Audemars Piguet is one of the most unique watchmakers in the industry. Over time the company’s identity has evolved extensively, its aesthetics have shifted, and its focus has changed. Yet, throughout these transitions, the company has maintained its underlying love for fine finishing and traditional movements. Among the three holy trinity brands, AP is the rebellious child, the most hip, and the most popular among the general public. The brand has inspired a cult-like following of enthusiasts that are serious about watches but don’t carry themselves overly buttoned up.
Audemars Piguet was founded in 1875 in a small village north of Geneva called Le Brassus. This region was engrained with horological history and appreciation, with many small watch firms and young watchmakers living in close proximity. Audemars Piguet’s founders Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet both started learning about watchmaking early on. Both came from legacy watchmaking families and had begun their training from a young age.
Although the two officially started the brand in 1875, it wasn’t until 1881 that the name was registered as Audemars Piguet et Cie. Right from the start, the brand made significant strides in the watch space, supplying the movement for the world’s first minute repeater wristwatch in 1882. The impressive achievements continued when the brand made the first jumping hours wristwatch in 1921, developed the thinnest wristwatch in 1938, the thinnest automatic perpetual calendar in 1967, and then the very first ultra thin automatic tourbillon in 1987. This represents the core of the brand, the complications and mechanical achievements that helped solidify the company’s place on the global stage.
That said, the pivotal moment came in 1972 with the release of the Genta designed Royal Oak. Having debuted shortly after the release of the quartz watch in 1969, the Royal Oak was the most expensive steel sports watch made until that point, signaling that Audemars Piguet was going to buckle down on high end product rather than shirking to the sidelines in the face of the quartz watch. The Royal Oak became the flagship for AP, and today, the company is known almost entirely for the Royal Oak and its outgrowth, the Offshore.
I think the best place to look for AP design is to cover the Royal Oak as a design and an influence on the industry. The aesthetic of the Royal Oak revolves around slim profile and durability of design. Coming out of an era of dress watch dominance, even a sports piece had to maintain some of the elegance of a dress piece. As time went on, the Offshore and Concept collections expanded the design to appeal to even more modernist sizing and proportionality, but the standard Royal Oak remains a slim watch.
Of course, the defining attribute of the Royal Oak is its bezel. Octagonal, with broad facets polished to a mirror shine, the bezel is set in place with unique geometric screws, mirror shined on their tops. The bracelet was equally avant-garde, with a strong taper from the case integration down to the clasp. The industrial underlying theme of the watch somehow complements the refined finishing brilliantly.
The prevailing concept was that many of the structural components of watch construction (the case screws and gasket for example), are displayed and made into design accents rather than hidden from sight. This makes utility a design tool rather than a secondary factor. This has reflected itself in many of the other collections, including the Offshore models.
The one other pillar of Audemars Piguet design that should be mentioned is the experimental Concept series. Developed as an ultra high end extension of the Royal Oak design language, the Concept line is often the testing ground for new materials, techniques and aesthetics. Even more out of the box approaches are used on Concept pieces, and it certainly receives its share of praise and criticism.
Audemars Piguet prior to the Royal Oak was known for movements. Although in early history the brand used many third party calibers from the likes of Jaeger LeCoultre, the movements were heavily modified, reworked, and finished by Audemars Piguet in-house. A significant priority for the brand was the development of ultra thin calibers, and while they certainly were known to use the movements of others, they also produced and sold many components for other brands. Smaller firms would often source movements from AP to then get used in their watches. Audemars Piguet was not solely known as a watchmaker, but also a supplier.
The earliest Royal Oak models were outfitted with the caliber 2121, based upon the AP caliber 2120, introduced in 1967 as the thinnest automatic winding movement with a date complication. Equally pivotal for Audemars Piguet, the 2121 was equipped with a shock absorption system to help maintain the durability the Royal Oak commanded. Today, Audemars Piguet makes some of the most beautiful movements in the industry. Relatively conventional for high horology brands, we see many of the details known to exceptional fine Swiss watches. Take a look at the modern caliber 3120 within the present day Royal Oak Jumbo, and you will see what we mean. A beautiful gold rotor is placed atop a tapestry of well decorated bridges with all the classic finishing appointments taken to the nines.
Audemars Piguet collectors have always been an interesting market segment to look at. Ultimately, there is a very diverse array of personalities that look to Audemars Piguet for their collections. Some of the most traditional high horology collectors look to vintage and neo-vintage AP for classic complications like perpetual calendars and minute repeaters. Early examples from the brand are incredibly desirable. These collectors are likely more inclined to buy a Code 11.59 than a Royal Oak when looking at the modern collections.
Moving on from this relatively small percentage of the AP customer base, there’s always the hype side of Audemars Piguet. AP made the steel sports watch cool. In an era where the integrated bracelet trend has taken the industry by storm, the Royal Oak is a magnet for social media material, wrist rolls, and influencer purchases. Stripping away all hype, the Royal Oak is a brilliant design. The culmination of Audemar Piguet’s history and mastery of watchmaking with a completely novel design language, conceived from the third eye of Gerald Genta, is a masterful combination. If you like the Royal Oak but want to distance yourself from the flash of its contemporary presence, consider a vintage reference in a more modest case size. It may do the trick.
Audemars Piguet is one of the most highly regarded companies in the game. There’s no doubt that the company’s transition to further emphasize the Royal Oak has bred mixed feelings from the traditionalists, but regardless, AP shaped the landscape of the modern luxury watch market, adapting to the uncertainty of the quartz crisis, and helping to ensure that there will be a future for high end watches in a world where more affordable and accurate alternatives now are readily available. For this alone, without considering the vast heritage and horological backing of the brand, the company deserves a place in your watch roll.