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"Montre Icône" Royal Oak, Audemars Piguet (2013 - 2014)
from 5/24/2013 to 3/30/2014


- 1.a/I An industry in crisis!

In the 1970s it seemed that the traditional mechanical watch was about to disappear, unless it could hold its own against the quartz watch!

The oil crisis erupted after a decade of freedom and reconstruction. In the new era, the focus was more on restraint and discretion. Moreover a technical revolution brought quartz to the forefront of the watch industry. In this area, the Japanese and Americans had industries that were already well-established. Also, the fashion was for small watches. In Italy, men wore ladies’ models.

- 1a/II A risky concept:

Royal Oak, the first luxury watch made of steel!
A desperate gamble to ensure the survival of a firm and an entire industry!

The idea was to create an object that was both sporty and refined, two adjectives which until then had been poles apart. The Royal Oak, though made of steel, was to cost more than a gold watch! Its movement was to be mechanical and one of the flattest in the world. Its case, industrial-looking with its eight screws, was to be water-resistant and attractive to wealthy buyers. In 1972, this was a completely new and avant-garde concept. A stroke of genius? Or an enterprise doomed to failure?
Rejecting the shape, technology, materials and size of watches of the period, the Royal Oak ran counter to every trend of the day. Some observers wasted no time in writing off its chances. For George Golay, director of the firm Audemars Piguet in Le Brassus, the launch of the Royal Oak was a bold but risky gamble.

- 1.a/III Gerald Genta

Gerald Genta designed the Royal Oak and gave a voice to watch design. He was to watchmaking what Sergio Pininfarina was to the car industry!

Of Swiss-Italian descent, Gérald Genta (1931-2011) studied at the School of Decorative Arts in Geneva, from where he graduated in 1951 with a jeweller’s diploma. He is considered, and considered himself, to be the forerunner of the profession of “watch stylist”, referred to more commonly today as “designer”. He created many emblematic models for the most prestigious watch brands.
Gerald Genta drew inspiration from his childhood in Geneva to design the Royal Oak. From the Pont de la Machine, he would watch divers having their helmets fitted before being lowered to work on the dam across the River Rhône, impressed by the fact that eight bolts and a rubber seal could protect someone’s life under water. Legend has it that Gerald Genta completed his design in a single night.


- 1.a/IV The name Royal Oak

Carlo De Marchi suggested the name “Royal Oak”. With its connotations of royalty and strength, this name set the tone for the watch by describing it as something truly exceptional!
Did you know that the “Royal Oak” is a famous tree in England?

In 1971, on the eve of the world’s largest watch exhibition in Basel, Carlo De Marchi, the Italian distributor of Audemars Piguet, expected to hear news of a modern, versatile watch for the Italian market. Seeing the designs for this new watch, the Italian agent suggested it should be called “Royal Oak”.
Originally the Royal Oak was a tree that became famous as the hiding place of the heir to the English throne, Charles II. In 1649, the latter fled to France to escape the Republican soldiers of Oliver Cromwell, who wished to put an end to the monarchy. The story of this oak is now enshrined in English history. Several ships of the Royal Navy took the name “HMS Royal Oak” between 1664 and 1939. The last three were battleships with a steel-lined wooden hull!

- 1.a/V On the path to success…

In 1974, Giovanni Agnelli, the CEO of FIAT, appeared in public wearing a Royal Oak on his wrist. The Joux Valley watch manufacturer was quickly elevated into the ranks of leading luxury brands.

A year was needed to make the prototypes. The final version was launched in Basel in 1972. It was produced in a limited edition of 1,000 pieces, divided essentially between the Swiss and Italian markets. The edition sold out, but only just. A steel watch ran counter to everything designed until then and did little for the brand image.
In 1974, the Italian captain of industry Giovanni Agnelli appeared in public wearing a Royal Oak. From that day forward, the watch went on to achieve unprecedented success.
With time, this atypical watch firmly established itself and changed the entire watchmaking landscape.

- 1.a/VI Revolution of codes

The Royal Oak placed steel on a par with gold and thereby revolutionized the codes of fashion and luxury.

Treated as a precious metal, the steel of the Royal Oak acquired the qualities of gold in terms of image, stripping away preconceived notions of luxury and putting new ones in their place.
This upmarket positioning also brought large watches back into fashion, even though the Royal Oak is relatively small compared to the watches of today. Indeed in the 16th century the watch was a ceremonial object used as an item of apparel. Such objects were the preserve of the elite of society. With time its popularity spread and the watch became a more everyday object. The revival of horological engineering epitomized by the Royal Oak saw the return to favour of the large ceremonial watch, a jewel with masculine connotations.

- 1.a/VII Revival of an industry

Henceforth luxury was no longer defined by precious materials, but by the expertise of generations of Joux Valley craftsmen!

