By the 1970s, the Swiss watch industry was in a state of crisis. The introduction of the Seiko Astron, the world's first commercially-available quartz wristwatch, shook the industry to the core. Faced with the influx of quartz watches in the watch industry, consumers turned to the reliable Japanese products.
Sales of Swiss mechanical watches plummeted. Seeing this trend, some manufactures (who had been experimenting with quartz technology--the Beta 21--since the mid-1960s) brought out their own quartz movements. Still, these watches proved no match for the Japanese import, and throughout the 1970s the number of watchmakers in Switzerland plummeted to just 600 (from 1600 in 1970).
But Audemars Piguet, the venerable manufacture based in Le Brassus, had a secret weapon in their arsenal that would safeguard the future of the brand--and, they hoped, revitalize the faltering Swiss watch industry.
In 1971, a half-Swiss, half-Italian designer received a call at 4 PM the day before the Swiss Basel Fair. Gerald Genta wasn't an unknown entity to the head honchos of the Swiss watch industry, having designed watches for Omega and Universal Genève. The man on the other end of the line, AP managing director Georges Golay, told Genta that he needed a design for "an unprecedented steel watch" for the Italian market...
... and he needed it the very next day.
Despite the short turnaround, the commission was the result of a stealthy campaign of market research. The Italian market was ripe for a versatile, sporty steel watch with impeccable finishing and killer looks that could transition from day to night seamlessly. So Genta set to work on the design, using a diver's helmet as inspiration.
By the next morning, he was done. He submitted the design to Carlo de Marchi and Charles Bauty--heads of the Italian and Swiss markets for Audemars Piguet--the blueprint for what would become the Royal Oak. Though intended to be later sold in steel, Audemars Piguet cast the prototypes of the Royal Oak in white gold at first.
The cutting edge design featured a sharply angled case, with the rivets of the bezel reminiscent of gaskets in a diver's helmet. Additionally, the eight sides of the case--and the name, Royal Oak--were inspired by eight ships of the Royal Navy that were hewn from an oak tree that sheltered King Charles II during the English Civil War. In keeping with Audemars Piguet's intention for the Royal Oak to be stylish, the case was 7mm thin, and the bracelet (made by Gay Fréres) was integrated into the case to create a slim profile.
That first Royal Oak, a Reference 5402, introduced in 1972, was something entirely new. In fact, it was so new that it more or less created the genre of a "luxury sports watch," less of a tool watch in appearance than the Rolex Submariner but still robust enough to withstand the rigors of daily wear. However, sales of the Royal Oak were sluggish at first, with authorized dealers failing to sell out their allotment of 400 Royal Oaks a piece.
But all that changed in 1974, when the head of Fiat, Giovanni Agnelli, greeted the public wearing a Royal Oak.
After that, the response was so positive that the initial allocation sold out, resulting in an extension of the line as Audemars Piguet scrambled to meet demand. It can be said without question that the original Reference 5402 "A Series" (nicknamed by collectors the "Jumbo" for its then-massive 39mm size) single-handedly paved the way for a very bright future for Audemars Piguet. Now, the Royal Oak line is of course a core component of their collection today.
The beautiful thing about Genta's design is how well it lends itself to being adapted to many different case materials and sizes. This stunner of a watch is a Reference 5402 SA in two-tone steel and gold. Carefully preserved, the case and its integrated bracelet are hefty despite the slimness, and the grey of the micro-tapisserie dial positively gleams in the light--a beautiful piece that is sure to delight.
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