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The History and Legacy of Audemars Piguet
Founding and Early History
Audemars Piguet, one of the few remaining independently owned Swiss watch brands, is a legend in the world of watchmaking.
Audemars Piguet was founded in 1875 by Jules-Louis Audemars and Edward-Auguste Piguet. Audemars and Piguet, who had known each other since childhood, had both been watchmakers before they decided to partner and create their own brand. Audemars specialized in creating complex watch movements, while Piguet specialized in regulating watch movements. Together, the combined their knowledge and skill to form Audemars Piguet & Cie. At Audemars Piguet & Cie, stationed in Le Brassus (a village in the legendary Vallee de Joux in Switzerland), Audemars oversaw production, while Piguet oversaw sales and management.
Audemars and Piguet experienced success in their new venture as admirers of finely made mechanical watches praised their inventive, meticulously crafted timepieces. One particularly notable piece created by the pair was their Grande Complication, the first ever minute repeater watch.
After the passing of the founders of Audemars Piguet, control of the company passed to second generation owners Paul Louis Audemars and Paul Edward Piguet. Under their leadership, Audemars Piguet continued to innovate. Some notable Audemars Piguet innovations from this second generation era include the creation of the world’s first jumping hour wristwatch and the creation of the world’s first skeleton watch.
Audemars Piguet in the 1970s: The Invention of the Royal Oak
While Audemars Piguet continued to thrive throughout most of the 20th century, the brand hit a wall in the early 1970s during what is now known as the quartz crisis. During the quartz crisis, all mechanical watchmakers were seeing sales plummet, due to the invention of quartz watches. Quartz watches were far cheaper than traditional mechanical watches and as sales of quartz watches rose, sales of mechanical watch sunk.
Audemars Piguet was hit hard by the quartz crisis. In 1971, the brand realized that, without taking some kind of drastic step, the quartz crisis would quickly put them out of business. So Audemars Piguet’s managing director Georges Golay decided to take that drastic step. Golay tasked one of Audemars Piguet’s designers with creating an entirely new type of watch: a stainless steel luxury watch.
The designer assigned to this task was Gerald Genta, who would end up creating a watch that would save Audemars Piguet from ruin: the Royal Oak. Genta was told by Golay that they needed an “unprecedented steel watch,” a luxury sports watch that needed to be something completely new.
Genta had only a single night to come up with his design. Drawing inspiration from the octagonal diving helmets of the period, Genta came up with the design of the Royal Oak. The Royal Oak featured a large case, an octagonal bezel, exposed gold screws, a visible water resistance gasket, and an integrated stainless steel bracelet.
The Royal Oak was not an instant hit. Initially, the public was confused by the idea of a stainless steel luxury watch. The public was also not quick to warm to the unusual size and design of the Royal Oak— nor its steep price tag. At the time of its release, the Royal Oak was more expensive than a gold Patek Phillipe dress watch and 10x more expensive than a Rolex Submariner.
Though the initial response to the Royal Oak was lukewarm, this quickly changed. Watch collectors (and some famous figures) were drawn to the unusual design, unique concept, and impeccable craftsmanship of the Royal Oak. After some months, praise from horology enthusiasts and watch collectors swiftly changed public opinion of the Royal Oak, which became an enormous success.
The Royal Oak was so successful that it singlehandedly saved Audemars Piguet from going out of business. The Royal Oak, the first ever luxury sport wristwatch, also changed the world of watches as we know it. Without the Royal Oak, we would not have the thriving luxury sports watch market we have today. The success of the Royal Oak, still considered one of the most desirable and collectable watches today, cemented Audemars Piguet’s status as a legendary watch house.
Audemars Piguet Today
The Royal Oak remains the flagship model of Audemars Piguet. Throughout the years, Audemars Piguet has released numerous Royal Oak models to great success. Audemars Piguet has also released two successful redesigns of the Royal Oak, the Royal Oak Offshore and the Royal Oak Concept. Audemars Piguet’s current line of wristwatches includes the Royal Oak, the Royal Oak Offshore, the Royal Oak Concept, the Millenary, the Jules Audemars, the Haute Joaillerie, the Classique, and the Code 11.59.
Today, Audemars Piguet is still an independent, family-owned company, which is quite rare in the world of modern watchmaking. Audemars Piguet is currently run by Jasmine Audemars and Olivier Audemars. Under their direction, Audemars Piguet creates 40,000 watches each year.
Notable Audemars Piguet Models
The Royal Oak is the flagship model of Audemars Piguet. Originally invented in 1971, the Royal Oak was the first ever luxury sports watch. Signature features of the Royal Oak include an octagonal bezel, exposed screws, oversized case, and an impeccably crafted mechanical movement.
Royal Oak Offshore
The Royal Oak Offshore is a redesign of the Royal Oak, created to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the famous timepiece. According to designer of the Royal Oak Offshore, Emmanuel Gueit, the Offshore is meant to be a “deconstructed” version of the Royal Oak. The Offshore features a visible black gasket upon its bezel and a sizable 42 mm case, which set a new trend for generously sized watch cases.
Royal Oak Concept
The Royal Oak Concept is a redesigned version of the Royal Oak that was released to celebrate its 30th anniversary. The Royal Oak Concept was designed to showcase both technical sophistication and extreme resistance to the elements. The Concept features a dial with exposed micro-mechanics and a case crafted from a superalloy, alacrity 602.
The Audemars Millenary debuted in 1995. This exquisitely made contemporary watch features a three dimensional composition composed of an elliptical case and an off-centered dial.
The Jules Audemars, named for one of the brand’s founders, was designed to reflect traditional Audemars Piguet designs from the brand’s earlier years. Every timepiece in the Jules Audemars collection features a circular case and an exceptional mechanical movement.