Besides Led Zeppelin and the end to the Bretton-Woods System, the 70s brought us some of the most defining watch designs ever made. These are the designs that carried their respective brands through the Quartz Crisis and beyond, before going down in history as the icons of our era. Let’s take a look at these three legendary watches from the 70’s.
Without sleep, the watch industry was kept awake by the fact that the advent of quartz watches was biting mechanical watchmaking by its heels. This didn’t mean, however, that the mechanical watch was dead – not by far. Whether the Swiss watchmaking houses were aware of that fact at the time, though, is up for debate.
Without competition cutting us any slack, we, as humans, are forced to adapt and up our game if we want to stay ahead. That’s what these three watchmaking houses did.
Without further ado, grab your loupe and let’s see what exactly made these icons tick.
1972 – Royal Oak
Georges Golay, the CEO of Audemars Piguet at the time, approaches Gérald Genta and says:
The quartz watches are coming and we need to differentiate ourselves from the market and the only way is up. We need a new watch design and we need it stat! Make it steel, waterproof, sporty and attractive to the Italian folk.”
Gérald Genta says:
“Say no more.”
And Gérald disappears into his studio with a piece of paper and a pencil, only to surface the next morning with the first sketch of the Royal Oak.
Defined as the worlds first luxury sports, the Royal Oak garnered attention en masse – positive, as well as negative. When Royal Oak was released in 1972, the price-tag was set at a modest $3,000. That’s almost 10 times more than a Rolex Submariner was going for at the time: $350.
Mind you, the year-1972-dollars were worth about 2,400% of what the dollar is worth at the time of writing, 2019.
8 exposed bezel screws.
The distinctive exposed screws on the bezel of the Royal Oak are actually not an easy feat to accomplish because they’re not there just for the looks. Audemars Piguet litereally took out a patent on the way the screws ensure a fluid-tightness between the glass and the bezel and the way they are embedded. The screws play a major role in the water resistance of the watch.
What probably gives the Royal Oak its’ distinctive look is its octagonal bezel. The type of bezel that just screams “AUDEMARS PIGUET!” from across the room before you even get a chance to notice the person wearing it. It’s so important, that Audemars Piguet has sued several companies that have replicated it, and has won in court. The Tommy Hilfiger, and The Swiss Legend cases, respectively.
The aggressive design of the Royal Oak makes it stand out like The Terminator at a royal banquet.
Let’s take a moment to talk about the dial of the Royal Oak. Another feature, besides many others, that gives the Royal Oak the distinctive look it’s known for. The tapisserie method of slowly carving out every single line on the dial is a painstakingly long process. According to a saleswoman representing Audemars Piguet, there’s only one machine in the world that can make this pattern. How does it look like in action? See it for yourself:
What I would say is actually the most distinctive feature of the Royal Oak, is the bracelet. The bracelet of the Royal Oak always reminded tank tracks to me. That’s right. The tracks of a fucking tank.
After it’s creation, the Royal Oak has come a long way in its development. The company has later added models with features such as a chronograph, openworked visible movement, self-winding mechanism, extra-thin case and new models such as the Royal Oak Offshore and Royal Oak concept. It really became the backbone for Audemars Piguet.
Now that the Royal Oak has stood the test of time and gone down in history as a legend, Audemars Piguet has come out with a new and exciting model called CODE 11 59. Even the CODE 11 59 features a recognizable octagonal case feature, but more subtle and hidden between the laters. Still, it’s evident that Audemars Piguet is moving forward and once-again opening itself up to writing new chapters in horology.
1976 – Patek Philippe Nautilus
Patek Philippe, known for patenting the first keyless winding and hand-setting system in 1845, besides other things, was going through a tough time in the 70s. The thin and fashionable quartz watches were disrupting the market and offering competition to Patek Philippe, even. Thankfully, this was just a temporary issue, as even after tha fact, 7 out of 10 most expensive watches ever sold have been, you guessed it, Patek Philippe.
Gérald was well aware of the fact that the Stern family were rigorous sailing fanatics. That’s why during the inception process he instantly thought of boats, and when the thought of boats, he thought of portholes. Or that’s how the story goes…
It’s widely claimed that the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak was inspired by a diving helmet and the Patek Philippe Nautilus was inspired by a sailboat porthole. Take a loot at the images below and draw your own conclusions.
