The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak "Jumbo" - Past, Present, and Future

The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak "Jumbo" - Past, Present, and Future

by Benjamin Clymer, Executive Editor, HODINKEE


1972 Audemars Piguet Royal Oak A-Series / Copyright Audemars Piguet

The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak "Jumbo" is a horological icon. But, while widely sought after by seasoned collectors, the earliest Royal Oaks are some of least understood sport watches of the last 50 years. Beginning with the Reference 5402ST, so-called "A Series" Royal Oaks differ in physically slight by historically prominent ways from the later B and C series, and subsequent references of the Royal Oak. Here we will delve into the history of the original Royal Oak, how it saved Audemars Piguet from bankruptcy, what to look for when buying an "A-Series" and finally dispel some rumors that have plagued the collecting community for years. We'll also hear from current Audemars Piguet executives on what the Jumbo represents to the brand and where it is headed in the years to come.

History


Original Advertisement for the Royal Oak dating to 1975 /
Copyright Benjamin Clymer
The first Royal Oak (reference 5402ST) was introduced to the world in 1972. It was Audemars Piguet's last chance at surviving one of the roughest periods in the company's century-old history. What made the first Royal Oak so risky for the Le Brassus manufacture was that the watch was constructed entirely out of stainless steel yet cost more than most 18k gold timepieces AP was producing at the time. In fact, when the Royal Oak was released, it had a retail price of roughly 3200 Swiss Francs - keep in mind this is in 1972. At the same time, the Royal Oak's closest competitor in a luxury sport watch was Rolex's Submariner, which then had a retail price of approximately 280 Swiss Francs. The Royal Oak was, without debate, preposterously expensive, but that was the point. Many ads from the day make mention of the exorbitant price tag, and it only added to the allure of this atypical sport watch.

It wasn't just the price of the Royal Oak that raised eyebrows, it was the design - most people believed it would be the watch and the company's downfall. Designed by Gerald Genta, the octagonal bezel, shaped like a ship's porthole, with 8 visible hexagonal screws caused customers of more traditional luxury watches to gawk and wonder "For $3200, they can't even hide the screws?" The case was made from a single block of steel to ensure water-tightness, and it was the first time a bracelet had been integrated into the case.

The movement inside the so-called Jumbo was an ultra thin self-winding caliber that was co-developed with Jaeger-LeCoultre. Dubbed the 920 by JLC and the 2121 by AP, the movement would later be used by Patek Philippe in its own steel sport watch also designed by Gerald Genta, the Nautilus.

In 1972, Audemars Piguet was only producing 5000 watches per year, and when they launched the Royal Oak, they did it in a series of 1000 pieces. If the Royal Oak had failed, the company would have gone bankrupt. Contrary to what one may hear from brand representatives, the Royal Oak was not an overnight success. In fact, it took over 12 months for AP to sell the full order of 1000 A-Series Royal Oaks to retailers. Eventually, the concept of the steel luxury watch did catch on and AP built an additional 1000 Royal Oaks with "A" serial numbers before progressing on to "B", and "C" series in the following years.


Hand-Written Note From Gerald Genta on Display At the AP Museum in Le Brassus / Copyright Benjamin Clymer

A-Series Buyers Guide

For collectors, the grail Royal Oak is one with an A serial number. These represent the first 2000 Royal Oaks ever built by Audemars Piguet and differ from later versions in a number of ways. Here we will run through what to look for when considering an early Jumbo.

Dispelling The Pre A-Series Rumor

Before we get in to what to look for in an A-series, we must bring a chapter of misinformation to an end. There is no such thing a "Pre A-Series" Royal Oak 5402ST. For years, collectors have speculated that Audemars Piguet produced a run of 1000 Royal Oaks for the American market that did not have the letter "A" printed before the serial number. This is completely unsubstantiated and not a single example of a Pre A-series has ever surfaced. What caused the confusion is that the two-tone Royal Oak, Ref 5402SA, was produced without a letter before the serial number (as seen in image below). However, the two-toned Royal Oaks are much less desirable than the all steel examples, and early pieces may be found for approximately half the price of the 5402ST A-Series. The all steel Royal Oak began with the A-Series. Again, there is no such thing as a Pre A-Series Royal Oak in steel.

