The Royal Oak by Audemars Piguet, the Gérald Genta-designed watch that created the “luxury sport” category, quickly achieved icon status when it was introduced in 1972, with a women’s version following in 1976.
Now, for the 40th anniversary of the women’s Royal Oak, the Italian jeweler Carolina Bucci, who just turned 40 herself, has created its latest incarnation, the Royal Oak Frosted Gold.
The result of three years’ collaboration between the jeweler and the watch brand, the new model sparkles, not with the diamonds habitually sprinkled on women’s watches, but with what Ms. Bucci calls the Florentine technique, her signature gold finish.
The Italian-born, London-based designer said in a telephone interview that she fell in love the Royal Oak design when, anticipating a 35th birthday gift from her husband, she spotted her dream watch on a woman walking along Fifth Avenue in New York. “I followed her up five flights of stairs in Bergdorf Goodman before I got close enough to realize it was an Audemars Piguet,” Ms. Bucci said.
Her husband was then tasked with tracking down the specific model, a men’s yellow gold Royal Oak from the early ’80s. Ms. Bucci said she has worn it ever since.
She and representatives of Audemars Piguet eventually met and Ms. Bucci said they discovered a common thread: “We are both family businesses with a great deal of heritage, yet we push forward with innovation and don’t want to get stuck in old habits,” said the designer, whose great-grandfather established a business selling and repairing pocket watches in Florence in 1885, later adding jewelry.
Audemars Piguet had been established 10 years earlier in the village of Le Brassus in the Vallée de Joux, the heart of Swiss watchmaking.
The idea to collaborate evolved quite naturally. “Audemars Piguet said, ‘You’re a feminine woman. Why are you wearing a man’s watch?’ I told them I wasn’t a fan of women’s watches for all sorts of reasons,” Ms. Bucci said. “They said, ‘Can you do better?’ ‘Absolutely yes,’ I said.”
Immersing herself in the watchmaker’s archives, it became clear to Ms. Bucci that the Royal Oak was the only choice. “Gérald Genta designed something that to me was perfect, but I wanted to reimagine it for a woman,” she said.
One other thing was also clear: She wanted to break the rules. “The industry is very masculine and very technical,” she said. “Anything done for women is an adaptation, whether it’s smaller, given a pink strap or slapped in diamonds.”
Ditching the diamonds and using the Florentine finish, in which gold is beaten by hand with a diamond-tipped tool to create a tactile, sparkly finish, Ms. Bucci and her craftsmen worked with Audemars Piguet to translate this labor-intensive decorative jewelry technique for timepieces.
It was a steep learning curve for all concerned. “In the world of watchmaking which is so precise, this finish is not so precise. There’s a slight randomness to the finish,” Ms. Bucci said. “No two facets are ever the same and every watch will be slightly different.”
In the first effort, her craftsmen applied the technique to a disassembled Royal Oak.
When the watch was reassembled in Le Brassus, the opinion was that the finish was slightly too rough for a wristwatch, which must fit closely and be flexible.
It took six more tries by Audemars Piguet’s artisans, who had been trained in the technique, to achieve a finish that everyone liked.
In the final version, which is available in white gold with a pale gray dial or yellow gold with a bright white dial, the textured finish is applied to both the Royal Oak’s case and bracelet and contrasts with other highly polished elements of the timepiece.
Above all, for Ms. Bucci, it succeeds in marrying the technical wizardry of the watch world with the resonance of a treasured piece of jewelry. “It provokes an emotion, an ‘Oh wow, I’ve got to have it’ reaction, just as my customers react to my jewelry,” she said. “It’s a watch that speaks to a woman from the moment she sees it. Every time she moves her wrist, it has life.”
She said she was grateful to Audemars Piguet, a company steeped in tradition and heritage, for taking a risk. “It shook their world a little upside down,” she said.
That willingness to break the rules is one of the new timepiece’s chief appeals for Jacqueline Dimier, who, as one of the few female designers identified within the industry, created the initial women’s version of the Royal Oak. “J’adore,” she said of the Frosted Oak in a telephone interview.
Born in 1938, she started as a graphic designer before becoming an independent jewelry designer in the 1960s. Watches soon followed and she came to Audemars Piguet in 1975 with experience at Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin, as well as seven years at Rolex. She was its head of product design until 1999.
Complete with the Royal Oak’s signature octagonal bezel and eight exposed screws, Ms. Dimier’s version succeeded in retaining the original’s masculine look, softening it just enough with gentler proportions and a bimetal combination of the original steel with yellow gold.
As for the new model, “I love it because it is even more feminine than my creation,” she said, speaking through an interpreter. “Throughout the years of working on the Royal Oak, there were elements of this iconic model that were off limits. I’m very excited that today we can touch a few things and create an even more feminine product.”
For Ms. Bucci, coming to her birthplace to unveil the new Royal Oak was like coming full circle. “My great-grandfather didn’t start as a jeweler but as a pocket watch repair shop,” she said. “I am now bringing it back to watches and that makes me smile. I think if he were here, he would appreciate that too.”