Legends mortify storytellers. Poets have scant room to improve upon Homer. Academics joke about the futility of original scholarship on the French Revolution. Revisionist historians have yet to uncover a scenario in which Julius Caesar doesn’t buy it on the Ides of March.
And watch writers retrace deep tracks any time the subject turns to Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak. But every epic tale has moments that step outside the bounds of narrative norms, and these are the exceptions that define the rules. To tell the tale of the Royal Oak, it is necessary to venture beyond the iconoclastic 1972 Baselworld launch, the celebrated story of designer Gerald Genta, and the many iterations of the seminal model, the Extra-Thin “Jumbo.”
Discovering the Royal Oak
Audemars Piguet is fond of noting, “to break the rules, you must first master them.” But make no mistake; breaking them is the fun part. Oddballs, exceptions, and unique pieces help to fill the gaps in the well-told narrative of the Royal Oak. Eccentricities and out-of-character moments help to add whimsy to a story whose rote recounting has become its own orthodoxy.
The reference 14790 Royal Oak “mid-size,” its wacky cousin, the 25920 Royal Oak Annual Calendar, 1992’s 14802 “Jumbo-Jubilee,” the 1997 25770 “Color Series,” 2008’s outrageous “Survivor,” and 2017’s ceramic perpetual “CE” are the exceptions that prove the rules.
Mid-Size Reference 14790
Audemars Piguet’s modern icon is the extra-thin 15202 “Jumbo,” but that connoisseur’s piece has never been the market’s favorite. This honor traditionally fell to the more popular 14790. At 36mm, the Royal Oak “mid-size” occupied less real estate than the extra-thin, and its stubby proportions help to rationalize the longstanding description of the extra-thin as the “Jumbo” of the Royal Oak family.
Like Whitesnake, Miami Vice, and the muscle-bound Hollywood action hero, 14790 was a child of the 1980s. And while most of that bumper crop of period camp has dated like day-old sushi, the 14790 looks better with each passing year. Even certain two-tone extreme period pieces such as 14790 gold and steel or tantalum and gold have grown charming with years and inoffensive thanks to compact proportions.
Not a stepsister by any means, the 14790 offers the same level of finish as the Jumbo without the price premium. From blade-like hairline creases to tapering polished bevels that vanish beneath the bezel, the 14790 is a Royal Oak in every artisanal sense. Dials still come from Stern Creations (yes, those Sterns). As with the Jumbo, mid-size collectors even benefit from a fine Jaeger-LeCoultre automatic caliber in the 2225; for most of the 14790’s lifespan, Jaeger-LeCoutlre was partially owned by neighboring Audemars Piguet.
Variations of the 14790
And because the 14790 was the popular Royal Oak model, special series watches were able to hide within the volume of production. Hybrids of stainless steel and tantalum are among the subtlest of the offbeat mid-size options; the brilliantly luminescent Arabic numerals of the 14790 “military dial” created a look with no parallel in the era before the Royal Oak Offshore. Tantalum and rose gold models with satin-brushed metallic dials were available on full bracelets OR leather straps with custom cases to match.
By the time the 14790 gave way to the 39mm 15300 in the late 2000s, the mid-size had accumulated a massive back catalog. The diversity of this model’s variants and a production run spanning three decades makes this reference a rich vein for mining by new and veteran collectors alike.
The early 1990s dawned as the trauma of Switzerland “Quartz Crisis” finally receded into the realm of memory. Revived global interest in traditional watchmaking was a cue for survivors of the lean years to celebrate their newfound prestige, and Audemars Piguet had just the right watch for the occasion: the 14802 “Jubilee.”
Post-Quartz Crisis Anniversary
For the Royal Oak, 1992 wasn’t just an occasion to celebrate its maker’s resurgent strength. Now 20 years old, Gerald Genta’s magnum opus was ready to celebrate its platinum anniversary in style. More than a look back, the 14802 broke new ground with the first-ever display caseback on a serially produced Royal Oak. The Jubilee’s limited edition status also created a precedent that foreshadowed the heady days of Royal Oak limited series in the late 1990s and 2000s.
