About a year or more ago, I was mooching around the various new and second hand dealers in the Bond Street area and – for the first time – I tried on a Patek Nautilus 5711… a watch that I’d admired from afar but never actually handled or worn myself. There was no doubt that the finish was exquisite, but for some reason I couldn’t quite to get to grips with the case shape (or, rather, the hinged non-crown side). It did teach me one thing, if nothing else, though; sometimes, the only way you can appreciate the wonderful craftsmanship that goes into many of the higher-end watches is to actually pick them up, wear them and scrutinise them properly. I’m not saying that you’ll then be able to see where the “value” is because we all know that luxury products don’t work that way, but what I am saying is that photos alone will never do them justice.
I mulled and mulled over the Nautilus, but deep down I knew it wasn’t calling to me like it needed to. Around the time that I realised I wouldn’t buy one, my head was turned by it’s cousin from the other side of the tracks – the Aquanaut. Much more of a sports watch, in my opinion, and none of that strange hingey nonsense found on the Nautilus. It’s also a whole lot cheaper, especially on the fantastic rubber strap, even if residuals are horribly firm if you’re on the buying as opposed to the selling end.
The following months saw me try on both the 5167 and the 5164 (for those not into the numbers, the former is the basic three-hander and the latter is the dual time zone “Travel Time”). Both are absolutely gorgeous watches, but whilst I loved the 5164 what I didn’t love so much was the additional bulk it came with. Actually, I didn’t like the price differential either and – after considerable thought – I decided that the “simple” 5167 (on rubber) was the watch for me. In fact, I proceeded to work very hard indeed to track one down, politely declining the BNIB example that Boodles at the Royal Exchange had redirected for me and pretty much agreeing a deal with the manager of a branch of Watches of Switzerland for the next one they got in. (He had accompanied me and a friend on a trip to Blancpain last year, and he’s a lovely bloke; not only that, he offered me a deal that was better than anyone else’s and that made the thought of buying new somewhat more palatable!)
The next step was to wait – and this is where it all went somewhat pear-shaped, if I’m honest. Whilst I waited, I also thought, and looked, and considered. In fact I tried on as well, and one of the watches that made intimate contact with my wrist was an AP RO – not the “classic” 15300 Jumbo but the current 15400; just a tad wider at 41mm but very noticeably slimmer. In fact, the more I thought about the AP, the more I was steering myself in it’s direction at the expense of the Aquanaut. I liked the fact that it was genuinely a horological icon (I know, it’s silly really, but for me it’s an element of that intangible added value that forms part of my decision-making); I liked that on the wonderful bracelet it was comparable price-wise to the Aquanaut on rubber; and – if I’m honest – I liked the fact that it just seemed a little more… I don’t know. Maybe a little more refined.
Just a quick word about the history of the Royal Oak before I go on, because since its release at the Basel fair in 1972 this watch has achieved a status that nobody would have assumed possible. Famously designed by the one and only Gérald Genta, it received a slightly mixed reception at first, with many finding what was then considered a slightly quirky, iconoclastic design a little too different for comfort. It has to be said that cost was also an issue, with the RO in stainless steel being listed for more than some of AP’s already-established models in precious metal. Quite a bold step when you think about it; it needed to be, though, because the Royal Oak was AP’s answer to the quartz crisis and they certainly needed to pull a rabbit out of the hat… things weren’t looking very clever for them at the time, anyway.
Also bold was the choice of Genta as designer. Born in Geneva some 40 years earlier, he had already forged an enviable reputation by the time AP approached him. It was a well-earned reputation too, as Genta had been responsible for some classic watches that included models for Universal Genève (Polerouter Microtor, White Shadow, Golden Shadow), Omega (Constellation) and Patek Philippe (Golden Ellipse). Incidentally, a few more fairly decent watches would follow these, including the Seamaster, the Ingenieur, the Nautilus and the Pasha de Cartier… it really is quite incredible, isn’t it? Here’s a photo of the fella himself, in case you were wondering what he looked like…
Word has it that, on the eve of the 1971 Basel fair (precisely one year before the RO’s official launch), AP’s managing director at the time, Georges Golay, called Genta at 4pm explaining that the market was expecting news of an “unprecedented steel watch” for which he needed a design by the following morning. Genta had just one night ahead of him to design a watch that would ordinarily take several weeks and call for hundreds of sketches. By early morning, the drawing perfectly conveyed his first idea: that of a diving-suit helmet featuring all the details of the watch that was to become the Royal Oak, a design that would in fact never be fundamentally altered. He later called it his “masterpiece” and the photo below is of the sketch he presented to Golay that morning:
Gérald Genta passed away at the end of summer 2011 having founded a brand under his own name and having never stopped designing watches. In fact, for a few years in the mid-1990s he also held the honour of being the designer of the world’s most complicated watch, with his incredible Grande Sonnerie Retro which – even back then – was priced at around $2million! He’s remembered, and will no doubt always be remembered, for some of the greatest designs in 20th century watchmaking, and for the avant-garde nature of his vision.
