What do Karl Lagerfeld, Ari Gold, and Prince Michael of Kent all have in common, besides an unwavering commitment to epically flamboyant personal style? A well-documented love for one very particular type of wristwatch. And it’s not a Rolex, nor is it even round. It’s the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, an octagonal token of luxury that was once the most expensive stainless steel wristwatch on earth.
The Royal Oak was conceived in 1970 by a Swiss industrial designer named Gérald Genta, who claimed to have sketched the case during the course of an evening after getting a call from Audemars Piguet, the century-old luxury watchmaker that was staring obsolescence in the face due to the quartz-watch wave enveloping the luxury-timepiece industry. Genta’s legend would only grow in the ensuing years, when he would go on to make now iconic watches for the likes of Cartier, Bulgari, and Patek Philippe. But the Royal Oak remains his most radical masterpiece.
When the Royal Oak was released, in 1972, the most desirable Swiss watches were rather antique: small, dressy, and made of precious metals. The steel R.O., on the other hand, was futuristic, with architectural proportions, razor-sharp finishing, an incredibly slim movement, and a bracelet that looked downright industrial compared with those of popular watches. Most shocking was the price, which was considered extortionate: some $3,600, or about 10 times what a Rolex Submariner then cost. Rather than try to be an affordable alternative to cheap quartz watches, the R.O. was the first steel sports watch priced like a luxury timepiece.
And it worked. The initial order of 1,000 Royal Oaks sold out, and since then it’s been in constant production—and a generation of collectors have been raised on steel sport watches. Audemars Piguet has flourished, too, growing into one of the most valuable watch brands in the world.
Along the way, the Royal Oak family tree has sprouted several branches. The white-gold 15202BC (center) marries the 39-mm proportions of the first R.O. with modern production and a sublime salmon dial. There are 41-mm steel R.O.s with a full suite of complications to choose from: chronographs, tourbillons, and perpetual calendars. And then there are 38-mm chronos in steel and every shade of gold—among the most coveted recent releases is a limited-edition white-gold version with a perfect baby blue dial (right). Rather than distract from the essential appeal of the pure design, the many iterations speak to the shocking adaptability of the unique octagonal bezel.
But as with so many pieces of design, there’s nothing more appealing than the archetype. This two-tone example (left, from 1977)—the same model worn by Prince Michael—has its fair share of dings and scratches, but ask any serious R.O.-head and they’d say it’s among the most beautiful models ever made. That said, the R.O. isn’t for everyone. Casual customers might not want eight white-gold screws on their extremely expensive bezel. But for those who know, the historical oddity that is the Royal Oak—dreamed up by a nomadic designer-for-hire at an inflection point for a legacy house—will never go out of style. It helped bring the watch world into the modern era, after all. And we’re damn thankful it did.
A version of this story originally appeared in the May 2021 issue with the title “How the Royal Oak Launched the Modern Era of Watchmaking.”