Audemars Piguet celebrates the Royal Oak’s 50th anniversary with six new watches

The world’s most desirable (and least-available) steel watch just hit the big five-oh, fresher than ever and accompanied by some stunning (slightly more available) precious-metal siblings

Head to the ‘pre-owned’ watch market’s go-to forum, Chrono24, and you’ll notice that the going rate for Audemars Piguet’s recently discontinued 15202ST ‘Jumbo’ Royal Oak Extra-Thin hovers around the £115,000 mark – roughly four times its 2021 retail tag of £27,900. That should give you an idea of how feverishly anticipated yesterday’s announcement from the legendary Swiss watchmaker was, regarding the redux of this most cultish of horological cults.

Throw in a 50th anniversary, the Royal Oak’s first new movement since its 1972 launch, plus the revelation that out of AP’s annual 45,000(ish) output just 1,875 examples of said Calibre 7121 will be made this year? Safe to say, the Ref. 16202ST could push those Chrono24 figures even closer to the heights of Patek Philippe’s own phased-out, blue-dial sportsman, the Nautilus. 

Funnily enough, both the Royal Oak and Nautilus stemmed from the pen of one man in the space of just four years – that much-ballyhooed gent of watch design, Gérald Genta. It was a last-ditch brief from then-CEO of Audemars Piguet, Georges Golay on the eve of ’72’s Basel trade fair, who in order to satisfy the rakish Riviera set needed a stainless-steel design, and fast. In the space of one night, two genres were born: the notion of a luxurious sports watch in itself; as well as the geometric ‘Gérald Genta’ thing, evolving beyond Royal Oak to Patek’s Nautilus, IWC’s Ingenieur, and on to Bulgari’s Octo – all allied by their sculpted octagonal form.

Needless to say, the Royal Oak’s golden anniversary is a biggy, to which Audemars Piguet has responded with particular class. Not that the casual observer would notice, so respectful have they been and so immortally ’just so’ is the Jumbo’s 39mm jigsaw of fully integrated facets. 

Outwardly, from the boutique-only, blue-eyed posterboy in steel, to the green-dial hen’s tooth in platinum, all that’s changed is a slight trim in height, which is simply down to a slimmer lug profile. Gaze rearside, however, and things couldn’t be more contemporary, thanks to a brand-new extra-thin movement, Calibre 7121, five years in gestation. It’s self-wound by the only gimmicky nod to the Royal’s Oak’s milestone birthday: a rotor skeletonised into 2022’s “50 years” logo.

This mechanism replaces Calibre 2121 for the first time in all of those 50 years (for the Jumbo, mind; the 41mm ‘Selfwinding’ and chronograph models are driven by AP’s premier workhorse of two decades, the calibre 3120). The 2121 remains the thinnest-ever automatic movement with full-width rotor at 3.05 mm high, invented by Jaeger-LeCoultre in 1967 and supplied white-label ever-since, to the great and the good of Geneva and the Vallée de Joux up in the Jura mountains, home to AP. 

Measuring just 3.2 mm in thickness, the new 7121 has been specifically conceived in AP’s mountain ateliers to fit the 8.1mm Jumbo case without altering its aesthetic and thickness. Furthermore, the driving stem is now endowed with a rapid date-corrector, the balance wheel ticks robustly from beneath a dual-anchored bridge rather than a ‘cock’ – gleaming in parallel with the hand-finished bridges – plus a bigger spring barrel means that power’s up to 55 hours.

And then, those dials. 

AP’s iconic manhole-cover-in-miniature, or ’Petite Tapisserie’ engraving is rendered in a rainbow of four new shades. Adorning the blue-eyed steel posterboy, ‘Bleu Nuit, Nuage 50’ (‘night blue, cloud 50’) is a moody navy, originally developed by dialmaker Stern Frères (of Patek-owning Stern family fame), now achieved internally through PVD (Physical Vapor Deposition) to ensure better homogeneity. The pink gold and yellow gold models stick to the old galvanic-bath treatment, getting their shimmering ‘moiré’ effect from spraying varnish onto the rotating dials’ periphery. 

Those thirty-nine millimetres may not be ‘jumbo’ anymore by watchmaking’s modern standards, but its bulletproof design coherence means the Royal Oak Extra-Thin will surely reign for many more half-centuries to come. Forget about investment value, this is what fine watchmaking is all about: legacy in integrity.

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