The History Behind Audemars Piguet’s the Royal Oak

What, exactly, is a “sports watch?”
Seems fairly straightforward. A “sports watch” is one which is worn to play sports. A watch of action—something robust, not too heavy, highly legible, and preferably, not too expensive. In case, you know—you beat the hell out of it…while sporting.
At least, that was the accepted definition until the early 1970s, when the Quartz Crisis hit and the cheap battery-powered Japanese quartz movement would overtake the mechanical movement across the world, (almost) rendering the glorious mechanical watch obsolete.

So, how was a storied Swiss maison such as Audemars Piguet, established in 1875, to compete with the likes of such inexpensive, easy-to-produce, dare we say throw away, technology? After all, AP produced so few chronographs during most of the 20th century—just 307 between 1930 and 1962, for those who are counting—that it didn’t give them reference numbers. With such a high level of craftsmanship infused into its watchmaking, there was no way such a brand could churn out reams of cheap timepieces to compete with those of the Japanese. Even if they were simple, time-only sports watches. 
What it could do, however, was take the opposite tack.
What about a “luxury” sports watch? What about a sports watch—made of steel, like most of those before it—that was so refined that customers were compelled as if by magnetism, to buy it rather than a cheap, battery-powered watch? After all, marketing is everything. 
The answer, as it turns out, was to call Gérald Genta. The young Swiss industrial designer, who had previously designed watches for Universal Genève and Omega, was tapped to design Audemars Piguet’s first “luxury sports watch.” According to Genta’s account, the brief was simple: AP’s managing director George Golay called him on the phone at 4 pm on April 10th, the night before the annual Swiss Watch Show (later “Baselworld”) and said, “Mr. Genta, we have a distribution company that has asked us for a steel sports watch that has never been done before—and I need the design sketch for tomorrow morning.” (The distribution company was the SSIH, Société Suisse pour l’Industrie Horlogère, which was helping Golay expand AP’s reach. It was three executives of the SIHH, in point of fact, that dreamt up the idea for a luxury steel sports watch. And it was George Golay who had the vision to take up their challenge.)

What Genta came up with was completely unconventional. 
For one, it eschewed the traditional round shape of contemporary timepieces in favor of a tonneau-shaped case with a prominent octagonal bezel inspired by—or so Genta recalls—a deep-sea diver’s helmet. Look closely and you’ll notice eight visible, octagonal screws, further suggesting the aquatic theme. This design is complemented by a unique, integrated bracelet (which is extraordinarily difficult to machine, by the way) and a dial executed in a petite tapisserie motif, giving it a dynamic look lacking in many other sports watches. (The name itself, if you’re curious, continues the nautical story—Royal Oak was a series of eight British Royal Navy vessels.)
Genta’s watch wasn’t an immediate hit upon its release at the 1972 Swiss Watch Show. It was odd-looking, featuring exposed screws, an octagonal bezel, and an integrated bracelet, and at 3,300 Swiss francs, it was many times the price of a contemporary Rolex Submariner. It was more expensive, even than a simple gold dress watch from Patek Philippe. 

But slowly, people began to catch on. Good advertising helped: “The costliest stainless steel watch in the world,” ran one campaign in the American market. “It takes more than money to wear a Royal Oak,” went another. (The best? “Would you buy a Rembrandt for its canvas?”) The fact that it was wildly expensive was no deterrent.
The Royal Oak, in short, saved Audemars Piguet. In fact, one could argue it re-elevated mechanical watchmaking to a certain echelon by making it relevant again.

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