Picture yourself in a big city and feeling an equally big need for a new watch. You’ve had some success, and you walk into an upscale retailer with the hopes of finding something rare and distinctive – a watch that conveys both style and an appreciation for high-end watchmaking. A gold Patek? Not exciting enough. An Omega Constellation? Too baroque, perhaps. Walking around the showroom and peering into the glittering cases, you pass much of the old guard until you see something different. While the shape of a Royal Oak is about as distinctive as they come, this one is special. The waffle tapisserie dial is gone, and in its place, you find a smooth silver-tone dial with four tiny sub-dials. It’s a perpetual calendar! Pouring over the details as a salesperson unlocks the cabinet, you notice the blued hands on the subdials and note that, in true Royal Oak fashion, this QP is made of steel and comes on a matching bracelet. “It’s the latest from Audemars Piguet,” says the salesperson as their gloved hands pass you the watch, adding, “and it’s quite rare. Especially in steel.”You reach for your phone, hoping to take a wrist shot for the ‘gram, but your back pocket is empty. Checking your coat pocket you find only a pack of Camel Lights and a half-spent book of matches from the Westgate Las Vegas. The room starts to spin. Frantically, you check your breast pocket, discovering only a pen and a checkbook. Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar Watch Where is your phone? Why do you have checks?
Did I forget to mention that it’s 1985? Ronald Reagan is in for a second term, and Back to the Future is quickly becoming the hit film of the year.
As for the watch on your wrist, the salesperson is not wrong. It is the latest from AP, and it is rare. Incredibly so, actually. It’s a reference 25554 Royal Oak Quantieme Perpetual, and not only is it the earliest synthesis of the Royal Oak with Audemars Piguet’s lineage of creating beautiful and incredibly rare perpetual calendar wristwatches, but it’s also one of the only series-produced steel perpetual calendars on the market at the time.
To understand just how strange, and wonderful, and special these early Royal Oak QPs really are, we have to go back even further. So throw on your best orange puffer vest, hop in your DMC-12, and set the clock to 1948. You see, while deeply rooted in the strange and challenging time of the 1980s, the story of Audemars Piguet’s earliest Royal Oak Perpetual Calendars starts decades earlier as the brand ushered in the post-war era with a defined focus on calendar complications. While I will attempt not to belabor this specific element within the greater history at hand, the earliest moments of Audemars Piguet’s perpetual calendars are quite special and are characterized by two defining factors: exceedingly limited production and the presence of a leap-year indication on the dial (or the lack thereof, more specifically). For clarity, much of the following information has been sourced from AP’s own book Audemars Piguet 20th Century Complicated Wristwatches and via kind support from Audemars Piguet’s in-house heritage team and a handful of knowledgeable collectors. Please see the acknowledgments at the end, to all, I am eternally grateful.
In 1948, Audemars Piguet created its first-ever perpetual calendar wristwatch, the hallowed reference 5516. That initial creation was not only a massive win for the brand’s ever-expanding watchmaking acumen, but a part of the production run also represented the first-ever perpetual calendar wristwatch with a leap-year indication on the dial. As you can imagine, these watches were entirely hand made and took an incredible amount of effort and time to produce. As such, despite a truly minuscule production of 12 units in total, the 5516 evolved over four versions, and all were created over a span of nine years. The first three 5516s were produced without a leap-year indication and actually looked quite a bit different from each other. The earliest on the record (below, right) informs many design elements found on the early Royal Oak QPs; with a four-register layout, moon-phase at six, the month indication at twelve, and a sub-dial at three for the date. Pay particular notice to the lack of a leap-year indication, as this is the genesis of the layout we will see nearly 40 years later for the Royal Oak. The next version of the 5516 (above, left) offers an entirely different layout, with the moon-phase at twelve and the date aligned to the periphery with a centrally mounted date hand. This second take of the brand’s perpetual calendar wristwatch also lacked a leap-year display and made use of a more ornate case and lug design. Two such examples are known to have been produced, with the first delivered to Gubelin in 1950 and the second sold to Patek Philippe in New York sometime during 1962.
