Buyer's Guide

Horological Archetypes: The Royal Oak

Audemars Piguet’s hiring of Gèrald Genta to design a masterpiece proved to be a fateful moment in watchmaking history, as the Royal Oak remains of the most revered watches on the market.
By Allen Farmelo
Jan 06, 2023
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One way to understand an horological archetype is that it defines a genre of watches. The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak defined the integrated bracelet watch genre of the 1970s, a genre which is seeing a bonafide renaissance in the 21st century as seemingly every brand jumps on the bandwagon. A genre is best understood as a set of conventions that define a family of similar creations, and one need not look further than the Royal Oak to see the conventions of the integrated bracelet watch genre.

Before delving into the Royal Oak in more detail, let's consider the historical context in which it emerged. By the end of the 1960s, many watches were using something like an integrated bracelet – sometimes hidden spring bars within a cushion case – and we could point to many examples from many brands which have the integrated bracelet look. That look also included a sporty elegance, stainless steel construction, waterproofness, and a masculine vibe appropriate for the disco. The aesthetic and technical conventions of the genre were more or less in place before the Royal Oak Ref. 5402 was first released commercially on April 15, 1972.

The Royal Oak

However, when the Royal Oak came along it was not only a distinctive culmination of these emerging conventions but also an embodiment of a sophisticated European masculinity that demanded modernity, elegance, and ruggedness in equal measure. The Royal Oak hit these marks so precisely that it stands as the watershed moment for the integrated bracelet watch genre. Perhaps most tellingly, almost every integrated bracelet watch to follow the Royal Oak can be seen as a reaction to, if not a direct imitation of, Audemars Piguet's mid-century masterpiece.

Although the Royal Oak took up emerging conventions, there wasn't much that was conventional about it. This comes down to the singular brilliance of its hired-gun designer, the Italian-born freelancer Gèrald Genta. Audemars Piguet had just been acquired by SIHH (now The SWATCH Group), and, as often happens after an acquisition, the top brass were demanding bold new directions and, of course, increased sales. Genta had designed hundreds of watches before, including a few for Audemars Piguet. He was 38 years old when tasked with SIHH's demand for innovation, and he later acknowledged that at the time he was hungry for a masterpiece. He saw the assignment to modernize Audemars Piguet as his moment.

Royal Oak Sketch Image AP

So many stories surround the creation of the Royal Oak that it seems more steeped in legend than fact. But the first Royal Oak, Ref. 5402, provides its own evidence of what really happened.

Firstly, the case and bezel construction were entirely new for a high-end watch. A monocoque steel case was bored from stainless steel (but also in lesser quantities from white gold). The movement and dial were set into the case from the top, and the crystal and bezel were then attached from above. This configuration had been used crudely on inexpensive watches before, but the Royal Oak managed it with extreme thinness and jewelry-grade finishing by acclaimed Swiss case maker Favre-Perret. The brushing and polishing, though in stainless steel, were on par with that found on the best Swiss watch cases of the day, which were almost exclusively in precious metals until the Royal Oak came along.

Most notable is the eight-sided bezel, held in place by eight hexagonal screws set into hexagonal recesses. Securing the bezel bolts from behind was not entirely innovative, but managing it while maintaining extreme thinness as well as waterproofness was quite a bold feat. At first Favre-Perret told Genta that it couldn't be done, which Genta took to be a sign that he was breaking new ground. Indeed he was.

Royal Oak 5402 Image AP

Most significantly, the Royal Oak's bracelet is integrated into the case. Instead of lugs which hold a spring bar, the Royal Oak's case extends to form the first links, pitched at roughly a 45-degree angle. Audemars Piguet tasked Swiss bracelet maker Gay Frères with making the 154 individual components Genta's design required – thirty-four of those components were individually sized. This individuation of parts enabled the now famous elegant taper of the Royal Oak's bracelet. The seamlessness of the Royal Oak's case and bracelet has yet to be outdone, though it is endlessly imitated.

Royal Oak 5402 Image AP

The dial of the Ref. 5402 is deceptively delicate to produce. Stern Frères (the same Sterns who still own Patek Philippe) had recently acquired a set of antiquated but renown engraving machines used to produce various engraving patterns. Genta chose a pattern now known as Petite Tapisserie, which consists of a grid of truncated pyramids puckered with thousands of small divots. The effect is a shimmering metal dial, but Genta – in typical form – demanded the color blue, known to be the fussiest to achieve. So as not to fill the tiny divots, Stern Frères used electroplating for the color and finished it with an ultra-thin lacquer. The only unintentional artifact of this tricky process was color variation between batches of early Royal Oak dials. 

Genta knew that the steel sports watches of the 1960s lacked the elegance Audemars Piguet required, and specifically that inelegance came down to steel sports watches being so thick as to make them incompatible with the then fashionable tight shirt cuffs. The solution was the revered Calibre 2121, an automatic winding movement with a date complication that still astounds at just 3.05mm in height. 

The use of a mechanical movement at the time was something of a snub to convention, as relatively thin and precise electronic quartz movements were starting to topple the Swiss mechanical watch industry. First developed as the no-date Caliber 2120 in 1967 by Jaeger-LeCoultre in conjunction with Vacheron Constantine, Audemars Piguet would refinish and rename the base movement. Vacheron is the only brand still using it – though only in one watch. 

The Ladies Royal Oak Concept Flying Tourbillon

Caliber 2121 was invisible to the owner of a Royal Oak, but in keeping with the high standards of Audemars Piguet, it was finished by hand with abundant gold parts and detailed decorative engraving. It remains one of the most storied movements in all of watchmaking, revered for its technical and aesthetic achievement by critics and collectors alike.

It would be nearly impossible to summarize the variety of Royal Oak references that have been issued since 1972, as there are over 500 variations to date. Audemars Piguet shows no signs of slowing down the Royal Oak iterations, with new variations appearing at least twice a year. And beyond the Royal Oak are countless imitations, tributes, look-alikes, or just similarly styled integrated bracelet watches, most notably the Genta-designed Patek Philippe Nautilus (1976), the IWC Ingenieur (1978), the BVLGARI-BVLGARI (1977), and the Cartier Pasha (1985), each of which uses some form of the integrated bracelet. Hence: the genre.