Introduced in 1972, the Royal Oak was not only a game-changer for Audemars Piguet but also the entire luxury Swiss watch industry. The debut of the AP Royal Oak created what we now know as the luxury sports watch category – a genre that remains exceedingly popular today. Like so many other watches that broke away from traditions, the Gerald Genta-designed Royal Oak watch wasn’t an immediate success. However, try to get your hands on one today and it’ll immediately become clear just how sought after the AP Royal Oak watch is. Characterized by its eight-sided bezel punctuated with exposed screws, hobnail dial, and integrated bracelet, the Royal Oak is an iconic watch design.
The Royal Oak celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and as expected, Audemars Piguet has announced a slew of new models and references to celebrate the occasion. We dug a little deeper into how these new references fit into the heritage of the collection and what has evolved over the last five decades. The Royal Oak has grown from a single reference watch to a massive lineup (and AP’s most important collection) of watches available in a dizzying assortment of sizes, materials, colorways, and complications. With a focus on key references and models, welcome to our ultimate guide to the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak.
AP Royal Oak History
If you’re at all familiar watches—particularly Swiss luxury watches—you would have no doubt have heard of Gerald Genta, who was a prolific watch designer that conceived watches the industry’s biggest brands. Though Genta passed away in 2011, his legacy lives on through the watches he conceived including the Universal Genève Polerouter, the Patek Philippe Nautilus, the Bulgari-Bulgari, the Cartier Pasha, and so many others. One of his greatest watch designs turned out to be the Royal Oak for Audemars Piguet.
In an interview he did in 2009, Genta retells the story of how the Royal Oak came to be. According to him, Georges Golay, the Managing Director of Audemars Piguet, called him up and asked for the design of an entirely new waterproof steel sports watch by the next morning. Taking inspiration from antique diving helmets, Genta sketched the sports watch for Audemars Piguet in one night. It had an octagonal bezel with eight hexagonal screws, a simple time and date dial, an integrated bezel, and most importantly, it was to be fashioned entirely in stainless steel.
Audemars Piguet debuted the Royal Oak at the 1972 Basel Fair. Due to its enormous (for the era) 39mm case, avant-garde silhouette, and hefty CHF 3,650 price tag (the most expensive steel watch in the market, by far and even pricier than many gold dress watches at that time), the Royal Oak was too shocking for the market to accept, initially. That first model was the Royal Oak ref. 5402ST and thanks to its size, it quickly picked up the nickname “Jumbo.” However, despite the initial resistance, it wasn’t long before the trend picked up and other brands, such as Vacheron Constantin, Girard-Perregaux, and Patek Philippe, offered up their versions of the luxury steel sports watch that same decade.
The Defining Traits of the AP Royal Oak
While there are plenty of variations in the AP Royal Oak collection, the watches (barring a few exceptions) all share the following defining design characteristics.
- Octagonal bezel, which gives the Royal Oak its bold and recognizable look
- Eight hexagonal-shaped screws in the bezel
- A hobnail patterned (also known as Clous de Paris) dial, which the brand calls a Tapisserie dial. There are different sized patterns, classified as Petite Tapisserie, Grande Tapisserie, and Méga Tapisserie
- Integrated bracelet, which transitions seamlessly from the case
It’s also worth pointing out that two letters following Audemars Piguet (all, not just Royal Oaks) reference numbers denote the watch case metal:
- BA – Yellow Gold
- BC – White Gold
- ST – Steel
- OR – Rose Gold
- PT – Platinum
- TI – Titanium
Understanding this shorthand will make reading Royal Oak reference numbers a little easier.
What is the Royal Oak Jumbo?
As previously mentioned, when the maiden Royal Oak ref. 5402 was released, it became known as the Jumbo because of its large 39mm case size. Yet, while 39mm is by no means considered “Jumbo” in today’s watch market, we still hear this term often when discussing Royal Oak watches. So what is a Royal Oak Jumbo?
When collectors and enthusiasts say Royal Oak Jumbo, they are referring to either the original reference 5402ST or to models that were fashioned to honor that reference. These watches have ultra-thin 39mm cases, lack a seconds hand, and run on (except for the newest reference 16202ST) the self-winding Caliber 2121, which is based on the Jaeger-LeCoultre caliber 920.
- Reference 5402ST: Launched in 1972 but made in several series (A-, B-, C-, and D- series)
- Reference 14802 Jubilee: A limited-edition (1,000 examples) Royal Oak produced in 1992 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the model
- Reference 15002ST: Released in the mid-1990s and by some reports only 186 examples were ever made
- Reference 15202ST: Originally released in 2000 but redesigned in 2012 (to celebrate the 40th anniversary) to look even more like the original Jumbo reference.
