‘Rule number one’, declares Audemars Piguet CEO François-Henry Bennahmias, ‘Is that the Royal Oak Concept is not your first watch.’ Often described as a ‘spaceship watch’, it stands out for its thick, recognisable, and always balanced architecture. The horology house utilise this watch in order to invent and impress, often using overtly avant-garde design codes. Marking 20 years since the first Concept model appeared on the scene, the Swisswatches team embarked upon a quest to unearth some of the most important models to date – as well as get to know the much-anticipated 2022 edition, the Royal Oak Concept Flying Tourbillon GMT.
2002: The First Royal Oak Concept
Marking 30 years of the original Royal Oak, the first Royal Oak Concept was, in a way, never supposed to exist in its own right. Rather, explains Sébastian Vivas, Museum and Heritage Director at Audemars Piguet, it was a mere ‘stylistic exercise’. However, step by step, the watch formed its own identity. The watch elevated Audemars Piguet to new heights by going against the status quo of its fellow traditional watch manufacture: embracing a starkly futuristic design.
The first Royal Oak Concept from 2002 and first Royal Oak ref. 5402ST from 1972
The first Royal Oak Concept, known as CW1, housed a new calibre (the 2896) in a case made of Alacrite 602. Unsurprisingly, the super-alloy was unknown in the watch industry, being generally reserved for the aerospace and medical industries. The super-alloy consists of 57 percent cobalt, 31 percent chrome, 5 percent tungsten, and small amounts of carbon, silicon, and iron. Boasting a Vickers hardness of 430, yet still being both light and durable, it proved an excellent protector of the complex movement within.
The calibre 2896 offered a number of very unusual features alongside a power reserve of about 70 hours. Perhaps most memorably, the watchmaker integrated a dynamographe. A dynamographe indicates the torque supplied by the mainspring – in other words, the quantity of force being applied. In addition, Audemars Piguet went a step further than integrating a tourbillon by adding distinctive absorbers, making it shock-resistant up to 50 Gs.
Perching above the titanium bezel, the crown’s pusher controls the mode of the watch. These functions are on display at 6 o’clock, indicating whether the calibre’s mode is neutral (N for neutre), winding (R for remonter), or time-setting (H for heure). This would later become a common characteristic of many Concept models. The final key feature on the dial is a linear power reserve indicator at 3 o’clock.
A revolutionary model
While watch dials displaying parts of hugely complex movements are the norm in haute horlogerie today, the first Royal Oak Concept broke down many traditional watchmaking barriers, arguably transforming the face of the brand forever. With its many quirks, the CW1 played a pivotal role in building the bridge between traditional watchmaking and futuristic design.
The first Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Concept watch CW1 inside the original box from 2002
2008: Royal Oak Concept Carbon
For starters, the Royal Oak Concept Carbon is a milestone that emphasises the Concept collection’s engagement with new materials. The watch’s forged carbon case is accompanied by a black ceramic bezel, blackened titanium caseback ring, as well as a black ceramic screw-locked crown.
With the mainplate serving as the dial, the timepiece blurs the lines between its movement and its dial: again, very unusual at the time. Once more, AP integrated a power reserve indicator and selection display operated by the crown. This time, however, the calibre at play is the powerful, manually wound 2895. Thanks to the rapid rotation twin barrel system within, it offers a stunning a 237-hour power reserve. Furthermore, the calibre integrates a revolutionary chronograph display. Its innovative and unusual linear presentation of the chronograph function, traditionally displayed with subdials, stays true to the design elements of the 2002 model.
2011: Royal Oak Concept GMT Tourbillon
Sure enough, a pattern is emerging: once again, this Royal Oak Concept GMT Tourbillon integrates a crown position indicator as well as a tourbillon. At 3 o’clock lies another special complication. You guessed it: a second time indicator. This function operates with the help of a separate push piece at 4 o’clock. The watch combines a ceramic bezel with a very refined, satin-finished titanium case.
Indeed, the purity of this watch’s aethetics play a big role in the model’s identity. Audemars Piguet blacken the lines of the bridges, which form a futuristic sort of hourglass shape, in order to ensure peak legibility despite the dark colour palette. White-gold Royal Oak hands clearly mark out the time. On this watch, balance plays a key role, with the watchmaker using lines and curves to harmonise the presentation of the three varying displays on the dial.
2015: RD#1 Royal Oak Concept Supersonnerie
Ref. 26577TI.OO.D002CA.01 & Ref. 26577TI.OO.D002CA.01
In 2015, the watch manufacturer presented the prototype RD#1 (Ref. 26576TI.OO.D002CA.01), the predecessor of the later Royal Oak Concept Supersonnerie. It was not until the following year, at the SIHH Watch Salon, that the series model Ref. 26577TI.OO.D002CA.01 was presented to the world public. Whereas the prototype from 2015 was a one-off and the case was only made of titanium, the series version from 2016 was no longer limited and the case was made of titanium with ceramic elements.
The manufacture’s main focus for the Royal Oak Concept Supersonnerie was attaining optimal sound quality for the watch’s minute repeater. This boundary-breaking achievement by Audemars Piguet’s Research and Development department was eight years in the making.
