlike Rolex’s Oyster bracelet that we see on watches including the Submariner for example, the Royal Oak bracelet is more complex, detailed and beautiful, again it is luxurious in its complexity. The additional detail in comparison to its peers are the two rows of rounded-rectangular links that run perpendicular to the main tapered rectangular structural links running horizontally from the case. Like the screws to the bezel, these play an aesthetic and practical role, they link the main bracelet sections together and allow it to sit snug to the wrist, and they add an element to the watch that play a part in making it the unmistakable piece that it is, even at a glance. In unerring dedication to quality, AP turned to highly-skilled bracelet makers Gay Freres for production of this unique strap.
The movement in the first Royal Oak is of course a very slim, automatic one, and named the 2121 by AP. This superior movement was the result of a collaboration between Jaeger-leCoultre and AP, with the financial support from AP, Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe.
It is not clear how successful the watch was initially, commentary differs across sources, but we know that after its first run of 2000 watches in 1972, there were around 2500 more made in the following five years. In 1977, the company released the Royal Oak in yellow gold, white gold and bi-colour options and during the late 1970s and early 1980s, the company increased their output and workforce, while other companies were going under (thank you Quartz Crisis…) The following decades saw the Royal Oak evolve, with new metals and case sizes, and, in the 1990s, a new model in variation on the original – the Royal Oak Offshore, was introduced.
Today, well what can we say, all the superlatives apply – as we have noted, the watch, whether new or vintage, is one of the most sought-after in the world. In the last four years, prices for examples that come from the inaugural first 2000 pieces have soared dramatically. Phillips, who have sold several during this time, posted results that increased by tens of thousands of pounds with each passing year. We must note that condition, ‘completeness’ and provenance affect prices realised for these pieces, so comparing results from year to year is not an exact science, but nonetheless, the trend is there.
In its 50th anniversary year, the Royal Oak, and indeed Audemars Piguet as a brand, show no signs of slowing or retreat. To celebrate this milestone in watchmaking history, in January of this year we saw the release of a number of new watches. Each produced in this anniversary year will have an exhibition caseback, and be marked “50 years.” One, the Royal Oak Jumbo 16202ST, features a new movement (still Extra-Thin.) This is the first new movement to grace a Royal Oak since 1972, and a move away from that original 2121 calibre that was a collaborative triumph. The movement, named the 7121, boasts a better power reserve and a quick set date function. It is also a fully in-house production, something that is sure to delight collectors. We have also seen a rose gold-cased skeletonised Royal Oak, with movement visible through the dial, the 16204, which is as striking as it sounds, along with several other models with updates and tweaks to design that improve comfort, look and longevity of features including the dial.
Lyon & Turnbull’s Select Watches auction on 30th March featured one of the original 2000 Royal Oak watches made in 1972, these are referred to as ‘A-series’ pieces. It featured the number ‘A-1485’ to the caseback, meaning quite simply that it is the 1485th production Royal Oak to have been made. Although the vendor wished to remain anonymous, we can share that this watch belonged to his father and it was his favourite piece among his small collection. A keen watch collector, his enthusiasm lead to him to acquire pieces from Omega, Heuer and of course, AP. A German native, he was a butcher by trade who inherited his father’s business in the 1960’s and watched it grow. The vendor recalls his father a ‘hands on’ boss, one who was usually there before any of the workers, and left after the last had gone home. The fruits of his labours went beyond just watches and he was a keen and experienced amateur pilot.
The Royal Oak in question, which achieved £106,250* was surely on the wishlist of many. Coveted, early, in great condition, and with a fantastic biography of ownership too, it went on to attract bids across telephone, internet and commission bids from around the world in our Spring sale.
We are now inviting entries for our June Watches and October Select Watches sale. For a free auction valuation, please contact Sarah Fergusson, firstname.lastname@example.org, 0141 333 1992.
Lyon & Turnbull’s Watch Auctions department is a dynamic one with significant expertise, hosting diverse watch auctions featuring fine, rare, modern and vintage timepieces.
Watches are sold in our Select Watches auctions that take place in London gallery and along with jewellery at our prestigious Edinburgh salerooms. These two focused categories allow us to place your timepieces into the auction context that will be the most profitable for you as a vendor.
Watches are marketed alongside other sales including contemporary art, whisky and, of course, jewellery, ensuring maximum exposure for all. Our watch collections are amongst the most well-travelled of the goods we sell – we have in the past viewed collections in New York, Philadelphia, Hong Kong and throughout the UK including London, Edinburgh and Glasgow - maximising viewers and competition.