Steel is stronger and more difficult to work than gold. However, the case of the Royal Oak was given a decorative finish reserved hitherto for precious metals. Its automatic movement is one of the flattest in the world in its category. Its central rotor, manufactured from 21-carat gold, vindicated the slogan: “Steel outside, gold inside”.
Its price was on a par with its size, making it the most expensive steel sports watch ever sold.
With the Royal Oak, precious materials were no longer the sole guarantors of luxury. Henceforth workmanship, finish and expertise became important criteria of luxury. This development restored value to the work of traditional watchmakers and breathed new life into an industry that had been established for several centuries in the Joux Valley.

- 2.a/I Decoration

Did you know?
Stainless-steel is an iron-carbon-chrome alloy. The steel used for the Royal Oak contains a minimum of 10.5% chrome and less than 2% carbon.
The watch industry was not accustomed to working with steel. The technical question on everyone’s lips when the Royal Oak was launched concerned the types of finish that could be applied to the watch. The hardness of the material compared to gold made experimentation difficult for watchmakers. Eventually, a satisfactory appearance was obtained through a combination of brushing the entire surface of the bezel and bracelet links, and polishing chamfered angles.

While the great majority of watch cases are in three parts (bezel, caseband and case-back), that of the Royal Oak more closely resembles a monobloc case. It has only two parts, with improved water-resistance attributable to the addition of a rubber gasket.
The Royal Oak can be identified by its octagonal bezel reminiscent of a diver’s’ helmet. This bezel is secured by eight hexagon head cap screws. The male screw head is recessed in the bezel and tightened by means of a nut accessible through the case-back.
The nickel silver dial (alloy of copper, zinc and nickel) is decorated with a “tapestry” motif engine-turned by the dial-maker Roland Tille. The rose engine is an old engraving machine that uses a disc called a rosette, which carries the enlarged motif. A graver traverses the disc from its edge to its centre in a synchronised rotational movement, thereby engraving the dial, which is composed of small blocks separated by a regular criss-cross pattern of grooves. The quality of the work is dictated by the precision of the engraver and the pressure applied to the graver. The rough aspect of the engine-turned dial results from a coating of semi-mat lacquer applied to the cobalt-blue colour brought out by pre-firing. The dial has “bathtub” (recessed) hour symbols and hands, allowing luminescent tritium to be poured rather than applied. The inscriptions are transferred by hand then fixed by firing. A flat sapphire crystal protects the dial.
The bracelet is integrated in the case, with intermediate links arranged in decreasing order of size. Because of this tapered graduation, none of the links have the same dimensions. The hardness of steel again makes work difficult. For this reason, work by hand remains indispensable.

- 2.a/II The movement

The case contains an extra-flat mechanical movement. The 2121 calibre has a height of 3.05 mm. It is a self-winding movement showing the date through an aperture. The 21-carat gold oscillating weight turns in both directions to offer optimal winding power.
Over the years, the Royal Oak became available in different models and the classic Royal Oak movement was refined by additional mechanisms, including the tourbillon, perpetual calendar, split-seconds chronograph and minute repeater, transforming the Royal Oak into a watch with complications, a speciality of the firm Audemars Piguet and of Joux Valley watchmakers since the beginning of the 19th century.

- 3.a/I Nick Faldo Royal Oak, 1980


Produced in more than 600 variations since 1972, the Royal Oak watch is a success story like no other. Aesthetically very expressive and often very large, it symbolises the success of the person who wears it. The brand has therefore formed associations with numerous celebrities. A large number of these ambassadors are sportsmen and women, such as golfer Vijay Singh, skiers Alberto Tomba and Giorgio Rocca, cricket player Sachin Tendulkar, racing drivers Rubens Barrichello and Michael Schumacher, footballer Léo Messi and tennis player Novak Djokovic.
In 1988, the golf champion Nick Faldo became the forerunner of this type of publicity. Ten years after the start of this collaboration, the engine-turning on this Royal Oak recreates the motifs of a golf ball.

II Royal Oak, tantalum and rose gold

The first Royal Oak models for women appeared in 1976. Though smaller, they have the same basic features as the men’s watch. Despite the publicity from James Bond films, which reflects a rather conservative image of the status of women, the latter’s acceptance of the Royal Oak corresponds to a period of women’s emancipation and the appropriation of masculine codes after the social revolutions of the 1960s.
The watch exhibited here is a two-tone model in rose gold and tantalum. The latter, renowned for being very difficult to machine, was used in the aerospace and medical industries.
For the record, it is said that the first Royal Oak model in tantalum was created for the King of Spain Juan Carlos, who wanted his watch to be made of the same material as his gun.

III Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar

In the space of 40 years, the Royal Oak has incorporated all major watchmaking “complications”. Nevertheless, the one most closely linked with this watch remains the calendar, which first appeared on 1972 models.
In 1984, the self-winding calibre of the Royal Oak, complete with perpetual calendar, was the flattest in the world. It is capable of indicating the month on the dial at 12 o’clock, the date at 3 o’clock, the day of the week at 9 o’clock and the phase of the moon at 6 o’clock. This complex mechanism takes leap years into account as well as variations in the length of the months. This “complication”, known also as a Perpetual Calendar, has been one of the great specialities of the Joux Valley since the 19th century. The commercial success of this watch allowed the Joux Valley firm to ride out the storm of the quartz crisis.