The fact of the matter is that the Royal Oak has design elements from a diving helmet (the octagonal shape) as well as from the porthole (the screws) and the shape of a Nautilus resembles the diving helmet more than a porthole. Please feel free to refer me to any legitimate sources, but I think the story has gotten a little twisted in the telephone game. I digress.
After being released in 1976, the Nautilus was not an instant hit. Far from it. It was receied very slowly and it took a while to grow on people. However, according to Gérald Genta’s widow Evelyn Génta, his Nautilus was his favorite.
He loved it, he absolutely loved it. He felt that this watch hadn’t got a wrinkle. To him the Nautilus was an amazing masterpiece.
Perhaps Gerald Génta himself saw it as perfecting the design direction he had begun with the Royal Oak?
Either way, fast forward to today, and the wait list for the Patek Philippe Nautilus is 8 years.
“How?” or “Why?”, you ask? Well…
When Gérald Genta surfaced with the sketch for the Nautilus, Philippe Stern wasn’t convinced. This time it was Mr. Genta convincing Mr. Stern, who wasn’t that keen on giving the design a green light. Only after a prototype was produced, did they decide to launch Nautilus as it eventually resonated with the sporty Philippe Stern – a keen skier and yachtsman.
The design of the Nautilus really does look like a more polished version of the Royal Oak.
The bezel is smoother, there are lugs on the left and right side for good measure, the crown is protected and the bracelet is not threatening to crush your car, like the one of the Royal Oak.
They are still similar, but both represent the opposing side of the spectrum for this specific style.
1977 – Vacheron Constantin #222
To celebrate its’ 222th birthday in 1977, Vacheron Constantin created a new watch model named after the companys’ age: #222.
In the same boat with the Royal Oak and the Nautilus, the #222 represented casual luxury with a rather classy steel and gold combination.
The task of designing the watch was trusted to a young Jörg Hysek, who pulled it off with absolute grace during the time when the Swiss watch industry was redefining itself.
The #222 was aimed to be the first in the so called elegant sports watch market for Vacheron Constantin. The next development in that area for VC took place in the end of 1996, almost 20 years later.
Just like the Royal Oak and the Nautilus, the #222 makes use of some similar design elements, such as the round display in an tonneau shape case, and the steel bracelet designed by Gay Frères, and the specific angles wrapping around the wrist that are visible when looked at from the side of the watch.
Look at the dial of this watch. I mean really, look and think about it, develop your own impression before you read any further.
The dial features unusual sharp edges, a bold matte color, and painstaking detail between steel and gold. It’s a little crazy, but also incredibly refined. To me, it’s an absolute paradox.
An additional detail to note, is that there is no seconds hand. It’s cool, calm and collected like that – incredible.
If the Royal Oak is like a porthole and a Nautilus is like a divers helmet, then I would push the subject further by claiming that the bezel of the #222 is just like a Coca Cola bottle cap.
Yet somehow, the #222 pulls off the Coca Cola bottle cap look in a way that seems like a bold move in a completely different direction than is usual for Vacheron Constantin.
Even though this watch has nothing to do with lobster dinners and being overseas, like most other Vacheron models seem to imply, this watch still feels like it has a place in the family of VC.
Damn, I write so suave.
To offer a point of balance to the busy bezel, the integrated bracelet has a very simple, yet distinctive pattern with straight lines – the likes that I’ve never seen any other watch use. I’d say it resembles the scales of a reptile. ŠSssshh.
The Vacheron Constantin #222 houses the exact same movement that the early Royal Oak and the Nautilus made use of – the JLC 920. It’s an ultra-thin automatic movement produced by Jaeger-LeCoultre. It’s actually never been used in the watches of Jaeger-leCoultre itself – only in those of AP, PP and VC.
The production of the #222 lasted for 8 years until it was ceased in 1985 and the #222 was produced in two sizes: 34 and 37 mm, respectively.
Jörg Hysek is the designer of Vacheron Constantin #222. In some ways, one could also argue that he layed the foundation for the Vacheron Constantin Overseas – as aspects of the #222 design were implemented when coming up with the Overseas, according to Christian Selmoni, the Artistic Director at Vacheron Constantin.
Jörg Hysek seems to be a rather interesting figure, having founded his own watch brand and still doing crazy design projects, as seen from his Instagram page.
To Finish it Off.
In the face of a crushing quartz crisis, one could argue that these three watches are the ones that, along with the efforts of the Swatch Group, saved the mechanical watchmaking as an industry.
If you liked this article, you might also like to read about who Renaud & Papi are and how they rocked the world of watchmaking.