July 12, 2014
by Ariel Adams
In the last few years, Audemars Piguet has improved how they design and release new movements in order to improve initial quality. According to Giulio Papi, Audemars Piguet has succeeded in dramatically reducing return rates (of watches that have mechanical issues shortly after sale). The numbers are getting impressive, and it is very positive to hear that Audemars Piguet is working hard on the reliability and longevity of not only its more basic models, but also its most high-end and exclusive timepieces.
Le Brassus is where Audemars Piguet is mostly based, and they have two facilities in town where watches are made, cased, and inspected for quality. I’ve seen a lot of watches being made but it is always fun to see iconic ones being put together. That goes for pieces such as the Rolex Submariner and of course the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. Designed by Gerald Genta, the Royal Oak spawned a number of similar models that Genta designed for other brands. I still feel that the Royal Oak is among Genta’s best sport watch creations.
Audemars Piguet is perpetually so successful with the Royal Oak that over the years it has come in a range of sizes, colors, and with a variety of complications. Still, for the most part a three-hand Royal Oak today is very similar to what one was like in the 1970s. More design experimentation goes into the Royal Oak Offshore collection which is the bigger, sportier brother of the Royal Oak.
Of course, the irony of the Royal Oak is that it was designed initially as a high-end sports watch. So the fact that it is often considered more dressy than sporty is just how style evolves, I suppose. One of the things I was always curious about is why Audemars Piguet felt it necessary to charge gold prices for a steel watch when it was originally released. You have to understand that in the 1970s the different in price between gold and steel was not as vast as it is today.
It turns out that Audemars Piguet was asked to do the watch by their Italian distributor – so once again, we can thank Italy for another successful watch trend. The reason the Royal Oak in steel was as expensive as gold was because of the effort involved in the complex finishing and polishing of the case. We often take for granted decoratively polished cases today, but at the time, the manual effort involved in polishing and brushing all of the Royal Oak case and bracelet elements was intense. I suppose a lesson there is to, for the most part, only buy Royal Oaks with the bracelet and not a strap.
Look at the many Royal Oak models overs the years and you’ll see many times when Audemars Piguet has attempted to inject their brand history into the piece that more or less took over their former image. I wonder if Gerald Genta himself ever imagined a Royal Oak chronograph, perpetual calendar, grand complication, equation of time, or the other variations we have seen in the iconic model? Of course, he lived to see most of that happen, but I wish I knew what he thought of it.
Other Audemars Pigeut model families include the Jules Audemars and the Millenary. An argument can be made that Audemars Piguet should focus on those models as much as they do on the Royal Oak. Then again, as a consumer, I think everyone wants to start with a Royal Oak or Royal Oak Offshore when entering the brand. Only after at least a few of those do their other models even move into view. I suppose that isn’t a bad thing, but it really fundamentally paints Audemars Piguet as the Royal Oak brand, which is really something part of their more modern history, despite helping them to become so successful.
So is the Royal Oak both a blessing and a curse for the brand? The Royal Oak is an extremely important part of modern watch history and has helped shaped what we wear over 40 years after its introduction. Audemars Piguet has done an excellent job stewarding the model family and keeping it both fresh and traditional at the same time. It will be interesting to see what Audemars Piguet does next, but from what I have learned, it will continue to refine and improve the ownership experience as well as its in-house made movement technology.
Furthermore, I think that while efforts will subside to keep the Royal Oak great, we may see a refreshed focus on their other models, especially the more traditional and round-cased Jules Audemars collection. For a while, these might be second to the Royal Oak in most people’s collection, but even today models in the Jules Audemars range are very nice when wanting a fine dress watch. audemarspiguet.com