Early Two-Tone Jumbos (Ref 5402SA) Feature Serial Numbers Without Letters Preceding Them - These Examples Are To Blame For The Misconception That There Exists "Pre A-Series" Royal Oaks in Steel / Copyright Matthew Bain Inc. & Christies Inc.

Dial

The quickest way to identify an A-Series Royal Oak is by the placement of the "AP" insignia on the dial. All A-Series examples were made with the "AP" placed above 6 o'clock. Later Royal Oaks, including modern pieces, feature the AP logo at 12 o'clock. Early B Series watches, which typically date to around 1975, may also feature the AP at 6 o'clock. On occasion you may find some late B series and even C series watches with the AP above 6 o'clock, but this would likely be a replacement dial provided during service. Also, an original A-Series dial should read "Swiss" below 6 o'clock. If the dial reads "Swiss Made", it has likely been replaced.

On dials that read "Swiss Made" at the bottom, you often find luminescent markers that are considerably shorter and wider than those found on "Swiss" dials. The origins of these questionable dials are believed to stem from the former US distributor for Audemars Piguet during the 1970s. It is believed that these dials were shipped to the US distributor of AP to avoid having to send pieces back to Switzerland should they need a refresh. While they are likely authentic Audemars Piguet dials, the archetypal A Series should read "Swiss" and feature long, thin luminescent markers.


Three of The Four Royal Oak Jumbo References - From Left to Right: Modern Ref 15202 Jumbo, A-Series Ref 5402, 20th Anniversary Ref 14802 - Only the A-Series Features "AP" at 6 O'clock / Copyright Ian Skellern


Bracelet & Clasp

An original bracelet on an A Series Royal Oak is far more important than on just about any other wristwatch, and in many cases can make or break the value of the watch. The reason being that the Royal Oak is noted as one of the first pieces with an integrated bracelet (steel Royal Oaks to this day only come on bracelets, no leather or rubber strap - with a few limited run exceptions). The bracelets for the A Series Royal Oaks were made by Gay Frères, a Geneva manufacturer that also supplied bracelets to the likes of Rolex (who later acquired them), Patek Philippe, and Heuer for their legendary "beads of rice" bracelets. The bracelets are very thin and can be subject to stretching. It should be noted that because only the A-Series RO's use the GF bracelets, Audemars Piguet does not hold any replacement bracelets or links. As such, the bracelet on an A series cannot be repaired, it must be replaced - and a GF bracelet is a very real part of the charm of this watch.

Also, many collectors are under the impression that only some bracelets on the A-Series were made by GF - this is not true. All bracelets were indeed made by GF, but only some were stamped as such. If one is to turn the clasp of an original A Series bracelet inside out, you may find a GF stamp. But, that is not required. In fact, the earliest A-series Royal Oaks had bracelets that were indeed manufactured by Gay Frères but were stamped simply with "SWISS MADE" just as the Rolex bracelets of the same period were marked. There are also two clasp stampings possible for an original GF bracelet. The earliest read "AP" and are associated with the "Swiss Made" stamped bracelet. The clasps on later bracelets, usually seen in the serial numbers closer to 800 and after, read "Audemars Piguet" on two lines - and most of these bracelets are stamped "Gay Frères".