- Reference 16202ST: Released in 2022, this is the newest iteration of the original Royal Oak Jumbo with a brand new Caliber 7121 movement with a longer power reserve.
Some of the changes that occurred to the Reference 15202ST in 2012 that made it look closer to the original reference 5402ST included the shift of the AP logo back to the 6 o’clock position (instead of 12 o’clock), the addition of double index markers at 12 o’clock, and a smaller Tapisserie pattern. In 2022, Audemars Piguet replaced the reference 15202ST with the 16202ST, which retains much of the beloved Royal Oak Jumbo design traits that collectors love but benefits from a new-generation in-house Caliber 7121 automatic movement.
Flagship Royal Oak References
- Royal Oak 39mm 15300: 2005 – 2012
- Royal Oak 41mm 15400: 2012 – 2019
- Royal Oak 37mm 15450: 2012 – 2022
- Royal Oak 41mm 15500: 2019 – present
- Royal Oak 37mm 15550: 2022 – present
While some collectors will argue that the Jumbo watches are the only true AP Royal Oak to own, we cannot overlook the modern flagship Royal Oak references. In fact, it could be said that while the cult-classic Jumbo Royal Oaks are exceedingly collectible, the modern “mainstream” Royal Oak references (that are also available in many more materials, dial colors, and strap variations) are what made this particular AP model the powerhouse it is today.
We start with the Royal Oak 15300, which launched in 2005. Although reference 15300 retained the 39mm case size and defining Royal Oak traits, there were some significant changes too. First of all, the overall execution of the Royal Oak 15300 was bolder and weightier owing to the thicker case and more solid bracelet. The thicker case is home to the in-house Caliber 3120 automatic movement, which adds a central seconds hand to the dial. Also notable on the dial of the Royal Oak ref. 15300 is the large AP logo that serves as the 12 o’clock marker.
Audemars Piguet discontinued the Royal Oak 15300 in 2012 and replaced it with two other Caliber 3120-powered flagship models: reference 15400 with 41mm cases and reference 15450 with 37mm cases. The biggest difference on the dials of these Royal Oak references compared to the preceding ref. 15300 was the replacing of the large AP logo at 12 with more traditional double indexes. In 2019, Audemars Piguet replaced the Royal Oak 41mm ref. 15400 with the Royal Oak 41mm ref. 15500, complete with a new Caliber 4302 with improved power reserve and higher frequency. In terms of dial design changes, the big one was the removal of the “Automatic” label at 6 o’clock.
Finally, Audemars Piguet replaced the Royal Oak 37mm 15450 with the updated Royal Oak 37mm 15550, which includes slightly redesigned cases, bracelets, and dials for an overall more minimalist look.
36mm Midsize AP Royal Oak
So far, we’ve only highlighted the larger Royal Oak offerings, spanning from 37mm to 41mm. However, the now-discontinued Royal Oak 36mm watches, which AP defined as midsize, represent an important portion of the history and evolution of the RO so we’ll briefly outline them here.
- Royal Oak 36mm 4100: Introduced 1978
- Royal Oak 36mm 14332: Introduced 1980
- Royal Oak 36mm 14486: introduced 1988
- Royal Oak 36mm 14700: Introduced 1991
- Royal Oak 36mm 14790: Introduced 1992
Audemars Piguet discontinued the 36mm Royal Oak in 2005.
Other AP Royal Oak Models
Although we’ve focused primarily on the classic time-and-date Royal Oaks, there are plenty of other models that boast more than that.
For instance, the Royal Oak Offshore Chronograph made its grand entrance in 1993 as the younger and beefier sibling of the Royal Oak. Yet again, AP managed to shock the Swiss watch industry with the Royal Oak Offshore and the 42mm watch with exaggerated details became known as “The Beast” The Royal Oak Offshore has spun off into its own collection of ultra-sporty chronographs and divers.
Audemars Piguet has also made many complicated Royal Oak models, such as the Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar (introduced in 1984), the Royal Oak Tourbillon (introduced in 1997), the Royal Oak Chronograph (introduced in 1998), and others.
In 2002, AP unveiled the Royal Oak Concept collection (to celebrate the RO’s 30th anniversary), which is a line of ultra-futuristic and very limited RO models that showcases the brand’s creativity and mechanical mastery.
The Royal Oak Risk Paid Off
It’s clear that Audemars Piguet’s risky bet on the Royal Oak over five decades ago paid off. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Royal Oak changed the watch industry. Its impact is felt even stronger today, as illustrated by the slew of high-end steel sports watches that dominate the market.
The Royal Oak’s revolutionary design not only inspired other brands to follow suit but also created a blueprint for Audemars Piguet to continuously expand upon, resulting in an immensely varied collection of watches that never stray too far away from that maiden 1972 reference.