The Birth of a Legend – The Origin Story Behind AP’s Royal Oak

It’s 1972, a year that saw the Watergate scandal, the introduction of NASA’s space shuttle program, and (closer to home) a company called Hamilton introducing the world’s first commercial electronic digital wristwatch. And on 15th April, in Basel Switzerland, another company was busy preparing for the birth of an icon that would write its own chapter in the history books!

At the 1972 annual Swiss Watch Show (later renamed Baselworld), Audemars Piguet introduced a luxury steel watch that would go on to adorn the wrists of some of today’s most famous and influential people, including Serna Williams, Will Smith, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Justin Bieber (sorry if we’ve just put you off with that last one). We are of course referring to the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak.

But before we get too far down the yellow brick road, lets turn back the clock to the early 1970s. AP, like most other Swiss watch manufacturers at the time, was in the midst of a financial crisis brought on by the Japanese Quartz invasion. The Swiss watch making industry was at a loss on how to stop the dramatic drop in sales.

In 1971 AP realised that they needed something big, something disruptive in order to stave off financial collapse. Based on some feedback received from the Italian market, the management team decided it was time to introduce something completely new, a luxury high end sports watch… made from steel.

Now when we think of stainless-steel sports watches today, the term brings to mind some of the hottest and most popular models in the market. But back in 1972, it hadn’t really been done before. The designer tasked with creating such a watch was Gerald Genta. Born in 1931 to an Italian father and Swiss mother, Genta had pedigree; having already designed watches such as the Omega Constellation and Patek Philippe’s Golden Ellipse. Now however, he was tasked with designing something that would either save AP… or sink it.

So, we know for sure that the Royal Oak was designed by Gerald Genta; and we can be fairly sure that on release in 1972, the Royal Oak became the world’s first luxury steel sports watch. However, due to numerous factual inaccuracies brought on by the vast quantities of articles written about Swiss watches, the rest of the story becomes a bit fuzzy.

Some say that on release the Royal Oak was a complete flop, taking around four years to sell its first 1,000 pieces. Recently though, records uncovered by AP’s now extensive archive team suggest that this was not the case at all. Of the 2000 original Ref 5402A’s produced in 1972, most had been sold by 1975. Furthermore, in the years that followed, AP went on to produce another 2,500 of the subsequent 5402 B, C and D references.

You may be thinking that 4,500 watches doesn’t seem like a lot compared to the roughly 40,000 watches made annually by AP today. But back in the early 1970s, AP was only making around 5,000 watches a year. Therefore making 4,500 Royal Oaks that they couldn’t sell would be the corporate equivalent of building a wind farm on the moon. Further confirmation of the Royal Oaks success comes from 1977, when the company started producing models in more expensive materials such and yellow and white gold.

Not only did this watch with the octagonal bezel keep AP afloat during the “quartz crisis”, it actually helped the company to grow at a time when thousands of other Swiss watch companies were going under. Ironically, research shows that one of the few markets that the Royal Oak could arguably have “flopped” was the Italian market, the market that had kickstarted the birth of this icon; with only half of the 400 pieces ordered being delivered.

Looking more at the original watch itself, Genta went onto describe it as the masterpiece of his career; a statement made even more profound by considering that he later went onto design the Patek Philippe Nautilus in 1976.

The octagonal shaped bezel, secured by eight visible hexagonal gold screws, and visible water resistance gasket were said to be inspired by the traditional diver’s helmet. The watch was a slender 7mm which was actually pretty large for the time and had a case diameter of 39mm. The watch was then completed with an integrated stainless-steel bracelet which is as famous as the octagonal bezel itself.

Interestingly, the original prototypes for the Royal Oak were made from white gold as precision machining of high-grade stainless steel was an extremely difficult and expensive process at the time. The movement chosen for the watch was the majestic self-winding Calibre 2121, which you can still find in today’s Royal Oak Jumbo ref. 15202.  This Calibre was based upon the AP Calibre 2120 with the addition of a date complication. A fact worth mentioning is that the Calibre 2120 was the result of a joint venture in 1967 between Jaeger-LeCoultre, AP, Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin, to create an ultra-thin automatic movement.

And the name, Royal Oak; where did this come from? Considering so much of the design was inspired by nautical themes, it was fitting that the name itself was nautical related. The name originated from a series of 8 ships (remember the bezel is octagonal) in the British Royal Navy, which in turn took their name from the ancient hollowed oak tree that King Charles II of England had hidden inside to escape the Roundheads during the English Civil War.

Over the following years AP has introduced many variations of the Royal Oak, including the Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar which, when introduced in 1981, was the thinnest of its kind. Impressively the craftmanship of this watch meant that the mechanical memory of this perpetual calendar took into account all calendar variations, including months and leap years, meaning that the watch needs no manual intervention until the year 2100 (long after Justin Bieber’s AP brings a new record for a watch at auction…).

A thought to finish on, of the original 2,000 A-series Royal Oaks produced in the 1970’s; most remain unaccounted for. So just in case you ever find one while rummaging through your grandad’s man draw, you will recognise it by the AP initials being placed above the 6 o’clock as opposed to at 12 o’clock on the subsequent models.

As with any great origin story, the details are often mysterious and not always agreed upon. But one thing that is surely unanimous, is that the Royal Oak’s story is deserving of those told through equally epic Hollywood blockbusters.