Buying the watch seems to be a rite of passage for modern celebrities looking to mark the fact they’ve made it, right up there with buying a house for mom, starting an Instagram-only swimwear brand, and investing in a probably shaky restaurant concept. Celebrities, who need no occasion to make splash purchases, treat the Royal Oak as a milestone watch: Steph Curry wore his to accept an MVP award, Luka Doncic got one when he won the Rookie of the Year award, and Justin Bieber bought himself one as a wedding gift.
The watch’s popularity among celebrities is all the more surprising given its provenance. The watch was made on a wing and a prayer: as legend goes, an AP executive called designer Gérald Genta one evening in 1970 and asked him to mock up a new watch. The company was on the brink of going out of business; the exec needed the watch design by the next morning. Genta took inspiration from, of all things, a scuba helmet—a crusty piece of equipment that doesn’t exactly scream iconically stylish and elegant timepiece. Somehow, the angular octagon shape and exposed screwdowns he came up with made a lasting impression on the watch world. Last year, at least by my calculus, celebrities wore the Royal Oak more than any other watch. And running through the athletes, actors, and musicians—who gravitate to the watch in gold and steel, set with diamonds, or customized by high-fashion designers—goes a long way toward explaining the watch’s versatility.
Where Mayer goes, the watch world follows. He certainly wasn’t the first celebrity to wear the Royal Oak, but he sparked shopping sprees when he wore this particular vintage perpetual calendar in a self-styled GQ shoot. Because of collectors’ tendency to snap up anything co-signed by Mayer, dealers started hoarding this particular model.
Is the Royal Oak a sports watch, beckoning the world’s elite athletes? Or is it a dress watch, worn to the most important award ceremony of a person’s life? Steph Curry knows that’s a trick question. The answer—and the secret to the Royal Oak’s success—is that it’s both.
What makes the Royal Oak so popular among red carpet walkers is that while it has that distinctive sharp shape, Audemars Piguet hasn’t shied away from remaking it in every way imaginable. Here, Scott wears the Royal Oak with a frosted gold finish—the result of hammering the metal with what the brand describes as a “diamond-tipped tool.”
See what I mean? This watch has range! The Royal Oak is so nice Scott bought it twice, and this time with some extra ice.
But the Royal Oak isn’t just a blank canvas for AP. Other designers want in on the fun as well. This version of the Royal Oak is designed by Alyx and Givenchy designer Matthew Williams, who told me last year that the Royal Oak has been his grail watch ever since he saw Kanye wearing one in the mid 2000s.
But the Royal Oak doesn’t need to be set with rainbow sapphires or customized by Matt Williams to be precious. Just ask Bieber, who bought himself this extremely classic vintage version of the Royal Oak to celebrate his nuptials.
Just in case you thought the Royal Oak was a new Hollywood fad, here’s the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air himself in one of the most classic versions.
The Royal Oak isn’t just easy on the eyes, either. Williams actually wears hers on the court during play, which is how this luxury timepiece made it onto a Wheaties box. This piece is actually custom-made for Williams so that the pusher is on the left of the case rather than the standard right side. This configuration means the watch won’t dig into Williams’s skin during play.
Serena, Curry, now Anthony Davis: the road to the athletic greatness is paved with championship wins, record-setting statistical performances, best-in-the-world status, and a Royal Oak. Davis’s is a very different take on the RO: it doesn’t come in a fine material like gold, or dazzle you with sapphires. Instead, the all-black piece’s value comes from the technical precision and horological dark arts emanating from that tourbillon.
Damian Lewis as Bobby Axelrod in Billions
You know a watch really stands for something when it starts popping up on the wrists of fictional characters. The Royal Oak is often worn by wealthy and powerful characters, like Billions’s cold-blooded CEO of Axe Capital Bobby Axelrod. (Dwayne Johnson’s character in Ballers also wears a Royal Oak.)
Lewis’s watch in the show appears to be a prop created for Billions, but a similar model, pictured above, exists in the real world.
John Legend knows he doesn’t need to alter his Royal Oak for it to be a great watch. And he knows that one Royal Oak is not nearly enough, so he buys them in gold with dark-colored dials and in rose gold with a chronograph.
To some celebrities, though, the Royal Oak is merely a starting point, a light suggestion for what a final piece could look like after they put their stamp on it. Or, in Quavo’s case, less a stamp than a tray full of diamonds. This probably isn’t even the craziest or most expensive RO Quavo owns. He’s shown off another equally icy version with a skeleton dial on Snapchat. “Skeleton over 100k+,” he wrote.
Which watch do you wear after cementing yourself as the best young player in the NBA, hitting a game-winning buzzer beater over Kawhi Leonard, earning comparisons to Larry Bird, and being everyone’s surefire pick to win multiple MVP trophies one day? There is really only one.
Combs’s take on the Royal Oak somehow makes every other version of the watch look austere, which is no easy feat. You really have to respect the ingenuity of using a Cuban-link chain as a bracelet. Combs’s gonzo take on the watch is proof of what makes it so great. Despite Combs changing the watch up in nearly every respect, his piece still maintains its essential Royal Oakness. Other, more standard-looking watches can’t stand up to so much customization, but the Royal Oak will always have that iconic shape to fall back on.