The Two Different Clasps Found on Early Royal Oak Bracelets & How An Unmarked Gay Frères Bracelet Should Look / Copyright Paul Boutros


Case & Crown

Finding an A Series Royal Oak is hard enough, finding one that hasn't been over polished can be downright impossible. Often times the octagonal bezel has been polished down to a point where it is almost round. Other times, the caseback, which should read "Royal Oak" followed by the serial number, has been worn away to make the text all but unreadable. As with all vintage pieces, the sharper the edges are on a Royal Oak the better. Make sure the caseback is legible. Also, early Royal Oaks, not only the A-Series here but all 5402s, should have unsigned crowns. In many cases, Audemars Piguet will replace the unsigned crown with a modern signed crown during service, but a smart collector will always ask for the older crown to be returned to them.

And The Price?

The fair market value of A-Series Royal Oaks is not an exact science. The sheer infrequency at which they turn up for sale makes it difficult to determine the appropriate price. Also, with so many factors at play (all of those mentioned above, plus provenance, box, papers, etc) must be considered. The two most recent A-Series Royal Oaks that sold at auction each brought in around $13,000. The most recent, No A227, sold via Christies Geneva in early November for 12,800 CHF in spite of the fact that the case and bracelet were in total disrepair and the movement was not functioning. The price for this can be rationalized by the early serial number - collectors pay a premium for low serial numbers - and the fact that this particular lot came with original signed papers. Still, longtime collectors maintain that these early Royal Oaks can be found in fair condition for under $10,000. However, as the legend of the Royal Oak Jumbo grows, so too does the demand for the original examples.

The Jumbo Today


The Audemars Piguet Jules Audemars Perpetual Calendar, Based on Extra Thin Caliber 2120 /
Copyright Audemars Piguet
The Audemars Piguet Jules Audemars Perpetual Calendar, Based on Extra Thin Caliber 2120 / Copyright Audemars Piguet
The Royal Oak Jumbo is still made today much as it was in 1972. The Reference 15202 is as faithful a descendent to the 5402ST as one could hope for, with nominal physical differences and even the use of the very same caliber. While the Jumbo has remained a cult favorite for decades, modern-day Audemars Piguet has recently made strives to elevate the particular reference, the watch that saved the company from financial dire, to an even higher position among the masses. The Ref 15202 Jumbo is no longer kept in stock at any authorized dealers or manufacture-owned boutiques - they must be specially ordered. In fact, there is currently a 6-month waiting list to receive a Jumbo at the Audemars Piguet boutique in Geneva. Rumors have it that only ten (yes, ten!) 15202s will make it to market in 2010 as AP seeks to limit the availability of its most important reference. Also, 2010 saw the introduction of several new models that use the caliber 2121 (and the date-less 2120) as a base movement, making the shortage of Jumbos just as much about production capability as exclusivity. AP simply doesn't have that many base movements to dedicate to the Jumbos.

Audemars Piguet leadership is unwavering in its support of the Jumbo as the brand's benchmark. In a August 2010 conversation with Octavio Garcia, AP's chief designer, he revealed that he often referred back to Genta's original concept when designing modern pieces and that he is constantly concerned about preserving the legacy of the original Royal Oak. Giulio Papi echoed those thoughts, and said the original Jumbo is one of his favorite designs - Papi himself wears a 20-year-old Royal Oak perpetual calendar based on the caliber 2121.

Looking to the Future

As Audemars Piguet makes a concerted effort to elevate the Jumbo to true prestige status, we are rapidly approaching the 40th anniversary of the birth of the Royal Oak. In chats with Octavio Garcia and other close to the company, there have been many references to a special product line to commemorate the occasion - a line to be launched at SIHH 2012. Details are still unclear and AP isn't revealing any secrets, but many assume we will see the rebirth of many of the namesake design traits that we so identify with the A-series, most prominently the "AP" logo at 6 o'clock.

With the 40th anniversary of the Royal Oak approaching, AP's renewed commitment to shining a light on the Jumbo, and fewer original examples of the early Royal Oaks surfacing, now is good a time as any to understand just what makes the original Royal Oak, reference 5402st, one of the most important watches in the world.


Early Ref 5402 Royal Oak A-Series / Copyright Eric Yang


Copyright 2010, Benjamin Clymer
All Rights Reserved
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