June 2023 22 Min Read

What Made the Royal Oak a Cultural Icon?

By Raj Aditya Chaudhuri

I don’t own enough Royal Oaks, although I have at least a dozen pieces. Ideally, I would love to own every model that has ever been produced.

Jean-Claude Biver

What more can be said about the Royal Oak? In its five decades, countless guides, reviews, thought pieces, and histories have been written about the original luxury stainless-steel sports watch, with even more appearing to mark its 50th anniversary last year. Those looking to learn about a specific reference are almost spoiled for choice, and we have even added to this library of knowledge with our own guide to the reference 14790.

There are few watches on the market today with a better-covered origin story, either: Georges Golay commissioned designer Gérald Genta to design a modern sports-inspired piece out of stainless steel, and the latter came up with the now instantly recognisable silhouette overnight. So what could we possibly look to add with another article on a watch we all know so well?

An area that we feel hasn’t been explored in as much depth is just how we all came to be so familiar with this piece of octagonal design. The cultural heft of the Royal Oak cannot be ignored. It has found its way on to the wrists of those shaping the zeitgeist, making maximum impact with every paparazzi shot and mention in rap lyrics.

To qualitatively assess its cultural relevance, we spoke to those on whom the Royal Oak has made a big impact and who have equally made a big impact on the Royal Oak – from industry insiders including Jean-Claude Biver, to sports stars such as Anthony Joshua, who both share a deep appreciation for what this watch means on a global scale. The designs of Jacqueline Dimier and Emmanuel Gueit have moved Genta’s original offering forward with the times, and we learn from them the impact they both had. We have also lent on academics, fashion entrepreneurs, auctioneers, and watch dealers, all inextricably linked by the Royal Oak.

The genius of the Royal Oak is fully appreciated only in the context of the era that birthed it. After all, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms and the Rolex Submariner had already popularised the idea of a sports watch. However, no watchmaker within Switzerland – or elsewhere – had thought to combine the quality of a submersible watch with the refinement enthusiasts expected from Audemars Piguet.

The academic and author known as Mstanga, who has spent his life studying the Royal Oak – specifically the original reference 5402 – says, “Making a mechanical underwater sports watch, with automatic winding so flat and at the same time so wide, [was] unthinkable.” Genta created a formula by drawing from influences within Audemars Piguet and without. The end result was a deceptively simple-looking design. “It was necessary to use what is probably the most beautiful and most finished automatic movement ever produced,” Mstanga adds. “The bracelet is probably the most complicated ever made – at least back then. It included 154 components [with components of] 34 of different sizes. The dial of the reference 5402 combines two complementary geometrical shapes: the circle and the square. As they did for the case and the bracelet, Audemars Piguet used the work of one of the most important specialist firms in Switzerland for the dial.”

It is its improbable birth story that Hong Kong-based financier and collector Lung Lung Thun finds most relatable. She says, “I am drawn to stories and people that have defied the odds of success, and Audemars Piguet was able to do that with the Royal Oak. I also love the fact they priced the watch higher than a gold Patek [Philippe] at that time. It was such a brave move and the fact that it worked reflects what I have always enjoyed about watch collecting, that it is meant to be fun and illogical.”

While much has been written about how industry insiders prophesied the watch spelling doom for the Le Brassus maker, or how enthusiasts were not entirely convinced either, Jaqueline Dimier thinks Audemars Piguet was quietly confident in the reference 5402. The designer, who interpreted Genta’s design for the 5402 in the references 8638 and 4100, says, “The success was inevitable; almost planned. People quickly adopted it and forged its path until today, even tomorrow. It immediately drew people’s attention and hit the mark.”

When you see Audrey Hepburn for the first time, it’s normal for you to want to see all of her movies and know as much about her life as possible and fall in love with her. And so it was for me [with the] 5402.


If popularity with tastemakers of the day is a metric for a design’s fluency, the Royal Oak was an almost immediate success. “I don’t remember the first celebrity [who wore the watch], but there were many: royals, political figures, actors and more,” says Dimier. “We could instantly recognise the perfect architecture of the Royal Oak on the wrists of these personalities once photographed or filmed.”

