Audemars Piguet is celebrating 40 years of the Royal Oak watch, and to do so it is running a touring exhibition, on show in Milan from 16 to 22 April (see below for details). It was previously in New York at the end of March, and after the Milan event, it will go to Paris, and then Asia.
The Royal Oak was very unconventional when it was presented in 1972, designed by Gérald Genta. The story is remarkable: Genta received a call at 4 p.m. from Audemars Piguet's managing director Georges Golay, who asked for an "unprecedented steel watch," and could he have the design by the next morning? The context was that of the onslaught of quartz watches that called for new ideas to ensure the survival of quality mechanical watches. Genta worked through the night, and by the morning, the design had taken shape: a sports watch in an octagonal case, with highly-visible screws, inspired by diving-suit helmets. Other features include the geometrical tapisserie guilloché dial, and an integrated bracelet. At 39 mm diameter, it was considerably larger than men's watches at that time, and it was actually nicknamed "Jumbo" for this reason, even though in today's large-watch trend it is no longer outsized at all. It was, in short, a watch that broke the rules, and the first luxury sports watch.
The first model was made in a 1,000-piece limited series. From then on it has gone from strength to strength, becoming a legend in luxury watchmaking, and helping to create the mechanical sportswatch segment of the market. Genta himself died in summer 2011, and so this show is in part a tribute to the innovative designer, who virtually founded the concept of "watch stylist" and created his own brand.
The show presents about 100 watches, including many of the Royal Oak models that have been made over the decades, and some historic Audemars Piguet pieces. The installation includes beautiful photographs by Dan Holdsworth, a conceptual video by Quayola, and sculptures by Sébastien Léon Agneessens. Holdsworth's photos, commissioned specially by Audemars Piguet, depict the Vallée de Joux, Swiss valley that is home to the brand, and in particular the geology and flora of the mountains, photographed by moonlight with a long exposure that provides a record of the movement of stars. Holdsworth invites the viewer to reflect on time on different scales: the time measured by timepieces, the time of plants and trees, and infinitely immense geological and cosmic time.
And the name? "Royal Oak" is a reference to a series of ships in the British Navy, in turn named after a tree that served as king Charles II's hiding place during the English Civil War.
Audemars Piguet, Royal Oak 40 years exhibition, 16-22 April
Triennale, Milan, Viale Alemagna 6 (near Cadorna metro and rail station)
Open 10.30 a.m.-8.30 p.m., Thursday open until 11 p.m.
Info +39 02 8909 3899