Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak: Iconic luxury watches
Updated 2nd Feb 2024 by Craig Gibson
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak: key features
- Audemars Piguet’s flagship watch
- First luxury steel sports watch, released in 1972
- Iconic porthole design with exposed screws
- Beautifully detailed minimalist patterned guilloché or hobnail dial
- The most popular models include the Royal Oak, Royal Oak Chronograph, Royal Oak Offshore and Royal Oak Offshore Diver
- Comes in 37mm, 39mm, 41mm and 42mm case sizes
Audemars Piguet’s flagship Royal Oak range is the first in our series covering iconic luxury watches.
By iconic we mean when something is widely known and recognised, and acknowledged especially for distinctive excellence. A combination of factors usually make a particular timepiece iconic, typically the design, craftsmanship, technology, and a backstory worth telling. For a rare breed of watches all these elements can come together to make them truly iconic.
It’s also great timing as the Royal Oak has just celebrated its 50th anniversary (2021), and was also received the Iconic Watch Prize at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève – which are basically the Oscars for watch brands. Here we will be focusing on the key models and references in the range, specifically the Royal Oak, Royal Oak Chronograph, Royal Oak Offshore and Royal Oak Offshore Diver.
But before we do that, let’s first look at Audemars Piguet – or AP to its fans – as a brand and what makes them so special.
Audemars Piguet watches: Elite of the elite
Alongside Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet is part of the so-called ‘Holy Trinity’ or ‘Big Three’ of Swiss watchmaking – the elite of the elite. They all produce relatively small numbers of watches a year, instead choosing to focus on quality over quantity, with billions invested in research/development and everything manufactured in-house. In terms of annual production AP manufactures around 40,000 pieces, which is put into perspective by Rolex’s roughly 1 million pieces a year.
The company was founded by Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet in 1875, and to this day are still – like Rolex – a family owned business. AP didn’t get their reputation in the world of watchmaking solely from the Royal Oak. They have earned it the hard way, with innovations like developing the first skeleton watch, the first watch with a carbon case and movement, as well as numerous ultra-thin movements and complex calibres.
Let’s now look at the Royal Oak and the other watches in the range, to understand why it is a truly iconic watch.
What makes Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak watch special (and iconic)?
The Royal Oak is often spoken of in the same breath as the equally iconic Patek Philippe Nautilus ref. 5711 – for good reason, as it is another Genta-designed classic. Released in 1972 at the Basel Watch Fair, the Royal Oak has come to define Audemars Piguet, unlike any other watch for a brand. Sure, they have other watches in their range – but can you name one?
AP without the Royal Oak range = unthinkable, and it’s the brand’s flagship watch. But what makes it so special and has led to its iconic status?
There are a ton of reasons why the Royal Oak is special, specifically the following details and features:
- World’s first luxury steel sports watch.
- Unique ‘porthole’ design with geometric, octagonal bezel.
- Eight exposed hexagonal screws that attach the bezel to the case.
- Minimal dial embossed with unique ‘tapisserie’ waffle style patterned grid.
- Integrated steel bracelet.
Royal Oak: Iconic porthole design by Gérald Genta
The Royal Oak has a lot going for it, including a sleek appearance, waterproof case and automatic movement – but its most distinctive feature is the unique ‘porthole’ design by legendary Swiss watch designer Gérald Genta. The eight exposed screws holding down the octagonal bezel were not a hit with the watch buying public when it was released. People found it weird that the screws were visible. Over time people obviously changed their minds, and the rest is history…
Inspired by vintage diving helmets, legend has it that Genta sketched the outline of what was to become the Royal Oak overnight, after the MD of AP asked: ‘Mr. Genta, I need a steel sports watch that has never been done before, I want it to be something totally new and waterproof…I want the design by tomorrow morning.” On such a short turnaround, we can all agree he definitely delivered! Genta also designed Patek Philippe’s equally iconic Nautilus sports watch, Cartier’s Pasha de Cartier and a host of other pieces for brands such as Universal Genève and OMEGA. And if you are wondering about the name, it also has nautical roots, as the name of a British naval ship.
This model was also notable as it is considered the first luxury steel sports watch, when it was released in 1972 – a time when this material was not widely used for luxury watches. It was also produced at the time of the so-called during the quartz crisis, when the cheap automatic Japanese movements nearly put a knife to the entire Swiss watchmaking industry.
It is also worth looking at the dial on the Royal Oak in more detail, as it’s pretty special.