The watch started appearing on the wrists of Alain Dominique Perrin, Karl Lagerfeld, and Gianni Agnelli. Even Reza Shah Pahlavi, the erstwhile Shah of Iran, ordered a number of references of the Royal Oak.

“I bought the famous Royal Oak the year of its launch. She has never left my wrist since. I have started to collect other watches but I’ve always come back to my good old Royal Oak that I adore and that never leaves me anymore. Amicably Karl Lagerfeld,” the designer said in a handwritten letter, dated 17/7/2002, to the service centre that refreshed his beloved black PVD-coated reference 5402. Images courtesy of Pygmalion Gallery.

As a young man just starting out in the industry, who would soon after go on to work at Audemars Piguet, Jean-Claude Biver remembers the kind of emotions the Royal Oak elicited in him when he first laid eyes on it in 1972. “It was the first luxury sports watch, but it looked different from any other watch. It was completely disruptive,” Biver says. “[My] first impression was ‘woah!’. It was phenomenal, and I knew it would become a ‘killer’.”

If an ability to capture the zeitgeist was one measure of success, the other was the effect the watch had on the culture of watchmaking in Switzerland. Just as it did in the early 1970s with the Patek Philippe Nautilus and the IWC Ingenieur (both designed by Genta), in its 50th year the Royal Oak continues to have that effect on watchmakers across price points. “What came after ruled in its favour,” says Dimier.

Bill Prince, the author of Royal Oak: From Iconoclast to Icon, a book celebrating the watch’s half-century, believes it marked an inflection point after which things could not go back to how they were before. “The Royal Oak altered the relationship between the watch and the wearer forever,” he says. “It inaugurated an era in which the watch moved from a fit-for-purpose ‘tool' or a not-so-subtle signifier of wealth – the traditional round ‘simple’ timepiece in a precious metal – to become a true lifestyle accessory. Its birth united two formerly disparate ideals: a watch that offered robust functionality, allowing it to be worn from day to night and in most if not all environments, while protecting the watchmaking prestige of the Vallée de Joux and the expertise of Audemars Piguet.”

Some of the many books that have been written on the subject. Courtesy of Rizzoli, Audemars Piguet and Assouline.

Within the iconic octagonal bezel lay a world of possibilities. The design could be sized down, like the references 8638 or 4100, flattened to include ultra-thin complicated calibres such as the 2120, or expanded for grand complications such as in the reference 25880.

Dimier, who shepherded Genta’s design over much of its history, creating many of the references listed above, says, “I had a deep respect for the designer of the Royal Oak, Gérald Genta. I developed the original idea and managed to translate his design into other models, as others did after me”.

Jacqueline Dimier, with a ref. 8638 on the wrist, working on sketches of watches. She is rightly credited with expanding the definition of what a Royal Oak could be. Courtesy of Audemars Piguet.

That admiration for its form seems widespread among the community of watch designers and makers. In late 2022, Philippe Dufour’s wife, Elisabeth Dufour, gave him a watch that helped him realise a “crazy dream”, as he phrased it on a post on Instagram. Turns out, just like the rest of us, Dufour also longed for a Royal Oak Jumbo, a wish his wife fulfilled by getting him a 50th anniversary edition of the reference 16202.

Speaking to this desirability, Jaś Rewkiewicz, the London-based chief creative officer at Altava and creative director at Baltic, says, “In my opinion, like Cristóbal Balenciaga was the couturiers’ couturier, the Royal Oak is a designer’s design statement. It is an ode to brutalism, with sharp angles and contrasting surfaces that play with light beautifully. It reminds me of architecture, but with the refinement of jewellery. It’s modern art for the wrist and speaks to my creative background.”

Jaś Rewkiewicz with his two muses – the Royal Oak ref. 56175TT and the Barbican in London.

Using his slim, 33mm, quartz-powered, tantalum and steel reference ref. 56175TT as example, Rewkiewicz says the design’s visual language is timeless. He compares it with one his favourite architectural gems in London – the place where we shot him with his watch. “I wanted to capture the essence of the Royal Oak by going to one of my favourite places: the Barbican. It is an iconic estate of the City of London that truly comes to life when light hits its raw geometric shapes, casting graphic shadows all over its many cultural spaces,” he says. The same is true for his Royal Oak.

