By Ken Kessler in London
How enlightening it would be to turn back the clock to 1972, when Audemars Piguet and legendary watch designer Gerald Genta were creating the Royal Oak watch. Were they at all anxious about launching a timepiece that would become not just a new genre but possibly the defining genre of the post-quartz era? Who, in the ultra-conservative Swiss watch culture, would gamble with something so radical, and with such insouciance?
Switzerland's watch industry was, in the early 1970s, on the brink of a catastrophe now referred to as "the Quartz Crisis". It would decimate the watch industry based, as it was, on costly mechanical movements. But Audemars Piguet couldn't have known that it was working with such a calamity lurking in the wings. The revered house's concept watch would contain a mechanical movement in an almost comically robust stainless steel case, inspired by the hermetic sealing of a ship's port. But, and here's the catch, it would be sold as a luxury watch.
Beefy, macho timepieces already existed, like Rolex's diving models. But back in 1972 they were considered timepieces for professionals, not chic evening attire, despite being offered in "dressy" gold. The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak watch, by accident or design, addressed two seemingly incompatible markets: a timepiece that would survive the golf course, a yachting regatta or a chukka but which possessed such style and elegance that it could nestle beneath a white shirt cuff and dinner jacket.
Read about Audemars Piguet on our list of top five iconic watches
It was a sensation, inspiring the Patek Philippe Nautilus watch and models from brands as disparate as Vacheron Constantin, IWC and Cartier, while readying the world for Panerai and all of the other wrist-challenging über-watches that are now the norm.
The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak has maintained its position at the pinnacle of the luxe-sports-watch hierarchy for over 40 years by evolving from the near-Bauhaus simplicity of the original to the macho Royal Oak Offshore, as favoured by Arnold Schwarzenegger. This year, Audemars Piguet presented a smorgasbord of Royal Oak watches, encompassing a choice of precious metals and other materials, should the original's stainless steel seem that bit too prosaic. Which would be missing the point, because the Royal Oak is to luxury watches what a Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen is to limousines. For some of us, steel is the real deal.
Highlights for the season include the 26270 Evolution in the Royal Oak Offshore Chronograph Collection, in steel or rose gold, with satin-brushed bezel and the inimitable "waffle"-pattern dial. The stealthy all-black 42mm Royal Oak Offshore Chronograph features ceramic details and a black crocodile strap for an added touch of elegance. The all-pink-gold version on a matching link bracelet is so sumptuous that it makes the wearer feel like a certain king with an alchemist's touch. Or you could go all-white with the Offshore Diver: white ceramic case, white rubber strap, white "waffle" dial.
There's no longer just a Royal Oak but a Royal Oak family. For watch enthusiasts who have succumbed to the lure of the high-end luxury sports watch, it's probably "the" royal family, too.