The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore at 25
With another man's defining classic ever present in the shadows, and a skeptical, hesitant management whose confidence ebbed and flowed throughout a drawn out process, a young and relatively inexperienced designer was tasked to create a watch which would build on a legend and charter new seas for the brand. No pressure then.
As has often proven to be the case down through the history of design, every once in a blue moon a star emerges in its field from amid the stares of bemusement, the collective shaking of heads and even quite literally howls of derision heaped upon it on its debut, to become a defining visualisation of an entire genre. In 1993, this was the welcome with which the then giant Royal Oak Offshore by Audemars Piguet was met, but for the twenty-two year old Emmanuel Gueit an unshakeable belief in his drawings, and months of working in secrecy when the project was officially put on ice, meant that finally, after four years in the pipeline his work had seen the light of day, ushering in a new era in expensive luxury sports watches and cementing his employer's place at the top of the pecking order.
For Audemars Piguet this was history repeating, because the Offshore's inspiration, indeed its genesis, was the Gérald Genta designed Royal Oak of 1972, and then too his highly engineered stainless steel case, with exposed hexagonal screws on its octagonal bezel and integrated steel bracelet with hinged links, its distinctive Tapisserie squares guilloché dial all seemed a little technical for the conservative tastes of the time. Like the upstart Offshore offshoot, some twenty-one years later, the Royal Oak too was a rebel in its own right, and like then, few imagined that they were once again witnessing a pivotal point in the direction of men's sports watch design, which would go on to become immortal and a key element in most brand's portfolios.
By the end of the Eighties however, with sales charts reflecting an increasingly tepid interest in the Royal Oak, as by now it had dozens of rivals vying for its demographic, Audemars Piguet recognised the need to move forward once again, or slowly wither on the vine, and so when charged with the fragile challenge of breathing new life into its icon without injury to its legend, Gueit set out to change it for sure, but in retaining all of its signature cues, not change but complement, and indeed accentuate the versatility of Genta's original design.
Of course that's not how the elder saw it at the time, and probably feeling threatened or marginalised, but definitely incensed that someone dare bastardise his life's masterpiece, loudly made his feelings quite clear when the Offshore was presented at Baselworld 1993. There were reservations too among the hierarchy at the brand, and while the launch was the centrepiece of its booth, at a huge 42mm and already nicknamed "The Beast", only one hundred pieces were manufactured at first as a tentative litmus test.
All would of course end well, with reputations intact and a new and dynamic template in place which would perpetuate the Royal Oak family name in continuity, and in 2018, on the occasion of its twenty-fifth anniversary, Audemars Piguet look back to that experimental foray and the first hundred pieces with its faithful re-edition of the Royal Oak Offshore 26237ST.OO.1000ST.01, and if it hasn't changed much, neither has it aged a single day.
Solid and masculine in its brushed bare stainless steel, with exposed rubber gasket midriff and blue rubber pushers and crown sheath, it's not hard to imagine how Gueit's design made an impact back in 1993, although among the modern sports watches of today, no-one would consider it remotely 'beast-like', but even so the re-edition is an ice cool wristwatch and still packs an impressive punch.
With its only concessions to modernity being the addition of a sapphire crystal caseback, and of course the in-house self-winding manufacture Calibre 3126/3840 within, in practically every other respect the 2018 Royal Oak Offshore is essentially a carbon copy of its pioneering forebear, so for those who may have been dismissive, or who failed to identify its latent sex appeal at the time, it offers an opportunity to relive the moment and acquire a watch which inspired a new niche. For others, its marine blue dial with the signature grid-like Petite Tapisserie surface, the soft shapes of the hands and applied hour markers, as well as the overall kudos of one of the most distinguished and recognisable profiles in the watch industry, it is as fresh and as relevant to today's world too.
But wait, because that's not all either. As well as this nostalgic flashback to the Nineties, and bearing in mind that it would provide the template which would over the next twenty-five years spawn scores of often wild and exotic variants, in ceramic, or titanium, with gold, carbon fibre or even rubber, and in colours or plain black, Audemars Piguet is also looking forward to the next phase of the Offshore's lifeline with a pair of thoroughly modern tourbillon chronographs, and you can see them in my review here.
- REFERENCE: 26237ST.OO.1000ST.01
- CASE SIZE: ø 42 mm
- THICKNESS: 14.4 mm
- DIAL: Blue Petite Tapisserie
- MOVEMENT: Self-winding mechanical. Power reserve: 50 h, 21'600 vph
- FUNCTIONS: Hours, Minutes, Seconds, Date, Chronograph
- BRACELET/STRAP: Stainless steel
- BUCKLE: Folding clasp
- WATERPROOF RATING: 100 m
- PRICE EXCL.VAT: €25'000