François-Henry Bennahmias promised a streamlined collection with new mechanisms, designs and materials when he assumed the reins as CEO at Audemars Piguet four years ago. That pledge started to emerge last year with the Royal Oak collection, and all eyes were on it at this year’s SIHH, as the watchmaker unveiled novelties showcasing new designs and materials across its signature line.
They included the Royal Oak Openworked Double Balance Wheel with two balance wheels on the same axis to improve precision, a first in the industry that in just a year has become Audemars Piguet’s third bestselling watch. The Royal Oak Offshore Diver Chronograph saw the brand depart from conservative colours to vibrant dials and straps.
The Royal Oak collection is under close scrutiny again this year, with upgrades to technical and design features and tribute pieces.
These include the fifth anniversary of the Royal Oak Tourbillon Extra-Thin Openworked, containing a 216-piece skeleton movement that is ending its run with pink gold and stainless steel variations.
The Royal Oak Chronograph marks its 20th anniversary and a new series of seven pieces see two-tone dials, including pink gold with blue or brown dials, stainless steel with black, white or blue dials, as well as titanium and platinum models. There are subtle changes to the design; chronograph counters are marginally bigger and the date window is repositioned between four and five o’clock.
When the original Royal Oak debuted in 1972 it was hailed as a thin, luxury sports watch, despite its stainless steel appearance. Precious metals only appeared five years later with the debut of a yellow gold version, a metal that has increasingly appeared on a raft of Audemars Piguet timepieces. They include the new Royal Oak Extra-Thin in yellow gold, equipped with the ultrathin self-winding 2121 calibre and the Royal Oak’s woven, or tapisserie patterned dials, now appearing in blue, Champagne, or an all-matching yellow gold dial and case.
The year 1977 was also important for the launch of the Audemars Piguet women’s Royal Oak series, adapted from Gerald Genta’s masculine piece into a more contemporary sleek design. This 40-year milestone is marked with the Royal Oak Frosted Gold, in pink and white “diamond dust” variations.
Audemars Piguet teamed up with Florentine jewellery designer Carolina Bucci to create the frosted effect, using a diamond tipped tool and an ancient gold hammering technique to create tiny indentations that give the effect of diamond dust, or frost.
Other talking points in the Royal Oak series include the Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar. Audemars Piguet was the first watchmaker to include a leap year indication in a wristwatch, debuting the mechanism
This year’s variation is notable for being the first watch in the Royal Oak collection to depart from metal.
Mechanically, the new, 41mm all-black ceramic version is the same as its predecessors, beating with an automatic 5134 that operates the week, day and date as well as leap year and astronomical moon. The swap from metal to ceramic was far from easy.
Ceramic is one of the hardiest materials and virtually scratch resistant, making it technically challenging to achieve finely executed angles and a high gloss, particularly with the hand-held tools and techniques that Audemars Piguet demanded.
The watch was 600 hours in the making before achieving the desired finish, five times longer than it takes with steel.
With that investment and the promise of new materials, there will likely be more ceramic models.
Last year’s Royal Oak Offshore Diver Chronographs displayed vibrant applications of colour, which is extended to non-chronograph variations of the diving watch.
Acid yellow, lime green, orange, dark blue and white dials and rubber straps now appear on the Royal Oak Offshore Diver, highlighting the tapisserie motif. Technical features include standard diving elements such as a rotating inner bezel, this time with a yellow diving scale, and water resistance to 300 metres.
The Royal Oak Quartz is the last of the timepieces in the category to get a revamp. This year’s novelties in pink or white gold see the dial, bezel and bracelet reworked with diamonds set in a swirling, wave-like pattern.
As Audemars Piguet refocuses attention on its most important categories, it is winding down others.
The Diamond Outrage is the final incarnation in a trilogy of haute joaillerie timepieces that, like the Diamond Punk and Diamond Fury that came before, shows a willingness for audacious design as much as feats of engineering.
The icy summits of the Vallée de Joux visible from Audemars Piguet’s headquarters are reinterpreted in an explosion of stalactite spikes covered with precious gems. One is a dramatic set of more than 11,000 blue sapphires, the other a full diamond version of brilliant, baguette-cut stones set using the watchmaker’s invisible setting technique.
While this example of creativity signals the end of this particular experiment, it is likely to be channelled into other areas in the future.