You are all familiar with the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, with its history, and its multiple manifestations but the model we have for our hands-on session today is going to elicit some very extreme reactions, good and bad. Although there is nothing novel under the hood or structurally about this Royal Oak chronograph, this is a very particular piece and as such is a limited edition of 200 pieces. What we’re looking at here today – and coming to terms with – is a 41mm Royal Oak chronograph with a frosted white gold case and a loud purple dial. Hate it or love it, let’s get to know it a little better.
Born in the 1970s, the Royal Oak was a child of its time
Leading on from the flower power groove that marked the 1960s, the 1970s heralded a turbulent decade marked by student unrest, Vietnam, Watergate, the oil crisis, bell-bottoms, lava lamps, rock music and disco lights. However, for watch lovers, the most significant date of this decade is 1972, the year Gérald Genta’s Royal Oak watch was unveiled.
The precursor of the luxury sports watch genre, the Royal Oak was touted as a watch with a “body of steel and a heart of gold”. The dynamic architecture of its steel case and octagonal bezel with exposed screws and industrial aesthetics caused a sensation – in both directions – and flipped established conventions upside down and inside out. It was by no means the first steel sports watch on the market – for that, Rolex had been providing robust steel tool watches for decades – but the audacity of the Royal Oak was its positioning as a luxury watch, with a price tag to match. Here was a watch that was technically tough enough for outdoor sports but smart enough to be worn with a suit.
Evolution of the ROyal Oak Chronograph
The chronograph version of the Royal Oak hit the scene in 1997 in a 39mm format. In 2012, the Royal Oak was given a makeover and its case size increased from 39mm to 41mm along with major tweaks to the dial – triangle marker at 12 replaced with double baton markers and thinner, more elongated hour markers, smaller chequerboard pattern confusingly renamed ‘Grande Tapisserie’ – you can read all about the rejuvenated 2012 model here. In 2017, the two-tone dial models made their debut in same case size but with larger chronograph counters at 9 and 3 o’clock, shorter but thicker hour markers, more lume and new typeset and transfers with a larger AP logo.
The model we have today is a beneficiary of the 2017 upgrades and very similar to the platinum Royal Oak Chronograph with a smoked grey dial we covered here in 2018.
Frosted gold case
I recently reviewed another Audemars Piguet timepiece, the Millenary watch for women, also clad in frosted gold and confess that I am extremely fond of this finish. In a nutshell, frosted gold is achieved by hammering the gold with a diamond-tipped tool to create tiny indentations in the surface. Inspired by an artisanal gold hammering technique used predominantly in jewellery, Florentine jeweller Carolina Bucci was enlisted by AP to create a new habillage for the 40th anniversary of the Royal Oak. The glistening frosty surface, that looks as though the watch had just been taken out of the freezer, is not only beautiful but extremely hard-wearing.
The Royal Oak was once provocative, before becoming a classic… This model brings the concept back!
Almost the entire surface of this Royal Oak Chronograph and integrated bracelet are covered in frosted gold, save for the polished flanks of the bezel, the sides of the bracelet and the chronograph pushers and crown. Admittedly, the frosty surface emits a dull, matte sparkle (is that possible?) without the dazzle of diamonds. However, on this particular model, the slightly gritty grey surface suggests concrete, very in tune with the original industrial aesthetics of the 1972 model.
Another slightly contradictory fact concerns the diameter of this model. Although it grew in size to 41mm during its 2012 makeover, the balance between the diameter and thickness (11mm) is perfect – in fact, it looks sleeker than the 39mm and is more balanced on the wrist. The all-important factor of proportion has been achieved and the watch feels absolutely right.
Like all Royal Oak models from 2017 forward, the dial is decorated with a guilloché “Grande Tapisserie” (chequerboard) pattern and features the same layout of the chronograph functions as the 2017 model with two horizontal rhodium-toned counters at 3 and 9 o’clock for elapsed times and a smaller counter above the 6 o’clock marker for the running seconds. The white gold applied hour markers and the hands are identical to the 2017 model with luminescent coating and the date window perched between 4 and 5 o’clock has a purple background to match the dial.
However, the novelty here is the colour of the dial. It’s purple, unequivocally purple, well “plum purple” if you want to be exact, the kind of purple you might have worn on your 1970s bell-bottoms. It might not be the first purple dial in the Royal Oak line-up (check out this Royal Oak Tourbillon), but it is the first time Audemars Piguet mixes frosted gold armour with a purple dial.
Turning over the watch reveals a sealed caseback but, rest assured, Audemars Piguet’s in-house calibre 2385 beats below cover – note that this movement is based on the architecture of the Frédéric Piguet 1185. An automatic, integrated column-wheel chronograph with tri-compax layout, the movement beats a frequency of 21,600vph/3Hz and provides a power reserve of 40 hours for the chronograph, hours, minutes, small seconds and date functions.
Time warps our perceptions
Over the years, watches that were once radical, provocative and challenged the status quo tend to settle down and become the norm. They are so familiar to us, so much a part of the vocabulary of contemporary watchmaking that it’s easy to forget that once upon a time they were the disruptive new boys on the block. The Royal Oak is the perfect case study of this phenomenon, a rebel that settled down to become a classic. I think it’s safe to say that nobody today would describe the Royal Oak as a remotely radical or provocative watch.
When I first saw this watch, I was shocked, I admit it. A purple dial and a frosted white gold case? No way. But then I realised that this might be exactly the response Audemars Piguet was seeking. Something that would appeal to men who don’t necessarily want a mainstream, conventional model but are in love with the Royal Oak. The industrial, almost concrete-like effect of the frosted gold coupled with an attention-grabbing purple dial is bold and daring. And if this was a way of injecting some fresh air and attitude to a timepiece that was getting rather sedentary in its middle age, I applaud Audemars Piguet and confirm that the mission of shock and awe has been accomplished.
Whether you like it or not is a different matter, but I am sure that there are 200 guys out there who will rise to the provocation and boldly go where not many men have gone before… Bravo!
The Royal Oak Frosted Gold Chronograph (ref. 26331BC.GG.1224BC.01) is a boutique-exclusive edition of 200 watches retailing for EUR 64,800. More details at www.audemarspiguet.com.