By Stephen Pulvirent
Audemars Piguet combines innovation with a healthy respect for tradition to make the classic watches of tomorrow.
Tucked away in the Swiss hamlet of Le Brassus sits Audemars Piguet, which has been making mechanical watches in the very same workshops since 1875. While the brand was best known in the early 20th century for superlative perpetual calendars and chiming watches, it was the brash Royal Oak that propelled the brand into the public consciousness when it was first shown in 1972. Designed by Gerald Genta, the watch’s octagonal bezel, steel construction, and integrated geometric bracelet looked like nothing seen before, while under the hood was a traditional ultra-thin automatic movement. This duality of iconoclastic design and respectful classicism has come to define Audemars Piguet for more than four decades.
Important sections of the in-house movement (caliber 2933) are exposed through three large cut-outs in the dial. On the left is the one-minute tourbillon, and on the right are the twin power barrels, which allow for a nearly 10-day power reserve by operating in parallel. All three are suspended by aluminum bridges (another way to cut down on weight) that have been anodized black to match the watch’s bezel. From first glance, there’s no question you’ve got something serious on your wrist.
The chronograph mechanism is fully integrated into the rest of the 338-part movement, keeping the watch relatively slim for its level of complexity at 16.6mm. Both a column wheel and a special shock-proofing system ensure the most precise measurements are possible.
It’s almost unbelievable that Audemars Piguet’s first Concept series watch was released in 2002, nearly 15 years ago. The angular case structure, mechanically focused dials, and envelope-pushing complications have become a hallmark of the brand while also continuing to feel fresh and innovative with each new model. This year’s Royal Oak Concept Tourbillon Chronograph retains the mode-switching mechanism first introduced in the original, as well as the dial-side tourbillon, but adds a chronograph that uses an unconventional linear minutes counter on the right side.
Strictly speaking, there is no dial on this watch at all — the movement mainplate itself acts as the dial and the indicators are printed right onto the components themselves. The brown inner bezel and indications, paired with the hand-stitched brown alligator strap, soften the overall look, adding a bit of Old-World character to the otherwise hyper-modern design.
Too often watchmakers assume that women don’t care about what’s going on inside their watch and that they don’t demand the same level of design and finishing as male customers. In today’s market, neither is true, and Audemars Piguet’s timepieces for women show the same attention to detail and thoughtful spirit found in the men’s pieces.
The 37mm Royal Oak Offshore Chronograph models use the same case shape and structure as the larger men’s models, but in a size that fits much better on women’s wrists (especially with the rubber strap options). The case is also less than 12mm thick, which is achievable because of the fully integrated chronograph movement inside, which uses a column wheel mechanism like all of Audemars Piguet’s chronographs. The tapisserie pattern on the dial — a hallmark of the Royal Oak — has been scaled especially for this watch and is called the “lady tapisserie.” The octagonal bezel also retains the eight iconic screws, but between them are set 32 brilliant-cut diamonds that total more than one carat.
While the chronograph might be the most practical
complication out there, sometimes something a little simpler is in order. The
37mm Royal Oak Selfwinding is about as pure and practical as a Royal Oak can
get. The silver-toned dial is extremely legible with rose gold markers and
hands, and the three-hand configuration is complemented by a subtle date
window. The rose gold bezel is accented with stainless steel screws, carrying
the two-tone look through to the smallest details. The geometry of the bracelet
is exactly the same as on the larger models and the combination of larger
stainless steel links and smaller rose gold links works wonderfully. The
beveled edges, brushed surfaces and polished interior angles on the bracelet
alone are worth marveling at. Sure, the reduced size is meant for ladies, but
it has a bit of vintage-inspired charm on a man’s wrist as well.
The Royal Oak can go even smaller though. At 33mm, the Royal Oak Quartz is the most petite member of the family, but with all the design codes that make the watch so instantly recognizable. It’s no easy feat to make watches from 33mm up to 46mm in the same family and ensure that the entire range feels cohesive, but Audemars Piguet does it with aplomb.
The stainless steel model’s deep black dial, with a matching date window, gives the watch a sportier feel, while the all rose gold model has a tonal brown dial that seems to change color at every angle. Both are exercises in harmony, letting the distinctive shape of the Royal Oak stand on its own with the materials playing a supporting part.
While designing something new is hard, starting with an icon and trying to improve it is even harder. Audemars Piguet has somehow managed to take the basic form of the Royal Oak and turn the classic into countless variations that simultaneously stand on their own and fit seamlessly into the history of the 1972 classic. This year’s variations don’t disappoint and the opportunities for the future are still endless.