Royal Oak’s dial colours and tapisserie or hobnail dial
The other highlight of all Royal Oak models is the -so-called guilloché dial, which is embossed with a unique waffle design called ‘tapisserie’. Guilloché is the name for the patterned grid effect, which is a metal engraving technique that dates to the late 18th century. The patterned grid used by AP on the Royal Oak dial is known as Clous de Paris or ‘hobnail’ in the trade – which are a series of miniature raised pyramids, and is very much part of the DNA of a Royal Oak.
Royal Oak models come with three different sized patterns: the largest ‘Méga Tapisserie’, medium ‘Grande Tapisserie’ and the standard ‘Petite Tapisserie’ of the original model. Not all models in the range have this effect, such as the Royal Oak ‘Jumbo’ Extra-Thin which has a smoked sunburst-patterned dial.
In terms of dial colours, the most popular colour is the traditional blue found on the original, what AP calls the Bleu Nuit (blue night) dial. There are lots of other colour options, but black, white, gold and light grey are popular. Also look out for the striking electric or ultramarine blue, which is known by the nickname Yves Klein – after the French artist who created the colour International Klein Blue (IKB).
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak: The ultimate sports watch
The Royal Oak is classed as a luxury sports watch – a category the brand created way back in ‘72 when they released the original. The first Royal Oak (ref. 15202ST) had a slim 39mm case, what you would today call vintage sizing, but they have since expanded their range with a 42mm case (2012) and more recently (2022) a smaller 37mm piece. The Royal Oak Chronograph comes in two sizes, a 38mm and larger 41mm.
There are also Royal Oak models specifically for slimmer ladies wrists, with cases between 33mm and 37mm – as well as top of the range flying tourbillons, perpetual calendars and the Grande Complication. In terms of materials, all the various Royal Oak models come in a variety of precious metals including:
- Stainless steel
- Rose gold
Prices are closely related to the material (and movement), with titanium and ceramic the most expensive – though high demand for stainless steel models means their prices are not far behind. There are also Royal Oak models with diamond bezels, as below, if that is your thing.
Royal Oak: Most popular models and references
The most in-demand Royal Oak is the Jumbo Extra-Thin 15202ST in stainless steel with the automatic caliber 2121 and blue dial, but only if you have north of $135k to play with! This is because this model most closely resembles the 1972 original, which was considered large for its time – hence the name Jumbo.
The next most current Royal Oak reference is the ‘standard’ Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Selfwinding 15400ST or 15500ST with the blue dial. These resemble the original model (ref. 15202ST) except they come in a larger 41mm case, which is a sizing more popular with today’s consumers.
The panda dial Royal Oak Chronograph (ref. 26331st.OO.1220st.03) in stainless steel is another big seller, understandable as chronograph watches are some of the most popular designs on the market today.
Let’s now take a look at two other models in the range, the Royal Oak Offshore, Royal Oak Offshore Diver.
Royal Oak Offshore: the beefier, sportier model
To mark the 20th anniversary of the original AP released the Royal Oak Offshore in 1993. This is a beefier, sportier version of the original, and is a chronograph with water resistance to 100 m. Besides the slightly different case design, which protects the recessed winder.
Royal Oak Offshore Diver
The Royal Oak Offshore Diver is a serious dive watch which can go down to 300m. This is an unmistakably solid watch that means business, with a 42mm diameter case that sits 14mm deep on the wrist. Unique features include the unidirectional, rotatable internal bezel which is operated by a second screw-down crown located at 10 o’clock. As a true dive watch this model comes with a rubber strap, and there are also a wide variety of colour combinations, including yellow, orange, blue, green and even purple! AP also released a Offshore Diver Chronograph model in 2016.
Royal Oak: Frequently Asked Questions
Expect to pay anywhere from:
– $69,995 for a pre-owned Royal Oak Dual Time 26120OR.OO.DD88CR.01 Rose Gold 39mm
– $72,250 for a Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Selfwinding 15400ST Blue Dial
– $76,995 for a pre-owned Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Chronograph 26320ST.OO.1220ST.02 Silver Dial 41mm
– $89,995 for a pre-owned Audemars Piguet Royal Oak 15400ST.OO.1220ST.03 Blue Dial Stainless Steel 41mm.
There are a few key differences between Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak range and the newer Royal Oak Offshore. The Offshore has a more muscular sporty, industrial design that is aimed squarely at a younger audience – with a larger 42mm case size and a chronograph movement. Side by side the Royal Oak is sleeker and less obviously sporty.
Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak has iconic status, so no wonder it is one of the most in-demand watches for celebs and high profile sports stars. Royal Oak fans include LeBron James (basketball), Neymar (football) and Serena Williams (tennis), as well as celeb musos such as Drake.