It is hard to believe that a watch designed in less than 24 hours would eventually turn out to be one of the most iconic timepieces of a Swiss watchmaker with longstanding heritage.
The revolutionary watch is the Royal Oak which Audemars Piguet commissioned from legendary watch designer Gerald Genta.
The year was 1970 and the Swiss watch industry was reeling from onslaught of cheap quartz mechanisms from Japan.
At 4pm on the eve of the annual Baselworld fair, Genta had received a call from Audemars Piguet’s managing director at the time, Georges Golay, asking him to come up with the design of an “unprecedented steel watch” that would be sporty and have “the most beautiful finishing” by the following morning.
Taking his inspiration from a traditional diver’s helmet, Genta’s design featured an octagon-shaped bezel secured by eight hexagonal gold screws, a visible water-resistance gasket and a blue petite tapisserie dial. The masculine bezel was offset by a slim (7mm) 39mm case and an elegant integrated stainless steel that was extremely difficult to make.
When it fell upon Jacqueline Dimier, a new watch designer who had just joined Audemars Piguet, to reinterpret the Royal Oak for women in 1975, she found the integrated bracelet one of biggest challenges.
“At the time, what watch brands would do was to reduce the size to create the woman’s version. This model was not like the others. Normally, with male watches, we could just reduce the size of the lugs and put in a smaller strap, so the fully integrated bracelet made that a challenge,” Dimier says.
“In the East, people have smaller wrists. The challenge was to make a bracelet that could curve faster. We had to find a way to make that.”
Up to her retirement several months ago, Dimier has taken the Royal Oak for women through about 150 incarnations – from mechanical to quartz and back to mechanical, adapting to trends and fashion.
For the 40th anniversary novelties, however, Dimier took a step back to hand the reins of a new era of the Royal Oak to Florentine jewellery designer Carolina Bucci, who has her own eponymous jewellery line, which is carried in Lane Crawford in Hong Kong.
The Royal Oak Frosted Gold melds the watchmaker’s Swiss precision with Bucci’s characteristic Florentine technique, a surface treatment process that has its roots in Florence’s ancient gold hammering technique that leaves a shimmering sparkle. Although Bucci’s professional world had rarely come into contact with the watchmaking industry, the designer was already a Royal Oak fan when she was first introduced to Audemars Piguet CEO Francois-Henry Bennahmias about three years ago.
For her 35th birthday, her husband had asked her to choose a watch, but Bucci didn’t really see anything that appealed to her.
“Then one day, I was walking in New York City and I saw a woman wearing this watch that caught my eye. I followed her and found out it was the [36mm gold] Royal Oak [ref 4100BA] and so began the hunt to find the watch,” Bucci says at her workshop in Florence. In response to Bennahmias’s question about why she chose to wear a men’s watch, Bucci was brutally honest: “I said, you don’t make the watch that I want.” Bennahmias asked her if she thought she could do better.
“I said, yes I can. And that’s how it all started,” she says. Despite the differences in the industry – “the watch world is all about precision whereas my jewellery deals a lot with emotion” – Bucci found she
had a lot in common with Audemars Piguet. “We’re both family businesses. My family has been in the jewellery business since 1885. We’re based or centred in a geographic location and our products are [created by] artisans, [giving them a sense of] individuality. We share these common traits as well as a tradition, a heritage, but also a desire and drive to move forward and to create new and inspiring and fun things,” she says. “The design of the Royal Oak is perfect in its proportions. It’s timeless, it’s an icon. Making a new edition of an icon is more daunting than coming up with something from scratch because you need to enhance it, not change it. And that’s why I thought the application of one of my signature finishes, the Florentine finish, would just brings it to life.”
The Royal Oak Frosted Gold, which comes in 33mm and 37mm in gold and white gold, features the Florentine finish on the bezel and the bracelet. The 33mm model, which houses the Calibre 2713, features hours and minutes and the date at three o’clock, while the 37mm model features the Calibre 3120 and has an added second hand.
The gold novelties feature a white Grande Tapisserie dial while the dial for the white gold versions is a light grey. Ten pieces have been manufactured for each model in anticipation of the coming Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in January.