So, with that amazing and unique background not only researched but also very much appreciated, I proceeded to ponder the RO further, because deciding on the model – not to mention the dial colour – wasn’t very easy. Essentially, there are three in the range, each with their own merits:
• The 15300 – 39mm case, and the classic choice (albeit superseded now). Blue, black or silver dial.
• The (current) 15400 – 41mm case but a slimmer profile then the 15300 and so just as wearable when all’s said and done. Black or silver dial, with a rarer LE Boutique Edition in blue.
• The 15202 – an homage to the original RO, with an ultra-slim 39mm case. Too expensive, sadly, so dial colours are immaterial! Shame, though…
I had pretty much decided on the dial colour (blue) but not the model. I was leaning towards the smaller 15300 but then three things happened, each leading to the position I’m in today. Firstly, I finally managed to try on a blue-dialled 15300 (they’re quite hard to pin down in that colour, actually) and whilst I loved the watch I was a little disappointed by the actual hue of the dial; it wasn’t as vivid as the newer 15400 dials and was a little disappointing as a result. (I also started to wonder about the thickness of the case, perhaps because I was in a slightly more critical frame of mind than I’d been in previously.) Secondly, I tried on the Boutique Edition 15400 and realised that the slimmer profile more than compensated for the slightly larger case; not only that, but the blue dial was just sublime. And finally – just when I thought that the decision was becoming impossible – I learnt that the very chap from WOS who was trying to source me an Aquanaut was actually selling his own Boutique Edition 15400. Not only was it almost new (well, this particular one was sold in mid-2013 and was very lightly and carefully worn) but the watch had also just received a full service at AP and was winging it’s way back to its owner at the time. It didn’t need servicing, of course, but some people are just fussier than others :)
Now, AP only made a limited number of this model/dial combination for AP boutiques, and I liked the fact that it was a little scarcer than the more easily spotted models. That aside, though, it housed the same (gorgeous) in-house cal. 3120 movement as the 15300 and the other 15400 variants. I suppose the only other thing worthy of note is that the 15400 saw the end of the AP logo at 12; I like the cleaner dial, and I also like the fact that, if anything, it’s truer to the original. In other words, I found that my decision was made, and within about 48 hours of me hearing about the watch’s availability in the first place I’d agreed a deal with our friend at WOS and paid for it. Not that many hours later, the doorbell signalled it’s arrival and it was pretty immediately adjusted and on my wrist.
I hinted earlier that it’s hard to do justice to some watches, because they need to be handled and worn in order to be properly appreciated. I could ramble on about the simply fantastic casework, with wonderfully brushed finishes contrasting against adjacent highly polished facets. I could talk at length about the octagonal bezel with its perfectly aligned faux screw-heads that give it an appearance that quite a few have tried to copy without success. I could even talk about the integrated bracelet, which is of supreme quality and is one of the most comfortable that I’ve ever worn. Finally, I could try to explain the sheer depth and “blueness” of the tapisserie dial; it’s not just blue but it’s a whole range of blues – not in the way that Rolex achieve that with their sunburst finish but in a totally different way. It’s even subtler, if anything.
All of this could only fail to convey the reality of the Royal Oak, though, because descriptions and photos don’t even get close, in my opinion. All in all, it’s a bloody beautiful watch – perhaps not the one that I thought I was going to buy a year ago, but the one that I probably knew I’d buy the moment I first tried it on. I suppose all that’s left is the photos… not sure that I can do a good enough job, to be honest, but I obviously couldn’t stop myself from trying!