In 1970, the entire world was groovy, and people were investing in classic mechanical watches for ones with light-up displays. Radical! Of course, things were less radical for Swiss watch manufacturer Audemars Piguet, which was scrambling to work out a counterpunch ahead of the brand new quartz watches put it out of business. Executives threw a hail mary to Gerald Genta, a watch designer who was going to cement his status as a legend. An AP executive went to Genta with a brief one day at 4 p.m.:”Mr. Genta, I require a steel sports watch which has never been done before, I need it to be something totally new and waterproof,” he said, according to the designer. The subtext: develop a watch that will save the company. Oh, and the design was due the following morning.
That night, drawing inspiration from deep diving diving helmets, Genta sketched and designed the stop-sign-shaped Royal Oak. It turned out Audemars Piguet watches into one of the most prosperous watch brands in the world.
Image may contain: Wristwatch It was a different age: in the early 1970s, when guys still had to wear watches to keep an eye on the moment, they chose between stainless steel watches and dressy pieces built for black-tie soirees. The Royal Oak bridged those two worlds, making a luxury watch out of the more durable steel. When it was first introduced, the AP was more expensive than Patek Philippe bits made from gold and 10 times the price of many steel Rolexes.
People needed the time to adjust to the concept of a new luxury-priced sport watch. It took three decades for Audemars to sell 1,000 bits – but, luckily, that initial run went to the proper people. Famously, the Shah of Iran was the first-ever Royal Oak customer. Audemars relied on powerful customers–influencers! –such as the Shah to place the tone, and not long after that first period of lackluster sales, curiosity shot way, way up. Now, the Royal Oak is Audemars’s flagship product.
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Audemars has benefited from the success of its own tentpole merchandise for decades. The Royal Oak now comes in versions encrusted in diamonds, constructed with tourbillonscooked and cooked up with endless calendars. And in 1993, Audemars introduced the Royal Oak Offshore, which beefed up the iconic layout and came standard with a chronograph and the trio of pushers that complication demanded. (The watch’s designer Emmanuel Gueit afterwards said that when the watch surfaced at Baselworld,”Genta invaded the booth shouting that HIS Royal Oak had been completely destroyed.”) When earlier this year Audemars introduced a totally new collection that went away from the Royal Oak, a number of the pieces were met with skepticism by AP fanboys.
The Royal Oak and its offspring will also be in charge of attracting new customers into the world of watch collecting. In 2006, the newest then-American-president François-Henry Bennahmias allow Jay Z have a crack at designing his own Royal Oak Offshore. In 2013, Bennahmias extended the exact same chance to LeBron James, who frequently wears Audemars Piguet watches. It might not be a huge surprise to find out that Bennahmias has become the brand’s CEO.
However, the watch’s most famous urge just might be a fictional character: Ari Gold, the abrasive agent in Entourage, who obtained a Royal Oak from his boss on the series.