Today, Audemars Piguet watches are considered one of the top three horological brands in the world for quality, complexity and desirability. This kind of global respect is not earned overnight—it is the result of over one hundred years of hard work and dedication. In order to be a leader and not a follower, the brand had to differentiate itself from its competitors, which means taking risks; risks that almost cost the company its own existence.
Le Brassus, 1875, in the heart of the Vallée de Joux. Two friends, Jules-Louis Audemars and Edward-Auguste Piguet establish a workshop from which to make movements. The former produced and assembled movements while the latter ensured that the completed movements were correctly regulated. The two friends made the Audemars Piguet name successful by being the best at what they did, and over time, the company began to grow, quickly becoming one of the largest watchmaking employers in Switzerland. Quality control was where the manufacturer excelled, allowing the brand to produce some stunningly complicated movements.
Despite the deaths of the two founders in 1918 and 1919, the company continued to be one of the finest in watchmaking, with achievements such as the smallest minute repeater, the thinnest watch and the first skeleton watch. However, the stock market crash of the 1930s forced many watchmakers to the brink of collapse, and Audemars Piguet was one of them. The market for luxury goods had virtually fallen flat overnight.
This make or break scenario gave the company a chance to try something daring, hiring up and coming design talent Gérald Genta to design a piece so bold and unique that it could have very easily sunk the brand into oblivion. Taking inspiration from the 1862 battleship, the HMS Royal Oak, Genta used the octagonal portholes as the basis of his case design, integrating the bracelet into it seamlessly. Compared to the period watches of the time, the Royal Oak watch was a futuristic, dynamic and angular shock to the system.
The biggest shock was not the watch itself, but the price. At its release in 1972, it cost more than every other watch and ten times more than the period Rolex Submariner, and so initial take-up was slow. As a product that only the most affluent could afford, this extreme pricing did, however, introduce a new level of super-premium luxury, and once the Royal Oak took, it took well, pulling it out of the mire and back into financial success.
The Royal Oak evolved into the Royal Oak Offshore in 1993, a modern evolution of the piece that changed history for Audemars Piguet. Raising the price bar once again, the large, bold and often colourful Royal Oak Offshore has recreated the niche for super-luxury watches, opening the floodgates for new, super-premium brands to follow in its footsteps. The Royal Oak Offshore can be summed up partly by its use of exotic materials and by its inflated proportions, but mainly for the quality and watchmaking excellence that has run through the DNA of Audemars Piguet since its inception.