The octagonal design hasn’t just been able to incorporate design elements that dominated the day. It has been able to inspire generations of designers who often found reflections of their sensibilities in the watch, says Massimo Frascella.

This appeal extends beyond watchmaking. Massimo Frascella, the head of design at Jaguar and Land Rover, thinks it is the ability of the shape to take on different meanings that’s responsible for its widespread appreciation. “The Royal Oak signalled the beginning of a new watch industry and new kinds of enthusiasts,” he says. “It connects with people on a very emotional level because it represents the genius of mankind in a pure and simple form. With time, I’ve learnt to truly appreciate how special this watch is, the design, its spirit and what it stands for. Perhaps I feel like somehow it reflects my personality and when it’s on my wrist it becomes an extension of me.”

One of the most significant and prolific collectors, Cheng has a collection of Royal Oaks that numbers in the triple digits. It is something he is very proud of, he says, even if he feels his love for the watch might not be categorised as entirely financially responsible.

Eric Peng Cheng, a Royal Oak collector and founder of Bait and Undefeated, two brands at the heart of the crossover between streetwear and watchmaking, thinks the watch’s unique silhouette often makes it an essential step in any enthusiasts’ journey. “This makes Royal Oak the obvious ‘next level up’ watch for collectors. The legend, of Genta designing it overnight, which are all a quick google search away even for new collectors, makes it easy for anyone to fall in love with it, Cheng says.

Despite its popularity, by the late 1980s sales were flagging and the Royal Oak desperately needed to appeal to a new kind of customer if it were to survive. Audemars Piguet tapped Emmanuel Gueit for the job. The young designer had long loved the Royal Oak. “I received from my parents on my 20th birthday a Royal Oak – stainless steel and gold that was a must at this time,” he says. “Besides it being a present from my parents, I felt really different from everyone because everyone [else] got a Rolex for their 20th birthday. Only a few people had the privilege to get a Royal Oak. I was just starting a career with Audemars Piguet, so it was easy for me to get one. But I felt so different. Travelling or going out, no one knew exactly what watch I was wearing.”

'You, my Royal Oak, the masterpiece of my career, produced by the Le Brassus artisans, are the magical realisation of my childhood dream.” - Gérald Genta, 1992. He was famously unimpressed with Emmanuel Gueit’s reinterpretation of the Royal Oak, reportedly calling Gueit a “murderer” for what he had done to his design. Image courtesy of Audemars Piguet.

Therein lay the problem Audemars Piguet had brought Gueit in to address. Few young watch enthusiasts like Gueit thought of the Royal Oak when considering a purchase. “In the 1980s nobody wanted the Royal Oak any more. Sales were declining, as was also the case for the Patek Philippe Nautilus. There was talk of stopping production,” Gueit says.

With his prized reference 56023 on his wrist, he set about designing a new Royal Oak for a new generation of watch enthusiasts. “I decided to make a big one; I don’t know why,” he said. ‘It was the beginning [of the trend] when women began to wear men’s watches and I thought, ‘I need to design a watch designed exclusively for men.’ Today it sounds very macho – and perhaps a little short-sighted, given the current trend for genderless timepieces.

Gueit was a young designer at the start of his career at Audemars Piguet when he was trusted with reimaging the Royal Oak. His interpretation had a distinctly adventurer vibe, and he imagined the watch with a compass built in. There were other greenfield ideas, such as a reversible, pendant watch and a compass, that never came to be. The designer today feels time has only proven how important his work was to the continuation of the Royal Oak’s story.

“So, I decided to make everything bigger, to make it a little rounder, [so that it] could be easier to wear,” says Gueit. “At this time the Royal Oak did not have a chronograph, so I decided to introduce [one] to make it stand apart from the Royal Oak collection.”

