The Audemars Piguet (AP) Royal Oak was my first grail watch, and the very timepiece that sparked my interest in horology. I first saw one in the flesh in 2013 on the wrist of a friend. It was not the 15202 but one of the models with a smaller diameter – perhaps the 36mm 14790. I was mesmerised by the constant shimmering of the bracelet, as the brushed and polished steel links worked their magic.
I started reading up on the Royal Oak and was fascinated by its history – how it was the first luxury steel watch, how Gerald Genta literally designed it overnight, how its design was inspired by a diver’s helmet, how it was named after a British war ship which in turn was named after a tree in which Charles II sought refuge in 1651, how it achieved mainstream success only after it was spotted on the wrist of FIAT head Giovanni Agnelli…
I also read up on the technical features of the Royal Oak and realised that the beautiful integrated bracelet was the tip of the iceberg – the “tapisserie” guilloche dial, the use of white gold screws and applied batons, the unprecedented 39mm size (hence the nickname “Jumbo”) and the calibre 2121 movement were equally ground-breaking. It was then that I started also to appreciate the beauty of a well-finished movement.
Soon enough I found myself sliding down the slippery slope, so when a pre-40th anniversary 15202 came up for sale, I grabbed it after obtaining regulatory (read: wife) approval.
What do I begin? Let us start with the Royal Oak’s calling card – the bezel. Its basic design has been copied many times over since 1972, but the bezel still easily distinguishes itself from the wannabes through its meticulous finishing. One look at the contrasting elements – the polished rehaut surrounding the dial flows to the brushed bezel top, which flows to the polished white gold hexagonal “screws” and the polished outer portion of the bezel, which finally flows to the brushed lugs – and you know that Genta’s attention to detail borders on madness (I mean that as a compliment). If you need further proof, just look at how the slots of the “screws” are aligned to trace the perimeter of the dial and how, on the polished outer portion of the bezel, there are discreet outward pointing “creases” which line up perfectly with the outward-pointing end of each “screw”.
In designing the bezel, Genta drew inspiration from the helmet of a diver emerging from Lake Geneva. The “screws” around the bezel actually serve the same purpose as the diver’s helmet – they keep the dial and movement watertight. I used inverted commas around the word “screws” because the hexagonal “screw heads” on the bezel side are purely decorative. To uncase the timepiece, one actually turns the real screws from the caseback. I love the analogy of how the screws on a diver’s helmet protect the diver (precious life), while the screws on a Royal Oak protect its movement, dial and white gold (precious metal) markers.
The Royal Oak bracelet is also conscientiously designed and finished to a high standard. This is evident from the tapered links which widen as they near the case and also from their brushed finish with polished edges. As mentioned above, the links shimmer at the slightest movement, an effect that I have yet to see other steel bracelets capable of producing.
The clasp in my Jumbo is made up of the letters “AP”, and the mirror image of those letters, which gives it a somewhat poetic touch. This differs from the butterfly clasp on the 40th anniversary Jumbo which simply bears the current AP logo on the edge. The latter is more comfortable (I have tried it) but I still prefer the aesthetics of the old clasp.
Then there is the dial itself with the famed “tapisserie” design. The tapisserie is really a Clous de Paris guilloche, produced by a burin and a pantograph. The actual process is explained in detail here. Interestingly, there are various types of tapisserie patterns – (in ascending order of size) vintage petite, petite, grande and mega. Although strictly, they are not squares but pyramids with the tops sliced off. What is amazing is that, in addition to these squares, the entire dial is also graced with engine-turned concentric circles. This results in a cartwheel lustre when the dial is tilted back and forth, much like a coin in mint condition. The combination of the Clous de Paris and concentric circles ensures that the dial catches and reflects light very easily, in an indescribably unique manner. The other highlight of this dial construction is that it throws out a different shade at each angle – mine would go from light blue to dark grey. I think this is why, on the pre-40th anniversary 15202, the blue dial is more sought after than the black or white dials (note: the 40th anniversary 15202 comes exclusively with a blue dial).
Therefore, when AP paired a constantly-glistening steel bracelet together with a dial of ever-changing shades of blue, they clearly achieved a match made in heaven.
