A trio of warships christened Royal Oak, named after the legendary "royal
oak" (a hollowed out tree which offered King Charles II a safe hiding place from
his pursuers) lent their distinctive name in 1972 to an equally distinctive
luxury sports watch -- the Royal Oak by Audemars Piguet. Since then, the Royal
Oak has become the leading model of the world-famous firm in Le Brassus and
helped the stainless steel wristwatch attain respectability among watch lovers
around the world.
The Audemars Piguet story begins in 1875 when twenty-three-year-old watchmaker
Jules Audemars and future partner Edward-August Piguet, just twenty-one years of
age, met in the Vallee de Joux. Both had learned the watchmaker's trade after
finishing public school in their hometown of Le Brassus by training at the
bench. They had returned to the Vallee de Joux to find jobs in the local
Jules Audemars was soon producing raw components for watch movements, while
Edward-August Piguet sought employment as a "repasseur" (a master watchmaker who
performs the final regulation on a watch). Shortly after their meeting in 1875,
the two talented watchmakers decided to join forces and founded the firm that
would someday come to be known as Audemars Piguet et Cie.
Almost from the beginning, Audemars was in charge of production and the
technical side, while his partner Piguet focused on sales. Their partnership was
not an immediate success, however. In fact, the Audemars Piguet trademark was
not even registered until 1882 and the firm's "official founding" did not take
place until 1889. Already, however, Audemars Piguet et Cie had become the third
largest employer for watch manufacturing in the Canton of Vaud. More importantly
perhaps, both men had deliberately shifted their focus towards the production of
high-quality, complex ultra-precise watches.
Shortly after the official founding in 1889, a branch office was built in Geneva
and the partners decided to produce all of their components and assemble the
finished watches in-house. This allowed the firm to maintain strict quality
control over their products and as a result, only products of the highest
quality left the workshop.
In short order, the greatest, most renowned retail jewellers were ordering
watches from Le Brassus. Today, one can find many Audemars Piguet pocket watches
identifiable as an Audemars Piguet only by their serial number -- the result of
prestigious jewelers, such as Gubelin and Tiffany & Co., wanting only their own
name engraved on the movement and case, and not that of Audemars Piguet.
It is interesting to note that between 1894 and 1899, a mere 1,208 watches were
produced. Among these were some of the most sophisticated timepieces ever made,
including the legendary "Grande Complication" series, which is still being
produced today. Aside from normal time indication, a Grande Complication
timepiece offers minute repetition, perpetual calendar and chronograph.
Around this same time, the retail operations in Geneva and London were
transformed into full-service branches where watches were not only serviced but
also assembled. By 1914, Audemars Piguet launched a project to develop a watch
so complicated that it would take six years of continuous production before the
watch could be delivered to Guignard & Golay in London.
The watch in question was a pocket watch with two dials and a one-minute
tourbillon mechanism. As well as a tourbillon, this double dial Lepine gold
watch included a minute repeater, a chronograph with 60-minute and 12-hour
counters, perpetual calendar with displays which "jump" at midnight, display of
the leap year cycle, the "age" and phases of the moon, and power reserve
The second face showed an additional 24 hours based on the sidereal hour, moving
a pair of independent hands. A special system connected to this gear-train makes
it possible to see the changes in the London sky at any time of the day or
night, through an oval-shaped opening in the rear dial. The sky is represented
by 315 stars engraved on a plate of gold, enamelled in blue. The stars, with
their respective names, are all clearly visible.
Unfortunately, it was the last triumph for the founding partners. Audemars died
in 1918. The following year, so did Edward Piguet.
After the founders' death, Audemars Piguet continued to prosper, establishing
several technical milestones with the creation of the world's smallest minute
repeater watch, having a diameter of just 15.8 millimetres; the debut of a
Hunter Model (hinged-lid pocket watch) with a jumping second hand, also
featuring a barometer, quarter repeater, independent second hand, the date and
day of the week; and in 1925, another first: the world's thinnest pocket watch,
measuring just 1.32 millimetres. The year 1928 also saw the development of the
world's first skeletonized pocketwatch.
Needless to say, then as now, Audemars Piguet was considered one of the finest
watch manufacturers in the world. Business boomed, as did the world economy.
Customers of Audemars Piguet included such prestigious jewellers as Gubelin,
Tiffany & Co., Cartier and Bvlgari.
Unfortunately, the company's success ground to a shocking halt in 1929 when only
737 watches were sold. By contrast, nearly 2,000 watches had been sold in 1920.
With the stock market crash in 1929 and the subsequent Depression, there were
suddenly very few customers for expensive watches. Like other Swiss watch
companies, Audemars Piguet was forced to lay off most of its workforce, before
hitting rock bottom in 1932, when just two watches were produced.
Despite the hard times, the company bounced back following World War II, thanks
to the success of its chronographs and ultra-thin (the famous nine-ligne calibre
2003) dress watches.
The 1950s and 1960s saw a major rebound in the firm's sales. In 1967, in
cooperation with Jaeger LeCoultre, a new record for the thinnest (2.45 mm)
automatic movement, with a centrally placed rotor of 21 carat gold, was
established. Just three years later, in 1970, the watchmakers of Audemars Piguet
premiered the world's thinnest movement (3.05 mm) to include date display and a
central rotor made of gold. The year 1972, of course, marked the debut of what
has become the signature model for Audemars Piguet, the "Royal Oak".
Designed by the legendary watchmaker Gerald Genta, its octagonal shape, steel
edges and the use of prominent hexagonal screws as a design feature strike a
perfect balance between power and elegance. Worthy of its name, the Royal Oak
has since become a legend. Its octagonal design, originally produced only in
high-grade steel, took the breath away even of many professionals. However, when
the Royal Oak was unveiled at the 1972 European watchmaking fair in Basel with a
price tag of just 3,300 SFr. -- unheard of for a watch bearing the Audemars
Piguet name -- its success was beyond even its creators' expectations!
In 1993, the company museum, housed in the original workshop of Jules Audemars
and Edward Piguet, was established. This museum, a tribute to the company's
visionary founders, allows watch enthusiasts to discover Audemars Piguet
technology "from A to Z."
Its exhibits retrace the key stages in the company's history, and show many of
the creations that made Audemars Piguet famous, including the Grande
Complication. As well as its unique collection of antique watches, and in
particular of watch complications, this very unusual museum enables visitors to
see the intricacy and precision required in horology by observing two master
watchmakers at work in the modern Audemars Piguet atelier, which is a permanent
feature of the museum.
That same year, a new model in the Royal Oak collection premiered: the Royal Oak
Offshore, which is water resistant to a depth of 10 atmospheres. The Offshore
model offers the following functions: chronograph to 1/5 second, tachymeter,
30-minute counter, 12-hour counter, date display, seconds display, and automatic
movement with central rotor in 21-carat gold.
Three years later, in 1996, a wristwatch version of the famous "Grand
Complication" premiered at Basel. More than 600 components are contained in an
integrated movement that does not exceed 8.5 mm in height. It is a technical
marvel that marries old-fashioned craftsmanship with cutting-edge technology,
such as computer-aided design (CAD). It was also in 1996 that Audemars Piguet
embarked on a new era, becoming one of the first major watch companies to
represent itself on the Internet with its official Web site.
Today, Audemars Piguet remains one of the most prestigious watchmakers in the
world -- and one of the few that is still family owned. Yet despite the
company's enormous success, every watch is still made by hand the old-fashioned
way -- one at a time. Today, along with Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin,
Audemars Piguet is considered to be one of the "big three" as one of the finest
watches in the world.
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