The Offshore was launched in a rainbow of shades in 1993, 21 years after the reference 5402 had first made its mark at Baselworld. Tom Bolt, a veteran watch dealer who has made a career sourcing and selling the Royal Oak to everyone from movie stars to football players, says the Offshore has a special place in his heart. “The Offshore, for which I coined the term ‘the Beast’, was refreshing in the early 1990s when everything was small, thin, boring,” he says. “I got into vintage watches in the 1980s because modern watches were so boring. In this world the Offshore was so left of centre that I fell in love. It was so perverse – so wrong, yet so right.”

While the watch divides opinion among enthusiasts, Gueit is firmly of the belief that the Offshore “saved” the Royal Oak. “Launching it shook up things at the brand and in the watch industry because at this time we were selling small watches – 36mm; very slim,” he says. “We arrived with the Offshore, which is ‘the Beast’ – big and bulky – and no one really understood that. But it opened a new door and relaunched the brand. [It] saved the Royal Oak and helped people understand that it is the most beautiful watch on the market, and underlined the reason for its success.”

Collector Lung Lung Thun thinks the true test of the Royal Oak’s cultural relevance in Hong Kong will be whether it is able to upend the dominance of brands such Rolex. Courtesy of Hodinkee.

The bold design spoke to Thun’s preferences. “The first Royal Oak I fell in love with was an Offshore chronograph steel for women in purple with a diamond bezel [reference 26048SK] in 2010. You would think that more than a decade later I would have graduated from Royal Oaks, but I think I’ve come to appreciate them more as I started to learn about the history of them,” she says. “When I pause to think about how I no longer react to seeing a person in their early 20s walking around in sweatpants and a Royal Oak in Hong Kong, I realise how ubiquitous the watch has become. How people dress is part of culture and history. It will be interesting to see whether the Royal Oak has the power to replace Rolex’s popularity in Hong Kong one day.”

Bolt’s clients, some of the most photographed people in the United Kingdom and around the world, also seemed to favour this bold new version of Genta’s design. “Steroid up the Royal Oak and that bad boy becomes pretty unwieldly on the wrist,” says Bolt. “Due to its sharp edges, it harvests scratches & dings pretty easily. It’s more of a design aesthetic. However, the Royal Oak was a first in many aspects. Look at the [Royal Oak Offshore] Rubberclad, the [Royal Oak Offshore Juan Pablo] Montoya – the Royal Oak has been the benchmark for the watch world evolving. There aren’t many watch brands that have contributed as much,” he added.

In the United States, Audemars Piguet deployed the Offshore to embed itself in popular culture in a very visible way. This was again a calculated move, with François-Henry Bennahmias, the brand’s managing director from 1999 until 2012 when he would become interim CEO and then later take on the full position, making it a priority to build connections from the very start of his reign. The relationship with hip-hop superstar Jay-Z is an example of this.

Collector Eric Ku remembers a time from his previous career working for an IT recycling company he attended a bill signing event in Sacramento, California when Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor of the state. “There was a handshake session afterwards, and when I went up to the then governor, he leans into me and says, “Nice watch, I’m wearing one too.” I was wearing a 5402 Royal Oak Jumbo, and he was wearing an Offshore of some type. At that moment the Royal Oak made me really feel like part of a small and exclusive club,” Ku says. Courtesy of Audemars Piguet.

Bennahmias invited the then-budding rapper into the inner sanctum of the brand’s New York offices in the late 1990s, showing off the brand’s history of complications, as well as its latest offerings, such as the Royal Oak Offshore. Jay-Z was hooked, and a few years later he name-checked Audemars Piguet in his 2002 track Show You How: “Audemars Piguet with the alligator strap…”. It was subtle but momentous, the first time a watch brand had been mentioned in this way in a song. And in the next year, in his The Black Album, he rapped on the track Allure: “Bathing Ape kicks, Audemars Piguet wrist.”

In 2005 Jay-Z and Audemars Piguet released a collaboration that was also the first of its kind. It had been 10 years since the artist had founded Roc-a-Fella Records and to celebrate he launched the 100-piece limited-edition Jay-Z 10th Anniversary Royal Oak Offshore, with a caseback that featured his signature. The presentation box also included a 40GB iPod with Jay-Z’s entire discography up to that point.

