Every now and again a watch just calls out to you. It might be the way the dial catches the light or the feeling when you put it on your wrist…the snap of the deployment or the easy way it slips under your cuff. But doesn’t have to be justified or even articulated, it might just be a ‘wow’ moment. The 36mm Royal Oak does just that to Bulang and Sons founder Bernhard Bulang. “I just love this watch. On the wrist its so stylish, comfortable and to me just so much more wearable on my wrist than the jumbo version”. Less is more? We think so in this case. Today our Spot On is on the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak 36mm…
We love the way its sits on the wrists – perfect proportions and stylishly slim!
The early 1970s were a worrisome time for the large watch manufacturers in Switzerland. In the late 1960s Seiko had unveiled their Astron, the world’s first quartz wristwatch – a move that would change the watch world forever. The large Swiss brands were making a valiant effort to keep up via a collaboration that gave birth to the Beta 21 movement. The Omega Electroquartz was the first commercially available watch featuring the Beta 21 movement followed by watches from the other collaborators including Rolex and Patek Philippe. The Swiss watch industry, however, didn’t turn its back on traditional mechanical watchmaking, but it became survival of the fittest. Over the decade from the early 1970s to the early ‘80s the number of Swiss watchmakers reduced from 1600 to 600. There was one brand, however, which fully embraced the ‘reassuringly expensive’ mindset by arguably the most audacious watch launch ever.
The Italian Job
Like many of the brands, Audemars Piguet (AP) was facing significant challenges in the face of the impending dominance of the Japanese quartz onslaught. However, there had been discussions with their affiliates in Italy, who had voiced a potential opportunity for a new high-end wristwatch in steel. Italy has always been a significant market for wristwatches and beyond that, they are credited with inventing the art of watch collecting. In response to this, the then General Manager of AP, Mr G Golay, took the decision to commission the world’s leading watch designer Gerald Genta to dream up the finest stainless steel. The commission was given on the eve of Baselworld 1971. My creative-license allows me to imagine Genta working through the night; affording Mr Golay the opportunity to unveil the design on the opening morning of the show. Looking back, Genta couldn’t have possibly known how important that night’s work would be. Maybe it’s as well he didn’t realise the magnitude of the assignment…sometimes over-thinking a task can stifle one’s creativity! We’re just so glad that he got the commission and came up with just a cool design! And so the legend was born – the mighty Royal Oak.
Gerald Genta’s Original Design Sketch of the AP Royal Oak (credit: Pinterest)
The key character trait of the RO is the hexagonal bezel, with its eight white gold screws and visible watertight gasket. Genta’s inspiration for the design was predominantly the helmets worn by deep-sea divers. He was to say later in life that it was the watch design of which he was most proud and it certainly is an incredible design. The construction of the case is very complex, with a number of different lines and finishes. The watch continues to be one of the most difficult to refinish, even with todays modern technology. In fact, the first prototypes were actually manufactured from white gold, as it is much easier to work with when making such intricate cases. Whilst its a complex watch in terms of technical manufacturing, what we love is that it is actually a very simple looking watch. Aesthetically delightful, with a clean look and symmetrically very balanced. That’s maybe the genius of its design…that it looks effortless and timeless in the same way as maybe a Fender Stratocaster or Porsche 911.
Complex Construction: The bracelet was in itself a feat of engineering and was very complicated to manufacture.
Clean Lines: The harmony of the dial and bezel is beautiful
Engraving: The iconic caseback engraving. The caseback was secured by eight screws, mirroring the bezel on the front.
The first steel watches reference 5402 were unveiled at the Basel show in 1972. Stern had been given the job of producing the dial and the exaction was beautiful. Known as ‘petit tapisserie’ the dials were as iconic as the case design. Genta’s signature integrated bracelet, again a technical engineering feat to manufacture, was key to the overall aesthetic of the timepiece. And the price…this was the most audacious aspect of the release. The initial price of the Jumbo at launch was 3300 Swiss Francs – ten times the price of the Rolex Submariner at the time. To put that into context, it is the equivalent of it costing around 73,000 Euros today against the modern Submariner! People were not convinced that it was a viable offering and predicted that Audemars would collapse within a year. However, quite the opposite was true and AP’s fortunes were secured forever.
