The concrete canyons of Manhattan are pretty far away from the wooded alpine serenity of Switzerland’s Vallée de Joux, but it was on Park Avenue that Swiss watch company, Audemars Piguet, decided to kick off a celebration tour for its mightiest creation: the Royal Oak. Appearing in 1972 with a price ten times that of a Rolex Submariner, and named after a British warship whose porthole it resembles, the Royal Oak is the undisputed forefather of the luxury steel sports watch. Launching it was a bold move, the equivalent of going “all in” for Audemars Piguet. It came out during the darkest period in the company’s, and the Swiss watch industry’s, history and had the gamble not succeeded, the brand would surely have collapsed.
But the Royal Oak did succeed and that’s why we found ourselves at the Park Avenue Armory last Friday night, clinking glasses with beautiful people and watch aficionados (sometimes they are one and the same) at a reception hosted by AP and our friends from Hodinkee.
The Royal Oak 40th Anniversary Exhibition was an understated, minimalist installation, high on symbolism and low on flash. Meant to represent the origins of the brand, Audemars Piguet, or AP, sought to recreate its rustic Alpine home in a modern urban setting. On the perimeter of the exhibit were backlit photo murals – long exposure wilderness scenes taken by photographer Dan Holdsworth in the Vallée de Joux. On another side were tall steel organ pipes clustered together to represent the Swiss woodlands. And in the middle of the exhibit were imposing asymmetrical wood and glass display booths representing the shards of ferrous rock that are so plentiful in AP’s home valley. The effect was subtle, but it felt like we were walking through the valley, navigating among rock outcroppings, past forests and vistas. And then, of course, there were the timepieces.
The Royal Oak has been spun off in countless ways from the original but the DNA is unmistakable. The anniversary exhibit demonstrated this by lining up the most significant Royal Oaks from the last four decades, from masterpieces to the proverbial ugly ducklings. Among the mentionables were a million dollar grande complication piece and Gerald Genta’s own one-of-a-kind Royal Oak which sported a gold bezel and dings and scratches from 40 years of wear. In another display case were acorns that fell a little further from the Royal Oak, the over-sized Royal Oak Offshore editions created for perhaps the brand’s best known fanboy, Arnold Schwarzenegger. These pumped-up mutant Royal Oaks were fascinating to behold, especially because they provided such stark contrast to the well-proportioned industrial elegance of the original Royal Oak (ironically named the “Jumbo” by collectors).
AP is one of the few remaining independent Swiss watch brands, and they are proud of this fact. Members of the Audemars and Piguet families still sit on the company’s board of directors and Olivier Audemars himself attended last week’s reception, proudly displaying a century-old AP movement that he had tucked casually in his jacket pocket. The brand is equally proud of its heritage and recognize the value of looking back at its history with respect. The Royal Oak 40th Anniversary exhibition was a fitting tribute to an icon not only for AP but also for the entire watch industry.
The exhibition ended on Sunday in New York and the entire installation will be dismantled and shipped on to Milan, Paris, Beijing, Singapore and Dubai before returning to its quiet home in the Vallée de Joux among the trees, rocks and mountains from whence it was born.
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Check out our photos from the exhibition.