We honour Audemars Piguet’s oversized “wild child” as it marks a quarter-century of hellraising and trendsetting
By Chris Hall
When we came up with the idea of the Modern Classic series, the idea was simple: in a world that will forever be fixated on the glory days, give credit to the watches that have made a difference since the industry’s luxury revival in the early 1990s. Over the last couple of years we’ve paid tribute to designs as diverse as the Chanel J12, the Lange 1 and Patek Philippe’s Aquanaut. But when we talk about designs that influenced the modern era of watchmaking, one looms large above the rest.
Size has always been the story with the Royal Oak Offshore. Alongside the emergence of Panerai as a consumer watch brand, it created the market for big watches (and the parallels don’t end there; where Panerai had Sylvester Stallone, it was Arnold Schwarzenegger who helped fuel the Offshore’s success). It was the original enfant terrible of modern watch design, and played a crucial role in the transformation of the wristwatch from functional item to status symbol. It opened up the valleys of the Jura to hip-hop moguls, film stars and basketball icons, and paved the way for brands such as Hublot, Linde Werdelin and Roger Dubuis. A phenomenal success, it has spawned more than 130 references in the last 25 years – most of them limited editions.
And yet, two and a half decades ago, things were not quite as confident. Briefed by then-CEO Stephen Urquhart to design a modern take on the Royal Oak as it marked its 20th anniversary, designer Emmanuel Gueit set about building on Gerald Genta’s octagonal original. The watch that would attract the internal nickname “the Beast” had a troubled gestation: for four years Gueit worked on the project, told at every stage that it would never succeed. When it was finally launched, a year later than planned, Gerald Genta reportedly stormed into Audemars Piguet’s Baselworld stand yelling “You killed my baby!”. He referred to the watch as “the whale” and never softened his stance on it. Fortunately for AP, others did – although not overnight.
“It took time for the Offshore’s status to rise,” explains brand Heritage and Museum director, Sebastian Vivas, “and it’s easy to interpret its success after the fact – nevertheless, I think it was predictable. The rise of watches as luxury items took them right back to their roots as beautiful objects to show off. And in the context of the time, the Nineties, you realise that that had to mean something sporty and casual. Still, in 1993 42mm was very large. Take the long view; the Royal Oak Offshore was the size of a pocketwatch, but on the wrist.”
The big watch needed a big personality to propel it onto the world stage. In 1999, the brand was approached by Arnold Schwarzenegger to create a watch: the End of Days limited edition was the brand’s first foray into limited runs, and became a huge success. CEO Francois-Henry Bennahmias hails the launch as his proudest moment from the Offshore’s lifetime: “Thanks to this watch, we raised over $1m for the children of Arnold’s After School All Star Foundation. It was a unique experience and the first of many more to come.”
As well as being one of the very first all-black watches of the modern era, it seems in hindsight as though the End of Days watch opened the floodgates. Over the next decade the Offshore proliferated: deals were struck with sportsmen, markets and retailers while new materials, colours and even gem-setting were eagerly embraced. “It was an incredibly creative time,” says Vivas. “In 2008 alone we launched more than 25 references of Royal Oak Offshore – and we had to refuse more than half of the requests that we got. Then from about 2012 we started to go back in the other direction – it was felt by the Audemars and Piguet family members on the board that we had done too much with the celebs.”
More complicated Offshores followed, as well as the 44mm chronograph and Offshore Diver, and the partnerships were whittled down. To mark the watch’s 25th anniversary this year, alongside a faithful reissue of the debut model, Audemars Piguet has reinvented the Offshore in the most drastic way yet, ditching the bezel and mega-tapisserie for a hyper-aggressive openworked dial.
Too much of a risk? No sign of Emmanuel Gueit storming the walls at SIHH, and for Mr Bennahmias, it makes perfect sense: “It was a risk of course, but “risk” is the Offshore’s middle name. It has always sparked controversy so it’s nothing we haven’t handled before.”
Click below to read about 28 of the craziest and most groundbreaking watches in the Royal Oak Offshore’s lifetime
This is part of our Modern Classics series, profiling the most significant watch designs of the last 30 years. You can view the rest of the entries here. Disagree with our choices? Let us know on Twitter, Facebook or by email.