Iconic and unmistakable, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak manages to retain its modern, iconoclastic appeal nearly half a century after its release in the early 1970s. In this article, we’ll take a look at two fascinating and closely-related pieces from the Royal Oak lineage: the AP Royal Oak 5402 A Series and the AP Royal Oak 15202ST.
While the Royal Oak was not a product of the Quartz Crisis, it was near immediately forced to confront it head-on. By 1970, Audemars Piguet’s sales weren’t anything special—the brand was producing roughly shy of 5,000 watches per year. Something was needed to get the brand some much-needed attention, while Japanese makers were starting to unveil the first quartz watches that were garnering all sorts of praise. AP needed to change course, and fast.
We’ve all heard variations on the tale by now, and while plenty of the old wives’ take is contested, we do know that Audemars Piguet’s managing director Georges Golay called upon designer Gérald Genta in 1971 to pen the watch that would go on to become the Royal Oak. The octagonal porthole bezel design was famously inspired by the window of a traditional diver’s helmet. The watch featured eight visible gold screws on the bezel, as well as a visible water resistance gasket and blue petit tapisserie dial. Its 39mm case diameter was large for a watch at that time, despite being just 7mm thick. Of course, among the most iconic elements of the watch’s design was the integrated stainless steel bracelet.
In 1972, at the subsequent Basel fair, Audemars Piguet launched the Royal Oak. At well-over 3,000 Swiss Francs, it was the most expensive steel watch ever made up to that point. To put it in perspective, at the time, this watch cost more than a gold Patek Philippe dress watch and over ten times more than a Rolex Submariner. The first series—the ref. 5402 A series—consisted of just 1,000 pieces. The watch stunned the horology world, and it took a while for watch buyers to warm up to the shocking design. It was more than a year before all 1,000 of the A-series run were sold, but not long afterward sales finally began taking off. AP released 1,000 more of these “A-series” watches before moving on to B and C serial numbers. As you can imagine these A-series watches, like the example in these photographs, are highly coveted by collectors.
Inside the ref. 5402 A series was the self-winding Calibre 2121 movement—this calibre is used to this day in Royal Oak Jumbo ref. 15202 (but more on that in a minute). The ultra-thin automatic movement was debuted in 1967 as a collaboration between Jaeger-LeCoultre, Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe, and Vacheron Constantin. The movement itself has a height of just 3.05mm and beats at 19,800 vibrations per hour.
In the decades since it first came out, AP has released a number of iterations of this initial Royal Oak design. The year 1981 saw the first Royal Oak perpetual calendar, which featured a mechanical memory that could keep it accurate up to 2100 without needing to fix the date. In 1984 AP released the Royal Oak Offshore to mark the 20th anniversary of the watch—this 42mm “deconstructed” timepiece would earn the nickname “The Beast.” 2002 saw the introduction of the Royal Oak Concept, an even more bewildering design built from alacrite 602—which, at that time, was the hardest material in existence.
The closest reference to those original A-series watches was the ref. 15202, however. It featured the same calibre 2121 as the original and the same case, with the exception of a sapphire exhibition caseback. In 2012, to celebrate the Royal Oak’s 40th anniversary, Audemars Piguet released an updated take on the watch that was even closer to the A series. The AP initials appear above the 6 o’clock, just like the A series, rather than at 12 o’clock. The watch also features the original petit tapisserie dial. This watch, in its steel version, is only available under a single reference: 15202ST.OO.1240ST.01.
While limited production makes the ref. 15202ST hard to track down, it’s hailed by some as the greatest luxury sports watch available today. Rich in history and boldly stylish, it’s easy to see why. Plus, it’s incredibly versatile; its slim and comfortable case looks great under a dress shirt cuff or with a tee shirt on the beach. For these reasons and more, it’s doubtful the popularity of the ref. 15202ST—not to mention it’s super rare A-series ancestor—will die down any time soon.