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Feature: 3 Things You’ve Got To Know About Audemars Piguet

So of course you’ll have guessed by now that the fourth most popular brand and the subject of this week’s In Focus series is luxury giant Audemars Piguet. For better or worse, Audemars Piguet is predominantly responsible for the luxury watch landscape as it stands today, the paradigm-shifting 1972 Royal Oak starting a chain reaction that recovered the entire industry from obsolescence. Follow along as we delve into some of the unknown parts of Audemars Piguet’s stories in the articles we’re posting here at watchfinder.com. You can catch us over on Instagram too. So, Audemars Piguet—you probably know a lot about it already, but here’s some stuff you didn’t.

The Royal Oak Was Originally Made In White Gold

I don’t think you’ll be surprised that the first fact we’re delving into here has something to do with Audemars Piguet’s flagship, the Royal Oak. Talking about Audemars Piguet without mentioning the Royal Oak would be like Simon without Garfunkel or Bert without Ernie. Like it or not, the Royal Oak is an exceptional piece of watchmaking history without which we’d all be wearing Apple watches instead.

What cemented its status into legend was its combination of looks, price and material. First off, it looked nothing else that had ever gone before. If Audemars Piguet—and indeed much of the watchmaking scene—were well-established with the mantra of form follows function, the Royal Oak did exactly the opposite. It looked like it did because, well, why not?

And the price, ouch. At a whopping ten times the cost of a Rolex Submariner, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was at least going to be in gold to make up some of that cost. Nope—it was made of plain old steel. And this wasn’t some cost-cutting measure; it was a conscious decision. Steel was in and gold, Audemars Piguet’s preferred material, was out.

But despite that, the first Royal Oaks weren’t actually made in steel at all—they were fashioned from white gold instead. The hugely complicated case and bracelet components just weren’t something Audemars Piguet was equipped to make at such short notice, and so the prototypes were manufactured in gold instead, being softer and easier to machine. In fact, the added setup costs to equip the brand to machine the steel version actually caused it to have a higher production expense than gold for Audemars Piguet, materials included—an expense that, as we well know, was easily recouped.

Audemars Piguet Makes Incredible Watches … For Other Watchmakers

The Royal Oak may be the most famous watch that Audemars Piguet makes—but that’s only when you consider the watches you know about. There are a whole hoard of pieces Audemars Piguet is responsible for that you’d otherwise have no idea about. Enter Audemars Piguet employees Dominique Renaud and Giulio Papi, two watchmakers with a dream of building grand complications. To put you in the mindset of what these two did next, have you ever commented on someone’s performance, only to be faced by the retort, “Well, if you think you can do better, why don’t you do it yourself?”

Well, in 1986, that’s exactly what Dominique and Giulio did, circumventing the traditional career path to master watchmaker by establishing a master watchmaking firm of their very own, Renaud et Papi. Now, let me set the scene here, because these two did this at the point the Swiss watchmaking industry was on its knees. It’s like investing in radio on the day MTV was launched.

Or at least it would have been, had a certain watchmaker called IWC not been trying to spark something of a rebirth. The man in charge, Günter Blümlein, the legend who revived not only IWC, but Jaeger-LeCoultre and A. Lange & Söhne too, set Dominique and Giulio a challenge: build a minute repeater to fit Kurt Klaus’ legendary perpetual calendar and a Valjoux 7750 chronograph. Challenge not only accepted, but knocked out the park.

Unfortunately, critical acclaim wasn’t paying the bills, and so it was back to Audemars Piguet for Dominique and Giulio—not for employment, but with a business proposition. They agreed to sell a majority share to Audemars Piguet on the condition the pair could continue making watches for third parties—and so it was agreed.

Since then, under the watchful eye of Audemars Piguet, the dynamic duo has not only launched brands like Richard Mille and assisted even the mighty A. Lange & Söhne, but also fostered the careers of greats like the Grönefeld brothers and Stephen Forsey. All those watches that could have worn an Audemars Piguet badge instead …

Audemars Piguet Really Did Bet Everything On The Royal Oak (And It Wasn’t Called The Royal Oak)

It’s often told that Audemars Piguet relied on the Royal Oak to survive the industrial downturn, but I don’t think it’s ever fully been established just how much of a pickle the watchmaker was in and how much it bet on the Royal Oak’s success. Then Managing Director for Audemars Piguet, Georges Golay, found himself the day before the 1971 Basel Fair in a bit of a bind. The company was failing, and he needed an answer. A 4pm phone call to designer Gérald Genta would turn out not only to be the best thing he ever did, but a corporate gamble to rival the likes of New Coke.

To set the scene a little better, Audemars Piguet, in 1971, manufactured 5,000 watches total. Not per model—the whole lot. By comparison, the brand today makes some ten times that. Such small numbers were why the business was failing, and the business was failing because no one was buying the watches they did make. That 4pm phone call was beyond desperate. Georges Golay needed a ground-breaking watch that would sell at an incredible price—and he needed it first thing the next morning. He needed the Royal Oak.

If this Royal Oak—or rather, Safari, as it was originally titled—were to save the company, it would have to do so in a big way. The risk couldn’t be taken in a mitigated fashion, perhaps trialling a small batch and then scaling up—it was time to go big or go home. The investment in machinery needed to make the complex steel case and bracelet alone meant the numbers only worked if total production went up by a whopping 50%—just in Royal Oaks. Georges Golay bet the business on red.

By 1975, three years after the launch of the Royal Oak, things were looking shaky. The first batch of 2,000 had only just been sold. The business was still very much on a knife edge—and so, ignoring every principle of the gambler’s fallacy, the choice was made to double down and make another 2,500. This, finally, is when the popularity of the watch started to emerge, and by the mid-eighties, production had risen to well over 10,000 pieces a year. Now, I don’t know if Georges Golay was a gambling man, but on the eve of the 1971 Basel Fair, he made the biggest gamble of his life, and somehow, it paid off—all thanks to the midnight scribblings of one man: Gérald Genta.

You know the drill—if you enjoyed this, you’ll enjoy the other articles we’ll be posting right here on watchfinder.com, make sure to check them out.

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