IV Royal Oak Alinghi Polaris

In 2000, businessman and sailing enthusiast Ernesto Barterelli, a native of Geneva, set about building a boat with a view to winning the America’s Cup. To crew this hi-tech vessel, the Alinghi team was assembled. Already accustomed to sponsoring sailing teams with the Swiss yachtsman Pierre Fehlman, Audemars Piguet decided become part of the adventure. Alinghi won the Cup in 2003 and 2007, creating an extraordinary sense of pride within a nation that has no access to the sea. From the Le Brassus workshops there emerged several Royal Oak Offshore models dedicated to Alinghi.
The watch exhibited here includes functions designed for the crew of the Alinghi. Its name is Polaris, a reference to the pole star, used as a geographical pointer.

VIII Royal Oak Skeleton


The Royal Oak is more than a watch. It is a symbol. As well as classic, sports, complicated and ladies’ models, it has also been produced in a so-called “skeleton” version.
Skeletonizing reveals the watch movement to the naked eye. A speciality and time-honoured tradition of the Joux Valley since the end of the 18th century, skeletonizing consists in decorating the watch movement by making cut-outs in components (openworking). The difficulty lies in creating as many serrations and decorations as possible without impairing the technical characteristics of the components themselves.
This highly refined timepiece will be appreciated by all art lovers and enthusiasts, who can admire the watch mechanism at any time through sapphire crystals protecting the dial and back cover. Other rare skills are required to produce the hands, and encrust them with 21 diamonds.

V Royal Oak Offshore T3 Arnold Schwarzenegger

The Royal Oak Offshore inaugurated a line of powerful watches specially designed for sport or extreme situations. One of the first Offshore limited editions was produced in 1999 for Arnold Schwarzenegger. Personifying the extreme and larger-than-life character of this watch (54mm with the push-piece guard), the actor wore this Offshore T3 in “Terminator 3”. Its exceptional looks match the tenor of a film in which the hero engages in death-defying combat. Its dimensions do not however add greatly to its weight, since the T3 is made of titanium, a metal chosen for its strength and lightness.

VI Royal Oak Offshore Shaquille O’Neal

Extra-large and by no means lightweight (276 grams), the Royal Oak Offshore acquired exceptional proportions for extraordinary people, as here in 2007 for the basketball player Shaquille O’Neal. This watch is one of the largest and heaviest ever created. It is decorated in white and red, the colours of Shaquille O’Neal’s team the Miami Heat. The numerals 3 and 2 on the dial are reversed, a reference to the player’s team number that will be recognised by aficionados.

VII Royal Oak forged carbon, encrusted ceramic


The Royal Oak constantly innovated in terms of materials. It was a veritable melting pot of experimentation for Audemars Piguet. After steel, the manufactory sought out materials in the aerospace and medical industries. Rarely used in watchmaking, Kevlar, titanium, alacrite, cermet and other innovative materials gave plenty of work to the company’s research and production teams.
The watch presented here is a Lady Royal Oak in forged carbon for the case and ceramic for the bezel, which has a diamond-encrusted steel insert. Forged carbon used carbon fibres heated under pressure to obtain a texture that is both strong and ultra-light. The classic finishes prevalent in watchmaking are not applicable to this type of material. Ladies’ models, while smaller, remain true to the watch’s DNA but provide an added touch of colour and charm. Elegant materials such as precious stones, embroidered satin and mother-of-pearl are associated with stronger and more technical materials such as rubber and steel.

- 4.a/I The different Royal Oak families (Classic, Ladies’ Jewellery, Offshore sports, Complications)

While Gerald Genta is considered the father of the classic Royal Oak and blazed a trail for any number of watch designers, those who followed him at Audemars Piguet continued to develop the Royal Oak, giving rise to different families of the watch.
In 1975, the appointment of Jacqueline Dimier as in-house stylist marked a turning point for Audemars Piguet, which understood the need to incorporate the artistic dimension within the company itself. Jacqueline Dimier paved the way for the Ladies’ and Jewellery Royal Oak models, while the classic model acquired a lighter and less sporty complexion.
In 1980, mechanical watchmaking sought to establish itself alongside the quartz industry, thereby marking the return on the Royal Oak of horological complications and their adaptation. Perpetual Calendars, Tourbillons, Chronographs, Minute Repeaters and Grand Complications revived the prestigious past of the Joux Valley and its complicated watches.
Finally, in 1992, the designer Emmanuel Gueit inaugurated the Royal Oak Offshore line, giving ultimate expression to the watch’s sporty appearance and demonstrating the credibility of large, elaborate watches. In parallel, the original Royal Oak regained its classic watch appeal!

More than 200 Royal Oak models exist today. However, the Royal Oak retains a highly distinctive DNA and style, giving it its iconic status in the world of watchmaking.

© Espace Horloger - Vallée de Joux 2013