Sunday, 29 September 2013

#1 Audemars Piguet & The Royal Oak

Any watch enthusiast comes about one of these, whether it is through the pleasure of owning one or merely talking about it with their fellow 'watch-geeks'. You see it in media, on the wrists of today's sporting heroes and of course, in the discussions amongst watch collectors. 
Hence, it is perhaps a good idea to talk a little bit about Audemars Piguet (AP henceforth) as a brand and as a watchmaker and explore why the Le Brassus based watchmaker has become the focal point of the horological society today.

Its founding members, Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet were true pioneers and masters of creating complicated (and I mean complicated!) pieces with landmarks such as creating the first minute repeater wrist watch, which is one of the most difficult complications to master and the thinnest tourbillon wrist watch - Clearly, the two partners were technically outstanding, which led them to earn the position amongst watch enthusiasts as one of the "Trinity members" of watchmaking, alongside other Titans, namely Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin. In this view, the future looked rosy for AP... but then, through 60's and 70's, with technological progress and boom in electronics, came the quartz watches. As traditional watchmakers could not exploit economies of scale, they were simply outcompeted in terms of price. Hence, makers, especially those Japanese ones like Seiko flourished at the expense of fine watchmakers. Ex-post, what's worse is that foolishly, the generation saw quartz pieces as fashionable and accepted them as substitutes for mechanical watches, which led to this decline. Hence, even for houses like AP, the "Quartz Invasion" was quite a blow to take. With the house on alert of potential bankruptcy, came the genius who steered the ship away from the iceberg and quite arguably transformed the shape of the entire industry - There came Mr. Gérald Genta. 

Even before his arrival at Audemars Piguet, he was an established individual in the industry with his work at Omega and Patek Philippe. Even so, arguably his peak was upon his arrival at AP, creating the masterpiece in 1972 - The Royal Oak.

Genta's inspiration apparently came from the British Naval ships, who themselves "christened for the tree where King Charles II hid from his enemies". Yes, that's a fascinating story but really, why was the Royal Oak such a revolutionary piece and why is it so cherished and regarded as the 'ultimate sports watch'? What makes it so special?

Original Royal Oak "Jumbo" 1972 (Ref. 5402)

Purely, just take a look at the design - back in the 70s, only watches made of precious metals with conservative designs were regarded as fine timepieces but Mr. Genta had a totally different and from a perspective of a 60s person - a totally 'bonkers' approach of creating timepieces. The octogonal design with screws, steel casing and bracelet and no lugs combined with the size of 39mm and the "petite tapisserie" patterned dial gave a truly rugged, rebellious, avant-garde character, which shocked the horological society at the Basel fair 1972. Not only that but this changed the faith of Audemars Piguet as a watchmaker - It allowed them to combine the traditional technical excellence with a modern attitude, allowing them to make the ultimate 'sports watches', watches that are not just technically brilliant but also aesthetically refined (And of course, there are other pieces like Millenary and Jules Audemars, which are also astonishing).

Following from this success, Audemars Piguet still remains as one of the very few houses that are independent (that are not owned by a parenting group, such as Richemont) and are run by the founding family members - Jasmine Piguet and Olivier Audemars serves as the chairwoman and board member of the brand respectively. The house continues its success through the creative guidance of another design prodigy, Mr. Octavio Garcia, who in my opinion has done a fabulous job in designing new pieces and in preparing for the Royal Oak's 40th anniversary last year. In my opinion, being an independent organisation plays a big role in giving them the creative freedom and experiment whilst keeping the tradition, which allows them to flourish and create some of the most exquisite timepieces around. AP regards all of its owners as a 'member' of their family since every timepiece they create is unique, personal and exclusive as they produce approximately 31,000 units per annum.

That being said, the thing that I fancy the most about Audemars Piguet, besides their finely crafted timepieces is its philosophy of not resting on past achievements and seeking for constant improvements as a brand and as a watchmaker, which is nicely summed by their slogan "To break the rules, first you must master them".

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