When Audemars Piguet unveiled the first Royal Oak at the Baselworld fair in 1972, the late Gerald Genta’s visionary design met with consternation. “It was a bit of a shock for the establishment,” explains the brand’s design director, Octavio Garcia, who references the watch’s massive size, integrated bracelet, sporty sensibility, and extra-flat profile. “On top of all that, it was made of steel and finished like a noble material.” It was also royally priced. The brand expected the model to be a limited edition of a few hundred pieces, but the Italian market quickly embraced the modern design, others followed, and it was put into production. This year, the brand’s flagship collection celebrates its 40th anniversary with eight new models and a commemorative exhibition that will run from March 21 through 24, 2012, in New York City, after which it will travel to Milan, Paris, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore and Dubai. Audemars tapped artists Sebastien Leon Agneessens, Quayola, and Dan Holdsworth to create an original Royal Oak experience using design, photography, sound, and film to transport visitors to the home of Audemars Piguet in Switzerland’s Vallée de Joux, the country’s haute horlogerie capital. The diplay will showcase dozens of significant Royal Oaks, including the one that started it all: The Jumbo.
“Royal Oak transformed the company,” says Garcia. “It shifted the attention of the company into design, and it put design on the map in the high-watchmaking market. Before that, most high-end watch companies were only concerned with mechanical concepts. The Royal Oak changed that mentality in many ways.”
Highlights of the 2012 lineup include eight new models, including four extra-thin watches, two of which are open-worked and limited to 40 pieces in platinum. The Openworked Extra-Thin Royal Oak and the The Openworked Extra-Thin Royal Oak Tourbillon carry on Audemars Piguet’s 70-year tradition in skeleton watches. “The fact that they are so slim is quite a statement of technical prowess,” explains Garcia. “The more material you take off a movement, it changes the behavior of certain bridges and stress points.” Another unusual feature of the Openworked Extra-Thin Royal Oak is a date function, not often seen in a skeleton watch because the date disc obscures the movement. Audemars solved the issue by using a clear sapphire disc with the numbers printed around the perimeter to provide an unimpeded view of the mechanism. The extra-flat manual-wind tourbillon with power reserve is powered by an exclusive caliber by Renaud et Papi, Audemars’ development facility in Le Locle.
The core collection was also revisited with a range of anniversary year models. Some of the subtle changes include a redesigned dial that takes its styling cues from the original Jumbo but with a more contemporary approach. For example, the indexes have been faceted to make them shinier, a new triple folding clasp enhances comfort, and the characteristic engraved tapisserie pattern has been enhanced to make it more visible.
“When Genta designed the Royal Oak in ’72, he really outdid himself,” says Garcia. “It’s such a perfect, timeless design in every aspect—from the way it’s finished and proportioned to the way it’s a statement piece and unmistakably recognizable. That’s why it has such a long-lasting effect. It’s 40 years old, and it is still one of the most modern watches around.”