This, along with watches like the Offshore appearing on rappers’ wrists in music videos, meant a whole new generation aspired to own one. Soon other rappers including Jim Jones, Rick Ross, Lil Wayne, Nas, J. Cole, and Drake followed suit, name-checking the watchmaker in their tracks – and the trend continues today. Dave, on his 2021 track Clash, rapped, “My AP cost thirty-one, millimetres: forty-one”, while Kendrick Lamar’s 2022 track Rich Spirit including the lyrics: “AP, Michael Friedman, my friends cooler.”

“Audemars before all of y’alls.”

Jay-Z on Frank Ocean’s 2017 track Biking

Mark Ronson, the musician and Audemars Piguet ambassador, is another example of how music has helped the brand sink deeper into our collective consciousness. Brynn Wallner, the founder of Dimepiece, a platform dedicated to women and watchmaking, shows the power that can be held by personal but ultimately brand-led stories narrated by tastemakers such as Ronson. “Mark Ronson tells of the first time he saw the watch,” she says. “Some cool French guy was wearing it in Paris, and Ronson had never seen anything like it. It was so impactful that he bought a vintage gold piece for himself. I've heard similar stories about other pop-culture figures, and it just conveys how enticing the Royal Oak is. You see it in person and you have to know more about it.”

Therein, Ku says, lies the reason for the Royal Oak’s unparalleled position in watchmaking. “The reason behind [the Royal Oak’s] success is twofold – a simple and distinct design that has endured many different iterations, and the marketing prowess and genius of [François-Henry] Bennahmias,” she says.

Cheng was already deep into collecting Royal Oaks when an episode of Hodinkee’s Talking Watches series furthered his appreciation of the watch. “It was the one in which Ben Clymer interviews Kevin Hart. Hart mentioned that the 40th anniversary 15203PT may be his favourite watch. I have the same watch and it is also one of my favourites. He said that it is special to him because of the transparent date wheel. I love it for the exact reason,” Cheng says. “That it is the open worked version of 15202 (5402), the only open worked Royal Oak with date wheel, and the perfect execution to celebrate 40th anniversary of the original Royal Oak back in 2012. The shared appreciation to the Royal Oak reinforced my belief that it is absolutely a cultural icon, not that I am comparing myself to Hart, of course,” he adds.

Tamara Ralph thinks Audemars Piguet has actively embedded the Royal Oak in pop culture to an extent that the watch became part of the zeitgeist.

Over the years, the watch has developed such a presence that even its absence makes a statement. Tamara Ralph, an Australian fashion entrepreneur known for brands such as Tamara Ralph Couture, says her enduring impression of the watch was created “the moment I walked into the store and there wasn't a single product available. The fact that they are consistently out of stock shows the brand is positioned at the highest echelon of cultural relevance.”

The Royal Oak’s allure was cemented to her when she first met Evelyne Genta, the founder of Association Gerald Genta Heritage, who spoke to her at length about the design history behind it. “I automatically fell in love with the creativity, history and design of the brand,” says Ralph. “Audemars Piguet is one of the few brands that recognises trends and talent far ahead of its time. I love the ‘out of the box’ ideas that stem from François-Henry Bennahmias during his reign as CEO. Collaborations such as Gims [the French rapper] and Marvel demonstrate how they love to challenge the market in terms of design, creativity and relevance.
“I’m an avid collector and, as a female buyer, the Royal Oak is not only strong and sharp but chic and feminine – I love that mix.”

Today we might be used to seeing the Royal Oak’s perception amplified through social media, but it has always been the wristwear of choice for the day’s tastemakers. Wallner tells the story of how seeing an old magazine photograph of a favourite designer wearing the watch further fuelled her desire for the Royal Oak. “There's an amazing photo of a young Issey Miyake wearing what I think is the Jacqueline Dimier [ladies’] Royal Oak, which debuted in 1976,” she says. “When I see that, I see a visionary designer with no regard for labels and a pure understanding of a body’s synergy with an object.” It is one of the reasons she covets and one day hopes to own a neo-vintage reference 26670ST.

