Feature: 3 Complicated Audemars Piguet Royal Oaks
It’s the watch that saved Audemars Piguet, that came to define it. The eight, hard angles framing the dial and bracelet blending seamlessly into the case can be recognised from across the street—and that’s the point. The Royal Oak was meant to redefine an ailing industry, create exclusivity with a technology that was fast becoming antiquated. And it worked—but could it be better?
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Leo Messi 26325TS.OO.D005CR.01
The first proposition for an improved take on the 1972 original comes from none other than Lionel Andrés Messi Cuccittini—better known as the Argentinian footballer Leo Messi. You don’t have to be into football or anywhere near it to recognise that name, as Lionel is widely regarded as the best player in the world—if not all time.
Naturally then, Audemars Piguet requested that Lionel proffer his insight on how to restyle perhaps the most recognisable watch ever made—one so recognisable that Patek Philippe even borrowed the same designer to copy it. Just to be sure, Audemars Piguet only let Lionel make 500 watches in his design.
In fairness to Lionel, Audemars Piguet needn’t have been so cautious; the Royal Oak ‘Leo Messi’ edition is actually rather striking. Well, it is when you get to know it, because a casual glance reveals no change at all. But if you’re at all familiar with the Royal Oak, you might find yourself muffling a bit of a gasp when you realise what’s happened here.
One of the Royal Oak’s defining details is its tapisserie dial, a rose engine-turned guilloché pattern that has become synonymous with the watch—so, yeah, that’s gone. In its place is a smooth, anthracite dial that’s refreshingly clean and simple, the sub-dials demarcated by a stepped, contrasting ring.
Next out the window is the steel bezel with its polished lip, in its place an entirely brushed item made of tantalum. Unlike much of Rolex’s material nomenclature, tantalum is an actual element on the periodic table, and a pretty interesting one to boot. It’s completely corrosion resistant to all but the strongest acids and has unusually high capacitance, making it a common fixture in compact electronics that require utmost stability, and is coloured an unusual pale violet.
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar 26574OR.OO.1220OR.01
One of the biggest surprises of the original 1972 Royal Oak was its mechanical simplicity. Here was a company whose life’s work building incredible mechanical complications was being reduced to nothing overnight by electronics—survival was a question of reinventing itself completely.
Being that there was no complication that was capable of competing with this new breed of technology, it was towards aspiration and exclusivity that Audemars Piguet threw its Hail Mary. A steel watch with a bold, distinct design, with a simple dial carrying only hours, minutes and the date. This was a watch from a master of complications that didn’t even have seconds. It was also one of the most expensive watches the company had ever sold.
But sell it did. The gamble paid off, and wealthy customers eager to demonstrate their status adored the extravagance of the design and the flagrant use of steel in such an expensive model.
But the art of the complex is where Audemars Piguet’s spirit lies, and to combine this lifesaving design with an impressive and complicated movement is where the past and present finally interlock. In rose gold and at £84,000, it doesn’t come cheap—but that’s very much in the essence of the Royal Oak.
Befitted with a perpetual calendar—a complication that marked Jules Louis Audemars’ qualification as a watchmaking student—and based on the same Jaeger-LeCoultre module that powered the original Royal Oak back in 1972, the calibre 5134 does everything you could expect of a perpetual calendar, with a dash of added flair.
The moonphase, for example, gets an accuracy akin to one error every 125 years, and features a laser-cut, iridescent moon set among a sparkling aventurine sky; the rotor weight is guided on a track by four ruby runners to reduce friction to a minimum; and the watch even gets a week indication around the edge of the dial, not something seen very often at all.
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Tourbillon Chronograph 25977ST.OO.D002CR.01
The chronograph tourbillon is a rarity enough as it is, but as a hand-wound calibre, it’s almost unheard of. A perfect fit for our final Royal Oak, then. There’s a reason for its scarcity, and that, quite simply, is space. A chronograph on its own, it’s a fairly common thing, but despite its prevalence, it’s actually one of the more complex functions a mechanical watch can have.
By part number alone, a chronograph is pushing over 200, double what you’d find in a basic, time-only watch. All the additional levers, wheels and springs required to communicate the start, stop and reset inputs, even with careful, compact design, crowd each other for room, leaving little space left for anything else.
Regardless, Audemars Piguet has decided to cram a tourbillon in as well. Like a chronograph, the intricate turning cage of a tourbillon requires an additional 100 parts over a basic movement, pushing the total count of this watch just shy of 300. That’s a lot of parts.
Ever bound by the laws of physics, Audemars Piguet has pushed the size of the case to a Royal Oak Offshore-esque 44mm to accommodate both mechanisms, finding room behind the dial to house the tourbillon and its component parts. The happy by-product is a front-on view of it in action, where the running seconds would ordinarily be.
Regardless of the actual effectiveness of a tourbillon within a wristwatch, it’s a remarkable demonstration of what’s possible at the very forefront of mechanical watchmaking, as much a piece of performance art as it is a regulatory mechanism. It demands to be watched and appreciated, what seems like chaos rendering order one tick at a time.
Audemars Piguet and its Royal Oak mark the line in the sand where mechanical watches changed their stripes from necessity to aspiration. It was a moment that could have spelled the end of fine watchmaking altogether, but instead it gave us a new frontier of both tradition and experimentation, an opportunity to discover what the limits of the mechanism really are. It could have been a very different story; that these three watches exist at all is some of the best news an enthusiast could ever hope to hear.
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