A first series Audemars Piguet royal Oak reference 5402
Less Is More?
The first 2000 watches were allocated A-prefix serials, the next batches B serials and then C serials. For collectors, the initial 1000 A series watches are the most desirable and now command significant premiums. The original Jumbo featured the calibre 2121, the product of a 1967 collaboration between AP, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin in the same vein as the Beta 21 quartz project. The height of the movement was only 3mm and so it enabled the Royal Oak to be very slim in profile.
Slim and Flowing: Gentas flowing design was aesthetically perfect yet understated. The slim case makes it sit on the wrist beautifully.
Alongside the 5402, Audemars Piguet also produced a slightly reduced Royal Oak in reference 4100. Measuring 3mm less, at 36mm the 4100 had all the technical ingenuity and finish as the Jumbo, but in a slightly more wearable and reduced size. The 4100 housed the calibre 2123 and a lot of the impact of the watch comes from the multiple facets and finishes on the case. The ‘petit tapissiere’ dial is still present in the 4100 making it a very sophisticated timepiece. This is what makes the watch so special to us…absolutely nothing is compromised in the 36mm version – each component is there and engineered in exactly the same way. And come on guys, size isn’t everything! As we have seen with, for example, the Rolex Datejust in its recent 41mm guise, sometimes a more subtle and diminished representation works as per the Datejust 36mm.
The reference 4100. 36mm with a lot of presence on the wrist.
Delicious Details: The applied AP logo on the Stern petit tapisseriedial, now showing beautiful tropical details.
Angles: The octagonal bezel with white gold screws and the complimentary hexagonal winding crown.
In the 1980s the 4100 was succeeded by the reference 14790. Again, this reference maintained all the important features of the Jumbo AP but in the diminutive 36mm execution. The movement was upgraded to calibre 2225 and the watch became one of the most popular Royal Oaks on the market, until it was discontinued in the late 2000s.
Next In Line: The 14790 with the same incredible case finishing and construction. This is a 1995 NOS example, still showing all the original untouched finishes. Still in the stickers.
AP Free: The 14790 had an unmarked hexagonal winding crown
Textured Time: The 14790 dial features the same petit tapisserie dial, but the painted AUDEMARS PIGUET has a thicker and more serif font.
Cool Case: The NOS full package here is wonderful, especially the watch box that mirrors octagonal bezel.
It would be a mistake to simply think of the 14790 as simply a mid-size Royal Oak. This is watch that wears beautifully on the wrist…almost like a piece of men’s jewelry, due to the highly sophisticated nature of the integrated bracelet and the way it seamlessly flows into the watch head. In fact, the Royal Oak was quickly adopted by influencers and serious watch collectors shortly after its early ‘70s launch and has remained an important watch ever since.
“It has become one of my favorite personal watches to wear on daily bases. So comfortable and stylish. I have a 20 mm wrist on my right hand. And still this 36 mm watch does not feel to small. Because the bracelet has such a nice presence. I found the Jumbo version to big and less comfortable.
So when you have a smaller wrist ( 15-18,5 cm) I personally sure would rather take the 36mm then the Jumbo size.”
We enjoy wearing the Royal Oak with different combinations of bracelets and cuffs, having fun changing the look and vibe of this incredible watch depending on our mood or circumstances. It works well dressed up or down and is chameleon-esque in the way that if effortlessly segues between formal and casual assignments. This watch truly is spot on…
“Personally I wear it with bracelets and cuffs all the time. Like a total style statement on the wrist, rather then just a dominant watch with some add-on’s. “