In 1992, the concept of a “display caseback” was relatively novel even to haut-de-gamme houses with boast-worthy finish to flaunt. Audemars Piguet’s caliber aesthetics always had ranked among the best in the industry, but it was executed for the same reason as all others at the apex of the market: integrity. Beautiful caliber refinements were a boast made by the factory watchmaker to service personnel later in a watch’s lifetime.
Ultra-Thin Movements and Display Casebacks
The 14802 changed that. For the first time, the Royal Oak’s storied ultra-thin caliber 2121 was visible for appreciation by owners. And because simply following a trend wasn’t AP’s style, the standard rotor was replaced with a stylized “display special” crafted to resemble the iconic octagonal Royal Oak bezel in microcosm.
Consensus indicates that 1,000 examples of the 14802 were produced over a series of years from 1992 until the turn of the millennium. A breakdown of steel cases and dial combinations appears to favor black tapisserie with a small and exquisite minority comprised of salmon dials. The yellow gold examples are believed to total around 300, and a number of show-stopping platinum models – less than a dozen – have been reported.
With all of the pomp and circumstance of an anniversary and no-holds barred celebration of the movement as an event in itself, the 14802 helped to confirm the Royal Oak Extra-Thin as Audemars Piguet’s icon.
Developing an Annual Calendar
Patek Philippe may have invented the annual calendar in 1996, but Audemars Piguet led the counter-charge for the partisans of Le Brassus. The 25920 Royal Oak Annual Calendar was under development within months of Patek’s launch of the groundbreaking reference 5035. But when arriving second to a gala, a grander entrance is required. And in the iconic Royal Oak’s profile, AP found its party-crasher.
The Royal Oak Annual Calendar was designed to sit within the dimensions of the 14790 mid-size. Implementation of the complication was designed to change as little of the now-sacrosanct core style as possible; only a radial date and an off-center month sub-dial betrayed the JLC-based modular complication sitting beneath the tapisserie dial.
One For The Collectors
When the Royal Oak Annual Calendar reached the market in 1998, it represented a unique proposition to collectors. More compact than the 39mm 25686 Royal Oak Perpetual and more exotic than the 14802 Jumbo of that era, the stumpy Annual Calendar was AP’s quirkiest non-Offshore Royal Oak.
Production of the Royal Oak Annual Calendar bridged the two millennia before discontinuation in the early 2000s. At least two dial generations and two materials – steel and yellow gold – were offered on this rarely seen reference. While exact production numbers elude scholarship, the model is uncommon in the collector market and even unknown to many committed collectors of Audemars Piguet.
For today’s collector, the Royal Oak 25920 Annual Calendar is the complicated equivalent of the 14790: a reasonably priced point of entry to the fraternity of Royal Oak owners. Even better, the annual is such a scarce breed of AP that a devotee of the brand is more likely to encounter a Jumbo OR a Royal Oak perpetual than another example of the 25920.
1997 was a banner year for the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak; the Jumbo turned 25, the Royal Oak Offshore “End of Days” inaugurated the era of Royal Oak Offshore limited series; the Royal Oak Chronograph debuted at Baselworld. Yes, in these pre-2K days, AP still exhibited at Baselworld. And courtesy of AP, Basel’s show floor was treated to a rare indoor rainbow: the Royal Oak Offshore 25770 “Colors” series.
Royal Oak Colors Series
These watches weren’t intended for production. In fact, as a 25th anniversary celebration of Gerald Genta’s original Royal Oak, the Colors set wasn’t even intended to highlight the Offshore family. But the union of giant sports chronograph and larger-than-life candy colors proved to be one of the hits of that year’s show, and AP commenced production on a limited – but not individually numbered – basis. The 1997 Colors, alongside that year’s 500-piece “End of Days” edition, became the first special and limited edition Royal Oak Offshores, respectively.
While the Colors are difficult to miss in person, they can prove to be elusive trophies for committed collectors of offbeat Audemars Piguet.
Rare Colors and Inspired Themes
All eight original references are rare watches even by the relatively restrained production volumes of AP. But if certain models are as scarce as hen’s teeth, others are as scarce as hen’s teeth on a rooster. A disciplined search will yield occasional yellow and blue dial models; only the most obsessive Offshore devotee will pursue the brick red, purple, and apple green examples in earnest.
In many ways, the Colors are a precursor to the later “Themed” Royal Oak Offshore series of the 2000s. More mainstream color-themed series bearing nicknames like “Safari,” “Volcano,” “Navy,” and “Panda” can trace their origins to the bold Colors of 1997.
