Audemars Piguet: Endgame Watches Part 1

Posted by Jason Swire on February 10, 2021

Audemars Piguet was founded in 1875 by two Swiss watchmakers in Vallée de Joux, Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet. The company is still owned by its founding families to this day and has never ceased production, and over its 146-year history has created some of the world’s most complicated timepieces. Along with Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet is considered one of the “Big Three” or “Holy Trinity” of Swiss watchmakers. Said another way, they are regarded as amongst the best in the world.

“Petite Tapisserie” dial on the Royal Oak “Jumbo” REF. #15202ST.OO.1240ST.01

The brand’s early success was due largely to their skill with complications, including minute repeaters, perpetual calendars, tourbillons and skeletonised movements. But their most iconic watch was released in 1972 and has become synonymous with the brand’s modern identity: the Royal Oak.

The 70s is an era of watchmaking commonly referred to as the “quartz crisis”. The new technology from Japan was taking the world by storm, offering much greater accuracy than mechanical timepieces at a fraction of the cost. Most Swiss watchmakers were struggling financially during this period, trying to find a way to adapt to the changing market. Audemars Piguet was no different and needed a ground-breaking design that would disrupt the status quo and attract buyers back to Swiss mechanical watches.

At that time luxury watches were exclusively made of precious metals. The concept of a luxury sports watch in steel was unheard of. Audemars Piguet contacted one of the most famous watch designers of the time, Gerald Genta, with the brief of creating a completely unique steel sports watch with luxurious levels of finishing. His design drew inspiration from a traditional divers’ helmet, with an octagonal shaped bezel secured by eight hexagonal screws, a geometric 3-dimensional dial pattern (which was called tapisserie) and an integrated bracelet. An ultra-thin movement was chosen, the Calibre 2121, which had been released in 1967 and was the world’s thinnest full-rotor automatic movement at the time. The watch dial was also quite large (by the standards of men’s watches in that era) at 39mm.

Side view of the Royal Oak “Jumbo” in stainless steel

The net result was like nothing seen before, an ultra-modern, beautifully finished, big watch that nonetheless wore well and maintained elegance thanks to its slim profile. The Royal Oak is largely responsible for creating the market for luxury steel sports watches which we now take for granted. Gerald Genta would go on to design (or re-design) many other iconic watches for other brands (the Patek Philippe Nautilus, IWC Ingenieur, and Omega Constellation among others) but he stated in several interviews that the Royal Oak remained his favourite and the masterpiece of his career. There are a ton of variations of the Royal Oak available today, including some with high complications, but two in particular merit discussion: The Royal Oak “Jumbo” Extra-Thin 39mm (REF 15202ST.OO.1240ST.01) and the Royal Oak Selfwinding 41mm (REF 15500ST.OO.1220ST.01).

The 39mm “Jumbo” is the closest relative to the original released in 1972. It features the same dial size and even the same movement (Calibre 2121) but is very slightly thicker (due to the addition of a display case back) and uses a different colour and font for the date indicator. For a collector enamoured with the history of the model, this reference is the most desirable modern incarnation of the Royal Oak. However the fact that it uses a vintage calibre does come with some drawbacks. While it was among the best movements in the world 50 years ago, it lacks many modern touches featured in newer calibres, such as a quick-set date, instant date change at midnight, or a substantial power reserve (the 2121 provides only 40hrs, while most modern manufactures offer 60-70hrs). This calibre also beats at a somewhat leisurely 2.75Hz (19,800 oscillations/hour) which can negatively impact accuracy, although to be fair a watch without a second hand is naturally less concerned with precision anyway.

The other reference is the Royal Oak Selfwinding 41mm, which is bigger than the Extra-Thin in both width and girth, includes a second hand, and features the modern AP Manufacture calibre 4302. Unlike the 2121 which was a collaboration project with Jaeger Le-Coultre, the 4302 was entirely designed and produced in-house by Audemars Piguet. The frequency has been raised to a modern 4Hz (28,800 oscillations/hour), a 70hr power reserve is on offer, and instantaneous date change at midnight has been introduced. This calibre also features a variable inertia balance, allowing the hairspring to breathe more concentrically and enhancing precision. If you are enamoured of the Royal Oak collection but want greater accuracy and reliability than the Jumbo, this reference is for you.

Both are visually very similar models, with minute differences that a casual observer would easily miss. However they are both distinct in the context of the Royal Oak’s history; the classic model, and the modern re-interpretation.

Audemars Piguet also offer sportier incarnations of the Royal Oak with their Offshore collection, which are unapologetically bolder and bigger than the two classic Royal Oak references. Chronographs are common in this collection, and rubber straps are often used instead of the iconic steel bracelet associated with the Royal Oak. This collection is also known for experimenting with alternative materials and finishes, a great example of which is the Royal Oak Offshore Selfwinding Chronograph reference #26400IO.OO.A004CA.02 in titanium and ceramic. 

Titanium watches are hardly uncommon, and neither are ceramic bezels on modern sports watches, but the way Audemars Piguet have combined and finished them in this Offshore reference sets it apart from the crowd. The level of detail in this watch is insane, with an engine-turned “Méga Tapisserie” dial featuring contrasting blue sub-dials and tachymetre track, surrounded by a vertically-brushed grey ceramic bezel with contrasting high-polished screws and a chamfered edge, also in high polish, which then flows down to a vertically-brushed titanium case and sandblasted titanium push-piece guards. While purists of the Royal Oak may frown on the Offshore collection, it certainly does embody Genta’s original spirit of treating industrial materials to high levels of finishing normally reserved for precious metals.

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