Carolina Bucci, the Italian jewellery designer who has worked with Audemars Piguet on several occasions, most recently collaborated with the brand on the 300-piece Royal Oak Self-winding Carolina Bucci Limited Edition. “People use watches to confer status in a way that used to be more reliant on clothing or jewellery,” she says. “But in my mind, the Royal Oak started it all 50 years ago, and that is why it is so important. For me there is a straight line from someone like Gianni Agnelli wearing his Royal Oak Jumbo over his cuff in the 1970s all the way through to Jay-Z wearing a Carbon Concept with a T-shirt and baseball hat. That spirit of carefully engineered effortlessness is what the Royal Oak got right before it was even understood.”

Carolina Bucci, one of the latest to leave her mark on the Royal Oak, has brought her sensibilities rooted in jewellery design to the octagonal shape. Courtesy of Audemars Piguet.

This two-pronged strategy has extended from music to cinema and from sport to fashion. It has included developing relationships with celebrities, figures from British golfer Nick Faldo to chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov and tennis superstar Serena Williams to boxer Anthony Joshua.

Speaking to us on the subject, Joshua says, “For me, the Royal Oak means you are stepping into the big leagues. It means that you are thinking long term, generationally. It’s something you can pass down to future generations. To put the investment in to a Royal Oak shows your mind is in the right place, you have a sense of discipline and you don’t want to be frivolous with your investments. It is a real statement watch.”

Other times, the brand has been visible as a patron. It created limited-edition watches for Alinghi, a competitive sailing team; a blown-up photograph of one of the watches, the Royal Oak reference 25979PT, adorned the fluttering sails of the Alinghi boat as far back as 2002 as it competed in the Whitbread Round the World yacht race. In the world of art, Audemars Piguet has sponsored the Art Basel fair since 2013.

There are nearly endless numbers of variations of the Royal Oak, which demonstrates both its endurance and the adaptability of its design. “It is a reminder of the longevity of good design,” says Bucci. “When an object just works – truly works – you feel it instinctively and then it can be a platform for endless creativity. That is what I think any designer wants to achieve – an unmistakable silhouette that becomes a base for experimentation, and not just a beautiful one-off in a historical vacuum. The Jumbo remains the faithful reinterpretation, but that is not the whole story of the Royal Oak. The fun is had at the margins, and that is where I have enjoyed pushing the boundaries of Genta’s design … I couldn’t think of another object outside of jewellery that I would have liked to play with more.”

Eric Wind, who owns and runs Wind Vintage, a seller of vintage watches based in Palm Beach, Florida, says it is the design’s infinite adaptability that speaks to enthusiasts far beyond the community of collectors. He says, “Over the last decade I have seen the Royal Oak go from a watch that was purely on the wrist of watch enthusiasts to being on the wrists of people who appreciate the watch for being an undeniable great design generally, far beyond the confines of the watch community. Seeing Assouline books about the Royal Oak and seeing it on the wrists of so many notable celebrities has taken it to the forefront of iconic watches.”

He remembers first finding out about the reference 5402ST after reading an article in 2010, then looking up old photographs of personalities such as Karl Lagerfeld wearing the watch. Over the years, Wind has watched new waves of collectors gravitate towards the design. He says, “I couldn’t [then have] imagined an A-Series example – the early one numbered 'A2'; the second one made – going for more than $1m at auction and I couldn't imagine an early perpetual calendar model in steel going for more than $600,000 at auction, either. It's been amazing to watch the scholarship develop on these and see so many serious watch collectors chasing them.”

Tiffany To says the Royal Oak, with its endless variety, continues to brings excitement to auction catalogues.

Tiffany To, head of sale at Phillips Watches Geneva, has seen first-hand the trajectory of this growth in appreciation. “Apart from bringing joy and diversity to the auction catalogue, [the Royal Oak] represents a cult model that many clients are looking to collect today, and [that] is great to collect due to its depth,” she says. “It is incredibly rewarding to help clients build a Royal Oak collection due to the sheer number of variants one can try to find, from perpetual calendars with or without leap years, to many case metal combinations [and] case sizes. The possibilities are almost endless.”