In order to create the perfect sound for the new-generation chiming Concept watch, Audemars Piguet studied all aspects of acoustics, from musical instruments, to learning how sound is processed and transmitted. The result was a new invention involving fixing the steel gongs to the soundboard, as opposed to attaching to the movement as is traditional. The caseback also integrates apertures to offer an unfiltered and clear sound to the wearer.
The watch’s three acoustic innovations and impressively intense sound quality led to Audemars Piguet obtaining three patents. Following the emerging rule of three also found in the other watches, the titanium Concept also houses a tourbillon and chronograph. The movement making this possible is the manual-winding calibre 2937. Unlike the phenomenal power reserve of the 2895, the highly complex movement runs for approximately 42 hours.
2015: Royal Oak Concept Laptimer Michael Schumacher
2015 was evidently a big year for the Royal Oak Concept. The most emotional milestone for the line, though, has to be the Royal Oak Concept Laptimer Michael Schumacher. Prior to his accident, Michael Schumacher, god of motorsports, worked with closely with Audemars Piguet in order to create his ideal Concept watch. It marked the very first time that an ambassador for the manufacture had asked them to develop a mechanism from scratch. Schumacher requested a Laptimer mechanism. This presented a huge challenge, given these were only available in battery-run, as opposed to mechanical, watches at the time.
Although closely involved in the development process, Schumacher was unable to give the go-ahead for the finished product due to his ski accident. Eventually, however, Schumacher’s wife Corinna agreed to the launching of the watch, adding that he would have wanted it to be released to the public. Unsurprisingly, it was a huge success.
While measuring a typical 44 mm, the watch looks notably larger than its predecessors. This is due to the large protective rose-gold pushers, as well as the additional lap time pusher. Despite a relatively chunky appearance, the watch is extremely light thanks to the primary use of titanium and carbon.
In order to create a mechanical lap timer watch for the first time, Audemars Piguet cross over two flyback chronographs. Three column wheels work to make the lap time function, and these, while integrated together, work independently of one another. To keep the design simple and legible, the watchmaker opted for dark curved bridges, which are shaped and blackened in order to enhance the readability of the watch as much as possible.
2018: Royal Oak Concept Flying Tourbillon
In 2018, Audemars Piguet gifts fans of the Royal Oak Concept a new model featuring a flying tourbillon. This watch is a milestone in the history of the Concept for two fundamental reasons. Not only is it the first Concept ever to appear for ladies: it also marks the first time that a significantly smaller case size is at play, with a diameter of only 38.5 mm. In terms of decoration and gem-setting, the watchmaker go all out on this model. The open-worked 18-carat white gold dial is set with brilliant-cut diamonds. Likewise, the white-gold inner bezel also glitters with brilliant-cut diamonds.
2020: Royal Oak Concept Selfwinding Tourbillon Chronograph Openworked
In 2020, Audemars Piguet release the Royal Oak Concept Selfwinding Tourbillon Chronograph. This watch marks a real milestone as the first self-winding edition in the Concept series. As a limited edition of 25 pieces, it flaunts an ever-more recognisable AP combination of black and rose-gold elements. This includes a dial with a black 30-minute counter and black inner bezel. Powering this automatic timepiece is the calibre 2949, with a power reserve of 65 hours and frequency of 3 Hz. Naturally, the Concept model integrates a number of complications. This includes a tourbillon, chronograph, hours, minutes, 30- minute counter, second counter and minute counter.
2021: Royal Oak Concept ‘Black Panther’ Flying Tourbillon
Perhaps the most recognisable and famous Concept model to date is the Royal Oak Concept ‘Black Panther’ Flying Tourbillon. Not only is it the most loved Concept model for many a fan of the line, but also for Audemars Piguet CEO François-Henry Bennahmias himself. It is he who we can thank for the partnership with Marvel, which already became a vision for the CEO in 2004.
The ergonomic watch unites technology and complexity with pop culture and superheroes – something not as unusual as one might suspect. In fact, the use of comic characters on watches dates back to the 1930s. Perhaps the most famous example is the designer of the Royal Oak, Gerald Genta, with his yellow-gold pink panther watch.
The watch is also a milestone because it marks the first time that a Concept has had an 42 mm case. This meant that the Concept opened up to those with slim or mid-size wrists, as well as those simply looking for something a little smaller. According to the CEO of the watch manufacture, a new Marvel watch is certainly on the horizon.
2022: Royal Oak Concept Flying Tourbillon GMT / 44 mm
Last but not least, we have the brand new 44 mm timepiece: the sand-blasted titanium Royal Oak Concept Flying Tourbillon GMT. It entices the wearer with its subtle green ceramic green elements, matched with pink-gold tones. The bezel, crown and pushers are made of green ceramic and have been hand-finished with alternating satin and polished bevels.
The watch strongly resembles its smaller electric blue sibling, which is now to be faded out. The difference, however, is that although green ceramic already made its way into Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak Offshore collection in 2018, this year marks the first time this material has been used in the Royal Oak Concept.
Powering the new Concept is the calibre 2954, a manual winding creation which integrates a tourbillon, GMT, as well as the crown function display present on so many of the Concept models. Alongside some pretty beautiful black-PVD bridges Audemars Piguet equip the 2954 with parallel double mainspring barrels. Going full circle, this patented system ensures that the timepiece runs for a full ten days – that’s approximately 237 hours.