The idea sounded bonkers at the time: releasing a mechanical steel luxury sports watch during the quartz crisis to rescue the Audemars Piguet brand. But that’s exactly what Audemars Piguet did with the introduction of their Royal Oak at Baselworld 1972. Almost five decades later, the Royal Oak has become an industry icon. Today, we’re taking a look at what makes this watch so special and how it has performed financially over the past few years.
The Story of the Royal Oak
The success story of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak started in 1971, exactly one year before its debut at Baselworld 1972. As a result of the so-called “quartz crisis,” Audemars Piguet was faced with an ultimatum: Introduce something revolutionary, or witness the possible end of their brand. AP managing director Georges Golay contacted watch designer Gérald Genta and asked him to design a stainless steel sports watch that could cater to the Italian market. Oh, and by the way: He needed it the next day. Genta delivered, coming up with a groundbreaking design.
Genta created a watch inspired by classic diver’s helmets. It had a slim case only 7 mm thick, an octagonal bezel secured by eight screws, and a dial featuring a petite tapisserie motif. Additionally, the 39-mm timepiece featured an integrated bracelet that was at least as impressive as the case itself. Inside the watch was the brilliant self-winding caliber 2121, the product of a collaborative effort between Audemars Piguet, Jaeger-LeCoultre, and Patek Philippe. Audemars Piguet unveiled the Royal Oak at Baselworld 1972. At 3,300 Swiss francs, it was more expensive than even a gold Patek Philippe dress watch. For the same money at the time, you could have purchased ten Rolex Submariners.
From a Slow Start to an Undisputed Icon
When the Royal Oak premiered, it was not an instant hit. Journalists and fans alike criticized the watch for looking too futuristic. And that price! Initially, Audemars Piguet manufactured 1,000 pieces of the first Royal Oak “Jumbo” ref. 5402, and it would take more than a year for the brand to sell out the first run of this now-legendary 5402 A-series. After this, AP produced the B-series and C-series of the same reference, and people slowly started seeing the brilliance of Gérald Genta’s creation. In the years that followed, Audemars Piguet would launch the Royal Oak in different sizes and introduce gold and steel models. Genta would go on to design the equally iconic Patek Philippe Nautilus and the IWC Ingenieur. Both released in 1976, they combine with the Royal Oak to form Genta’s “trilogy” of modern luxury sports watches.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the Royal Oak emerged as an excellent luxury timepiece that displayed the brilliance of Audemars Piguet’s watchmaking prowess and Genta’s forward-thinking design. These timepieces were a victory for mechanical watches during a period of quartz dominance. The Royal Oak line saw Audemars Piguet release highly complicated watches that maintained the Royal Oak’s thin design. Just two examples of this watchmaking ingenuity include the 9.3-mm-thin Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar with the automatic caliber 2120/2800 from 1984 and the 1987 Royal Oak Day-Date Moonphase which measures in at 9 mm thick and uses the automatic caliber 2224/2825.
Expanding the Royal Oak Line
Twenty years after introducing the Royal Oak, Audemars Piguet asked 22-year-old watch designer Emmanuel Gueit to design a more modern, masculine version of this iconic timepiece. The result was the Royal Oak Offshore, which the company announced at Baselworld 1993. The initial reaction? The new Royal Oak was too big and too bold. Genta was even quoted as saying that his Royal Oak design had been ruined. The watch’s 42-mm size – big for its time – and bold looks earned it the title of “The Beast.” Initially designed as a timepiece to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the original model, the Royal Oak Offshore quickly became a success and remains a very sought-after line within the brand’s current catalog.
A decade later, for the 30th anniversary of the Royal Oak in 2002, Audemars Piguet introduced the Royal Oak Concept CW1. It features a newly designed 44-mm case made from alacrite 602, a revolutionary, light, and durable material developed for the aerospace industry. This skeletonized watch has a display case back, and both sides of the timepiece provide an unobstructed view of its beautifully designed inner workings, including a tourbillon. The Royal Oak Concept would later become a separate line of watches in the Royal Oak family. Audemars Piguet uses this series as a testing ground to experiment with new materials and designs as it achieves exceptional calibers and watches.
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak “Jumbo” References
Audemars Piguet produced the original Royal Oak ref. 5402 from 1972 until 1990. In 1990, Audemars Piguet launched the new Royal Oak ref. 15002 with a slightly updated design. The brand ceased production of the ref. 15002 in 1998.
In 1992, Audemars Piguet marked 20 years since the original reference’s release with the introduction of the Royal Oak “Jubilee” ref. 14802 in 1992. The biggest difference compared to the regular Royal Oak “Jumbo” was its display case back. The brand only made 1,000 copies of this reference: 700 in stainless steel and 300 in yellow gold. Along with the original ref. 5402, the ref. 14802 has become one of the most popular AP references among collectors.
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak “Jumbo” Extra-Thin ref. 15202
After the discontinuation of the Royal Oak “Jumbo” in the late 1990s, it would take until 2012 for a re-release. This interlude saw the Royal Oak line grow in prominence in the world of luxury watches. And in 2012, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Royal Oak, Audemars Piguet introduced the Royal Oak “Jumbo” Extra-Thin ref. 15202. It was the perfect modern rendition of the original Royal Oak at 39 mm in diameter and with the same caliber 2121 used in 1972. It has become one of the most popular luxury watches in the world today. Audemars Piguet offers it in a variety of different materials, including steel, gold, and platinum.
Performance of the Royal Oak “Jumbo” Extra-Thin ref. 15202
As a result of its immense popularity, prices for the stainless steel Royal Oak ref. 15202 have skyrocketed over the last three years. As recently as 2018, you could have purchased this watch for under $25,000. Over the past year, the price increase has been particularly staggering. In that time, prices on Chrono24 for a steel Royal Oak “Jumbo” have more than doubled from $38,000 to over $80,000. This has been one of the most explosive watch price growths in history.
Much to the disdain of Royal Oak fans, Audemars Piguet CEO François-Henry Bennahmias announced earlier this year that the stainless steel ref. 15202ST would be discontinued after 2021. Audemars Piguet will no longer produce this reference, replacing it with a new Royal Oak “Jumbo” in a precious metal to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Of course, this has set the watch rumor mill in motion, with prices rising accordingly, showing just how much people love this timepiece. It’s hard to find a watch heritage that can top this one: What started as a daring statement meant to save a company in the early 1970s and has ended up as one of the industry’s leading icons. It will be interesting to see what the brand will come up with to celebrate the Royal Oak’s 50th anniversary. For now, it’s safe to say that the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak will continue its success as a modern icon of watchmaking that is known and loved the world over.
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