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Watches: Conceptual Thinking

James D. Malcolmson

When Audemars Piguet introduced its groundbreaking Royal Oak in 1972, the company assumed a split personality that has lasted for 30 years. Certainly the watchmaker is as traditional as the tiny Swiss hamlet of Le Brassus, where its workshops are situated. Little has changed here in more than a century, including the steady stream of technically astonishing, albeit some-what sober, timepieces. That sleepy image, however, was contrasted with an innovative side when the Royal Oak emerged in steel with its trademark octagonal bezel and integrated bracelet. Royal Oak was shocking when it first appeared and remains as modern a timepiece as any you’ll find in Switzerland today. Its overnight success suddenly gave Audemars Piguet a flagship that was unlike anything it had ever produced.  

Audemars marks the 30th anniversary of Royal Oak this year with a range of celebratory Royal Oakery that includes a special City of Sails chronograph dedicated to the Alinghi, the Swiss challenger for the 2003 America’s Cup. The watchmaker is also breaking new ground with a collection of precious jewelry designed by Alberto Repossi, a third-generation Italian jeweler.  

The real star of the anniversary show, however, is the Royal Oak Concept, which is nothing less than a complete redefinition of the model. The Concept daringly presents a tourbillon—the gold standard in complications—as a truly functional sports/lifestyle piece: It is shockproof and water-resistant to a depth of 500 meters. This 150-piece limited edition, priced at $139,000, also makes a futuristic statement with a massive, strikingly curved new case made of titanium and alacrite 602, a superalloy invented for the aeronautical industry. “We didn’t want to design a watch that you have to keep in a box or a bank, ” says Claude Emmenegger, lead designer on the project. “This is a tourbillon you can wear every day.”  


Audemars Piguet likens the watch to a concept car. The comparison is appropriate: The Concept might be the first watch you can actually “drive.” The manually wound movement has a winding stem that uses a shift system not unlike a manual automotive transmission. Throw the watch into first gear, and the crown winds the mainspring. Another gear sets the time, and “neutral” disconnects the stem to ensure extreme water-resistance. Another Audemars Piguet development, the dynamograph, functions like a tachometer, indicating the torque on the mainspring. Torque has an important effect on accuracy, especially when the movement has to power a tourbillon. Together with the power reserve display, the dynamograph allows you to drive this timepiece to the very peak of performance.

Unlike the other complicated Royal Oaks, which are modern on the outside and traditional Audemars Piguet on the inside, the new Concept wholeheartedly moves the company into the future. “Thirty years ago, most of the industry thought a watch as different as Royal Oak wouldn’t last,” says François-Henry Bennahmias, president of Audemars Piguet North America. “We felt the time had come to move forward again into a new era for high-end movements.”  

Audemars Piguet will present a special Royal Oak Exhibit in Los Angeles from June 13 through July 15. 888.214.6858, 212.758.8400, www.audemarspiguet.com

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Photo by René Gaens
Copyright by IWC