To believes its continued success is owed to what she describes as Audemars Piguet having its “finger on the pulse” in terms of the culture of watchmaking technology. “Beyond the aesthetics is the brand itself and its values. Compared [with] many traditional Swiss brands, Audemars Piguet is really a harbinger of ‘culture to come’. Who would imagine in 1972 for a Swiss watchmaker to have the gall to launch a stainless-steel wristwatch even more expensive than its gold counterpart of the period?”

Matthew Williams, creative director of Givenchy, posing for us wearing one of the customised Royal Oaks he designed at 1017 ALYX 9SM, a fashion label he co-founded. The piece, which was created by MAD Paris, represents a minimal and monochromatic take on the Royal Oak’s aesthetic.

This willingness to continually seek new frontiers has resulted in market-specific pieces such as the China Edition and Singapore Edition Royal Oaks as well as the Royal Oak Sachin Tendulkar reference 26161, says To. These, and others like them, have helped bring an even wider audience to the Royal Oak. “I had always thought of the model as something of an icon even before I started working professionally in watches,” she says. “It always had a sense of exclusivity yet also universality.”

Both Federico Tan and Kevin Poon, with their Royal Oaks.

Federico Tan, the founder of the Advisory Council, a creative agency representing several global fashion houses and art galleries in Hong Kong, was drawn further into the world of vintage Royal Oaks following an encounter with a fellow collector. “Meeting Austen Chu – aka Horoloupe – got me deeper into the rabbit hole. [He introduced] me to modern variations of the Royal Oak and [I saw] the process behind the creation of his collaborative piece with AP – the China Edition.”

To others such as Kevin Poon, a gallerist, DJ, restaurateur, and fashion designer, the Royal Oak represented entry into an exclusive but global family. “The Royal Oak is iconic in pop culture, with lots of references from people of culture around the world, from Future to Jay-Z, and to many others,” he says. “I am happy to be a part of the family.” The watch has been a big part of his education as a collector of watches, he adds.

The Perils of Ubiquity

This kind of ubiquity comes with its share of challenges, says Wallner. “I love the Royal Oak and I desperately want one for myself, but I think it is an object that should be enjoyed and presented in moderation. The more I see it, the more it becomes, reluctantly, trivial,” she says. “I find myself proactively refreshing my mind on its history and cultural significance, so my perception of the watch doesn't become too jaded.” It risks becoming what Bolt refers to as “the uniform watch”.

It is also a watch that engenders a lot of passionate views which can seem stifling to those new to the Royal Oak. “I wear all my watches with jewellery – mix and match,” says Bucci. “I read a lot of comments on watch sites [where] people are horrified at the idea of putting bracelets next to a watch, but for me that feels so unnecessarily proscriptive. It is something that feels really specific to the watch world; it certainly doesn’t happen with jewellery and not even in fashion so much. But there seems to be a lot of angry and vocal people in the watch-blog and Instagram world that want to keep these objects and their styling in a very narrow range. For me, that is a fast track to watches becoming obsolete.”

Final Word

Accurately capturing the story of a watch that has held a constant presence in our world for 50 years is no easy task, but we think it is obvious why it has become such a cultural icon. Its attractive, instantly recognisable design has allowed the brand to build its legend through meaningful relationships with those who shape our culture. As Bill Prince puts it: “It's the perfect equation of form and content, and a demonstration of both innate and expressed values that stand the test of time.”

Audemars Piguet has always managed to contextualise the watch so that when we look back on the history from the Royal Oak’s next big milestone, it will appear that the watch has always been part of our experience. Of course, very few objects are imbued with such meaning. That’s what sets an icon apart.

We would like to thank Anthony Joshua, Bill Prince, Brynn Wallner, Carolina Bucci, Emmanuel Gueit, Federico Tan, Jacqueline Dimier, Jean-Claude Biver, Kevin Poon, Mstanga, Tiffany To, Eric Ku, Eric Wind, Jaś Rewkiewicz, Massimo Frascella, Tamara Ralph, Lung Lung Thun and Tom Bolt for being generous with their time and for sharing their love for the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak with us. Lastly, we’d like to thank Audemars Piguet for its contribution, without which this piece would not have been possible.