Much has been written about the legendary movement, and legendary it is. To-date, it is the only calibre jointly funded by the “Big Three” watchmakers — AP, Patek Philippe (PP) and Vacheron Constantin (VC) (the actual development was undertaken by Jaeger-LeCoultre with technical input from AP). At various points in history, different iterations of the movement powered iconic timepieces — the AP Royal Oak, the PP Nautilus and the VC 222.
The calibre 2121 found in the 15202 is a mere 3.05mm thick, making it one of the thinnest automatic movements ever made (the height of the calibre 2120 with no date function is even more impressive at only 2.45mm). This engineering feat was achieved through a number of unorthodox means, including using a hanging barrel and mounting the rotor on a beryllium-bronze rail. Do take a look at this forum thread for more interesting technical insights into this calibre. The posts by ThomasM are particularly illuminating.
As one would expect from any of the “Big Three” watchmakers, the finishing on the calibre 2121 is superlative – perlage on the baseplate, Geneva stripes on the bridges, sunray brushing on the barrels, and bevelling and polishing on all edges. But to me, the rotor is the standout piece. The red gold rotor contrasts beautifully with the rest of the rhodium-plated brass movement. The rotor is also skeletonised, which serves two purposes – it allows more of the movement to be admired, and also showcases the dexterity of the finesseur through the numerous exterior and interior angles that need to be hand-bevelled and polished. Truly, it is a thing of beauty.
One of the few differences between my Jumbo and the 40th anniversary Jumbo is the rotor design. I personally prefer the rotor in my Jumbo for a number of reasons. I like how the “AP” letters are more subtle, with the little “arrow” in the centre where the two letters are joined. I also like the fact that there are more interior angles which I feel demonstrates greater craftsmanship. I just think the rotor on the 40th anniversary Jumbo looks a bit too “machined” but I know that there are others who like how the rotor on the 40th anniversary Jumbo is more textured. I suppose this is ultimately a matter of personal taste.
Was there anything that bothered me as regards the operation of the movement? Well, the lack of a quick-set date does pose a slight inconvenience. There is a rapid-advance mechanism which allows one to advance the date by adjusting the time back-and-forth between 10pm and 2am. This I could live with, although the wife was none too pleased whenever I asked her to advance the date while I was driving. I have also heard from others that this calendar mechanism is somewhat prone to malfunctions but was fortunate not to have experienced any.
To-date, arguably no other timepiece has been as revolutionary as the Royal Oak. Sure, other watchmakers have debuted more innovative movements, more intricate dials and more dramatic case designs. But I cannot recall any other manufacture debuting a trailblazing case, bracelet, dial and movement all in a single timepiece in recent times.
More importantly, all the moving parts come together harmoniously and appeal to a wide audience. Think about it – the case and bracelet would attract those in search of masculine design, while movement enthusiasts would drool over the ultra-thin and beautifully-finished calibre 2121. Doubtless, this is a remarkable, timeless watch.
THE FINAL TICK
The Jumbo was my companion on the most important day of my life – I wore it with a tux at my own wedding dinner. It was truly the icing on the cake, which amplified my happiness that special day.
Seems to me the term “fine watches” is about right – they are there to accompany you during, and remind you of, your finest moments.
Note: This was my first grail watch but I eventually sold it because there were a couple of “ticks” that bothered me – the lack of a seconds hand and the presence of a date window. Really a question of personal taste. That said, I still think the case and bracelet design is truly iconic and I know that I will pick one up in the future. Probably the 14790 if I can get it at a good price. The calibre 2121 engages me intellectually but I think I would prefer to spend the difference on my next grail watch, which is a few years away.
© 2017 Ticking Notes. All rights reserved.
Acquired – September 2014
Divested – April 2015
Case diameter – 39mm
Case thickness – 8.1mm
Case material – Steel
Dial – Dark blue with “Grande Tapisserie” pattern
Hands – White gold with luminescent coating
Indices – White gold applied hour-markers
Calibre – 2121
Movement parts – 247
Jewels – 36
Movement diameter – 28.4mm
Movement thickness – 3.05mm
Frequency – 2.75Hz (19,800 vph)
Power reserve – 40 hours