Production and sales dates for such rare and time-consuming watches can vary greatly, with some not leaving for retail until years after they began production. Looking to 1955, Audemars Piguet evolved the 5516 slightly to offer the first-ever leap-year display on a wristwatch. According to AP’s exhaustive records, nine such models were made in two distinct series, with all examples remaining within the purview of the 5516 reference. The first of the leap-year-equipped 5516s, of which just three yellow-gold examples are known, used a combined display in the sub-dial at six o’clock to show both the 48 months of the leap year cycle along with a distinct blued hand that indicated the active year in the four-year progression (shown above, over black background). Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar Watch
We also see the moon-phase at twelve, and the continued use of a peripheral date display. Sales of these three models would begin in 1959. While certainly a complicated way of showing the leap year, this was the first time it had been done by any brand in series production, and you don’t have to look all that closely to see these later 5516s as something of an aesthetic and philosophical foundation upon which AP has built much of its modern success. For the last of the four 5516 iterations, we know of six recorded consecutive serial examples with production starting in 1957 and sales taking place from 1963-1969. For these examples (shown above), the moon-phase is back at six, and the leap-year indication is in something of a transitionary phase. At least a single example offered a more refined combination month/leap-year sub-dial, but before long, the combined sub-dial for the 48 month and leap-year displays were separated into a 12-month sub-dial at three, and a leap-year dial at twelve. This would be a considerable evolution and certainly one that saw the 5516 step further away from its pocketwatch roots, on the path to becoming a more capable and legible wristwatch design. By now I am sure that many of you know the origin story of the Royal Oak. Designed by Gérald Genta as Audemars Piguet’s first luxury sports watch, it was also initially only offered in steel. Introduced to the world at Baselworld in 1972, the Royal Oak reference 5402ST was a huge gamble for the small Swiss firm – a luxury steel sports watch with a complicated bracelet, a very thin case, and the general refinement of a luxury dress watch. Surprisingly, especially given the modern context and extreme popularity of the Royal Oak today, it was no overnight hit. Upon release, the 5402ST was seen as large (it measures 39mm wide) and very expensive for a steel sports watch. For those asking, “Just how expensive is ‘very expensive’?” Well, in an interview from 2009, Genta himself remarked, “The priceless sports watch is a new concept that we invented together with Audemars Piguet. When the Royal Oak was released, it was sold for 3,750 Swiss Francs, retail price. At the time, the most expensive steel watch cost 850 Swiss Francs! That was something utterly inconceivable.” Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar Watch
Thankfully, Audemars Piguet knew it was on to something good and continued to support its oddball Royal Oak, which would slowly gain popularity over the next few years. As Genta highlighted in the above quote, the Royal Oak would soon define an entire subset of high-end steel sports watches. Other brands, including Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin, took note and developed their own competition, with Patek Philippe even going so far as to hire Genta to design their Nautilus.
This was a very special season in Swiss watchmaking and was undoubtedly one that helped to insulate companies like Audemars Piguet from the full impact of the looming quartz crisis. In an industry that doesn’t usually see rapid change working out in their favor, the Royal Oak started as a slow burn, but the effects of this new design and concept are still being felt today. Modern examples, both from Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe, remain some of the most desirable, hard-to-buy, and readily copied watches on sale today. Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar Watch
With the growing success of the Royal Oak design, Audemars Piguet would eventually elaborate on its once steel-only model with precious metals, additional dial versions, and, later on, additional complications – including perpetual calendars.
Before we get to the 1980s and the specific star of our show, there is one more development to add into our history, which is the 1978 introduction of the 2120/2800 perpetual calendar movement. Now that you have a quick refresher on the history of the Royal Oak, it’s important to understand that the original model was powered by the caliber 2120. Based on the Jaeger-LeCoultre 920 (which were provided as ebauches in kit-form and required modification and extensive hand-finishing), the very thin 2120 not only helped the 5402 Royal Oak maintain its svelte 7mm case profile, but it was also used in rival models from both Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe. For the purposes of this story, and in keeping with the format thus far, the 2120 is just the genesis for where we are headed.
By 1978, very few brands were making series-produced perpetual calendar wristwatches. When you look at the entire production of QPs from Audemars Piguet from 1948 to 1977, you’re only talking about 12 watches (I think you know the ones) and the newly launched 5548 (which the brand would go on to produce for some 14 years). With Audemars Piguet eyeing a return to perpetual calendar glory, it took the very successful JLC-based 2120 and designed a fitting perpetual calendar module (which was then manufactured by Dubois Dépraz). While many companies would have pivoted towards the increasing (and threatening) popularity of quartz technology, then Managing Director of Audemars Piguet George Golay had a different idea. Just as when he helped to introduce the Royal Oak in 1972, Golay was looking to make a big bet. Enter the 2120/2800, the world’s thinnest automatic perpetual calendar movement. While only 3.95mm thick, the svelte 38-jewel 2120/2800 would usher in an era of rapid expansion and production for the historically small firm. One more thing – the original 2120/2800 shared an odd connection to the brand’s earliest perpetual calendars: the absence of a leap-year display. It is here that we find our true scope, the birth and early years of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar and, more specifically, those most seminal references that lacked a leap-year indication. Continuing our end-of-year reviews on calendar watches we present a review of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar, with original photos by Nik Schölzel.
The Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar from Audemars Piguet is most remarkable for the classic arrangement of its four subdials showing the date, day, month and moon-phase, the same layout used for pocketwatches. There is also a small hand within the month display to indicate the leap year. The small date subdial at 3 o’clock is more difficult to read than a window date display, but its black hand stands in sharp contrast to the silver dial. This is also true of the day subdial, at 9 o’clock. The month subdial, at 12 o’clock, is crowded and hence somewhat harder to make out – but this dial isn’t used much, anyway. Luckily, one refers even less to the leap-year display, because here the tiny print requires a loupe to decipher. This watch needs only 45 minutes for all its calendar displays to change at year’s end.Although the watch is part of AP’s sporty Royal Oak collection, it has an elegant look, especially the version with rose-gold case and alligator strap shown here. The classic dial underscores the watch’s dressy side and tends to overshadow the watch’s sportier features. The case is surprisingly thin, just 9.4 mm. Only the four steel correctors appear out of place on the gold case, and their placement between the case’s middle section and bezel poses some risk that the wearer’s finger could slip when setting the date. The hexagonal crown pulls out to just one position, for setting the time. The fact that the watch has no hack mechanism is not immediately apparent because the watch has no seconds hand. The time is easy to read, even in the dark, thanks to the luminous material on the hour and minute hands and hour markers. Audemars Piguet’s finishing quality is top-notch. The variety and complexity of satin and polished finishes on the watch’s case are impressive, as are other details like the hand-sewn strap and the folding clasp featuring the brand’s initials.