Interview and article by Philipp Budiman
“There is never, never a moment when we say ‘We are good enough’.” François-Henry Bennahmias, CEO Audemars Piguet
There’s no question about it, Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak marked a momentous landmark in modern watchmaking. However, the elite Swiss brand is so much more than the creator of the most eminent watch design of the 20th century. It has always stood tall as a model for innovative and technically outstanding timepieces. The Grand Complication models are on par with Patek Philippe and references such as the famed 2499 or the illustrious 1518, and most notably, Audemars Piguet’s development of perpetual calendars and chiming watches of all sorts has played a central role in establishing the brand as one of the world’s foremost watchmakers.
Audemars Piguet was founded in 1875 in Le Brassus when two friends, Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet, forged a partnership that would generate one of today’s most celebrated brands. A flourishing business rapidly developed from the companions’ makeshift garage-based workshop, not least because they could already exhibit an abundance of previously successful examples of the creation of complicated pocket watches. Even today the brand is still owned by the founding families. The independence of AP has always been its most important creed of company identity, ensuring that it keeps its fate in its own hands. These days, not only the movements, but also the dials are manufactured in-house. This level of excellence and care has long since placed Audemars Piguet alongside Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin, as one of the three brands that have defined the world-renowned art of Swiss watchmaking.
The brand has always stood for steadfast independence and continuity. And yet one can almost speak of a caesura in the history of the brand when Gerald Genta’s legendary design, the Royal Oak, entered the scene. It brought a notably sportier feel to the Audemars Piguet line-up and, shaped the sport-oriented luxury watch design that we all admire so much today. The impact the Royal Oak made in 1972 cannot be emphasized enough: Suddenly, a high-end watch no longer had to consist of solid gold and no longer defined itself on the number of additional mechanical functions. In a luxury watch world that at the time was dominated by elegant understatement, the Royal Oak displayed edge – literally and figuratively. The prevailing binary at the time of either round or square/rectangular case shapes gave way to an octagonal synthesis with rounded edges. Instead of a leather strap, the watch received an integrated steel band. Screws and other elements, which were inherently invisible, suddenly formed a fundamental part of the design.
Today, the Royal Oak is recognized as one of the most prodigious classics, unforgettable in the arena of timepiece creation. It paved the way for a plethora of subsequent Gerald Genta inspired designs, such as Patek Philippe’s Nautilus or the IWC Ingenieur. Looking at the Hublot Big Bang, later Aquatimer models and other designs that count amongst the greats, it is clear that even now, the immense influence of the Royal Oak continues to reverberate around every corner of the world of watchmaking.