After 45 years of the Royal Oak, the first 1972 model’s insurgent legacy lives most clearly in the spirit of the Colors line.
While both Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin dutifully issue their sports watch ripostes to the Royal Oak and Offshore families, it is hard to imagine either marque following AP down the road of madness that led to giant “Apple Green” and “Lime Yellow” chronographs. 2016-17’s reprisal of several celebrated day-glow Offshore colors from the original series speaks to the emotional pull that these watches maintain in collector circles two decades later.
Audacity is one thing; insanity is quite another. And yes, there’s an AP for that, too. Late 2008’s Royal Oak Offshore “Survivor” was a watch for its times; the zaniest manifestation of the Royal Oak limited edition series launched into a world on the brink of chaos. Political drama, financial calamity, and a maelstrom of economic discord swept the globe; the Royal Oak responded.
Royal Oak Offshore Survivor
If Mad Max Rockatansky trained under Philippe Dufour, the result would have looked exactly like the Survivor. No Royal Oak past or present matches the sheer drama of the Survivor. Each example of the 1000-piece series combined apocalyptic imagery with the core genus of a Royal Oak Offshore.
Blackened titanium flanks, a crown like a rifle’s muzzle brake, a grooved bezel evoked the barrel of a cannon, pusher guards like grenade caps, drilled-out corners like a brass knuckle, and a “bull’s eye”-style seconds register set the tone for the most intense Offshore of all time. Even the strap’s embossed textures seemed to suggest belt-fed ammunition ready to load. 2008 was that kind of year…
With the Survivor, AP again released a disruptive watch that proved strangely matched to the relentless death-metal drumbeat of its times. Just as the 1972 Royal Oak launched into a changing world of quartz and crisis, the Survivor sprang onto a globe ensnared in its own world wide web.
More than an uncanny coincidence of timing, the Survivor proved that in high horology you can get away with anything if you do it with good manners.
Each facet, drilling, and hinge of the Survivor was executed with the same loving artisanal grace as the hairline bevels of a Royal Oak Extra-Thin. The muzzle-brake crown turned with the heft of a bank vault tumbler, and the flamboyant grenade-style “pin guards” atop the chronograph pushers swung with the crisp action of a rifle’s bolt.
Amidst Survivor’s mass of details, there were subtleties like the shock of red atop the seconds hand and the relieved channels surrounding the bezel bolts. Inside the case, its caliber 3126 bore the same refined decoration as any Jules Audemars automatic. It may have looked like a rebel, but the Survivor was a graduate of its own kind of finishing school.
No Royal Oak ever has approached the aesthetic and thematic extreme of the Survivor. While certain models were larger, more expensive, more complicated, or more exclusive, none has matched the sheer brutality and dogma-free design ambition of the Survivor.
Introducing The Ceramic Royal Oak
2017’s Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar 26579CE brings the Royal Oak story to a kind of full-circle. In 1972, steel was an alien material for a true haut-de-gamme men’s watch. With the full ceramic “CE” the Royal Oak goes where its shadowing models from Vacheron and Patek have not dared.
As the first full-ceramic Royal Oak, the CE boasts the distinction of being the first within a famous family. While “extremes” such as value and complexity are destined to be surpassed, “first” is a distinction that stands forever.
Moreover, Audemars Piguet has delivered a ceramic Royal Oak without sacrificing any of the exacting finish that creates the definition and character of a metal Royal Oak. If anything, ceramic ups the ante; the demanding process of finishing each ceramic bracelet consumes 30 man-hours.
The 26579CE is an ideal anniversary reference because it perfectly dovetails so many threads of Royal Oak history including form, caliber, and complication. For a traditional Royal Oak, “form” means the form as Genta envisioned it. And while Royal Oaks look good on straps, they look best on full bracelets. Inside the ceramic case, the original 1972 model’s ultra-thin base caliber 2120 serves as a tractor for the perpetual calendar complication; the perpetual calendar was the first Royal Oak complication in 1981: full circle.
Each era of the Royal Oak has seen its exceptions. Their quirks, curiosities, and undeniable charm give perspective with which to better understand the mainstream milestones. These outliers define the boundaries of a path 45 years in the making.