Regarded as one of the most sought after timepieces in the watch market, discover the story behind the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and the evolution of its cult-like status that continues to grow since its inception.
“What’s the watch that has a round face but an octagon-shaped outline around it? I really want it” a friend recently asked me. At the sound of octagon, it could only mean one model, marked by four words: Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. If you’re not familiar with the watch by name, if you see it, you’ll know it.
Search the Royal Oak on google and you’ll see that the first few questions that come up are 1.) Is the Royal Oak expensive? And 2.) Does Audemars Piguet have a waiting list? The answers: yes, and yes – and a long one at that. Between horology aficionados and rookies alike, the AP Royal Oak is one of the watches you’re more likely to reel off from the top of your head alongside the likes of a Rolex Daytona, a Patek Philippe Nautilus. It’s what you might consider as one of the big players, recently joining the exclusive club of brands turning over billions of dollars in revenue. But why?
Let’s take it back to the beginning and the Godfather of the Royal Oak: Gerald Genta. You might think you’re not familiar with him, but his silent legacy posthumously dominates the world of luxury today. Inventor of the Patek Nautilus, the IWC Ingenieur, the Omega Constellation, the SAS Polerouter, Genta is regarded as one of the true pioneers of watchmaking. He was in all manners of the word, haute stuff.
Now Audemars Piguet were already a brand of firsts, even before Genta joined the helm as a freelance designer in 1970. Introducing the minute repeater – sounding the time in hours, quarters and minute so that the time could be documented in the dark – in 1892, to the skeleton watch in 1934 (as it says on the tin, you can see through the dial and stare at your wrist through the entire mechanism) and the thinnest wristwatch in 1946. But if you’re going to be a true pioneer, you can’t rest on your laurels for too long, particularly when you never know what’s around the corner. Cue the quartz crisis, or revolution depending on your outlook, and the major upheaval in the watch world, whereby traditional watchmakers were challenged to compete alongside an onslaught of invention: championing accuracy, rather than craftsmanship.
The legend of the Royal Oak doesn’t stop at its make-up. If you’re British, the Royal Oak might remind you of a local pub, seeing as there’s a staggering 467 of them across the UK. Just like these drinking houses, the enamored wristwatch takes its name from the same tale: the tree that saved King Charles II of England in battle, whereby he quite literally hid in the tree, later forming the name of the steel framework of British naval ships, making a case for steel as a virtuous material.
Launched in 1972, just 8 years later, the New York Times penned the headline: ‘Time Right for Costly Watches’ citing Audemars Piguet amongst those of oaring popularity for 18-karat brands. “As the price rises, the talk is mainly about the watch as a collectible or objet d’art,” wrote Sandra Salmans. “But whether wristwatches are good investments, however, is questionable.” Thirty years ago, the question was a rhetorical one, but in today’s market, there’s a definitive answer. History lesson over, an AP Royal Oak watch retains its value, and then some.
So much so that getting your hands on one is the biggest challenge facing the brand. It’s not a question of survival anymore, but the rising level in consumer demand. “We monitor our inventory like hot milk on a stove” shared the brand’s CEO François-Henry Bennahmias in a recent McKinsey report. For those lesser versed in the watch world, it might seem ironic that brand’s regard their scarcity as a high value. If there’s a great demand, why not make more, and thus make more money? But the very nature of coveting something so difficult to get is what keeps the magic alive. “If stock was available to us, we would sell much more, but the models are becoming increasingly harder to find,” shares Trotters Jewellers, purveyors of luxury timepieces in London for over 30 years, recording 10-20% of their consumers’ sales on a Royal Oak. We have noticed an increase in demand for AP’s over the past 18 months,” they share, partly due to the rise in spending as consumers had more disposable income during quarantine with less access to physical socialisation.
As scarcity sends the price upwards – you’re averaging $20,000 minimum – and the influx of celebrity culture including Justin Bieber, Drake, Serena Williams and naturally, the Kardashian clan, the cult of Oakers is still capturing the attention of first-time buyers and collectors alike, since its introductions in the late 20th century. Despite the hefty price-tag, the Royal Oak has maintained its position as a favorite amongst collectors and first-time buyers alike. “Looking at the younger generation from a consumer standpoint, I think we are focused on quality but also care about provenance and the brand as a whole. The quality, especially owning a vintage Royal Oak, speaks for itself. The pieces are made to last and that is incredibly evident. Audemars Piguet as a brand is exceptional, they champion a diverse roster of brand ambassadors as well have many women such as Ginny Wright in c-suite positions,” shares 24-year-old watch collector, JJ Owens. With two Royal Oaks in her collection, one a two-tone 31mm automatic with a diamond bezel, and the other, a vintage gold 26mm quartz piece, Owens’ favor for the Swiss manufacturer stems from the brand’s innovation, but also risk-taking.
What sets the Royal Oak apart from its hallmark competitors is the enigma around its wearability. While the canon of calibre rules and regulations determines that a sports watch should be worn in casual settings and during physical activities, the thin design resembles that of a dress watch. The Royal Oak positions itself between the two. “When I acquired my two-tone, I swore that it would not be my daily, especially with it featuring a diamond bezel,” reflects Owen. “I am a steel sports watch collector and believed it was far too fancy. Fast forward five years and that is one of my most worn watches; that is what is so great about a Royal Oak, I have worn the model to a black-tie function just as many times as I have worn it with a t-shirt and jeans for a picnic in the park.”
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Royal Oak in a society of corporate conglomerates and enterprises is the emphasis on independence and retaining the family-owned structure since its founding by Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet in 1881. It thrives on its insular orientation, maintaining high standards in quality, rather than quantity. “A Royal Oak is one of the most comfortable, versatile, and best watches in the world, and if you only ever want to buy one watch in your lifetime, buy a Royal Oak,” shares Owens. It might rival the cost of your mortgage, but it’s an investment in time, not just for the future, in preserving the past too.