It’s a famous story of the Royal Oak that when Audemars Piguet was developing it at the start of the 1970s, so tough and costly were the demands of machining and hand-finishing its complex geometries from stainless steel that prototypes ended up being made more cheaply in gold.
Since the start, the exterior finish of the Royal Oak has been central to its peculiar charm. The alternation between satin-grained and polished surfaces, the minutely precise beveling of every edge and the play of light this engenders would be remarkable enough just on the case – extended to the unique bracelet, in which every link is of a different size, and the finishing becomes practically a complication in its own right.
Small wonder, then, that the first supplier Audemars Piguet worked with to help create a ceramic version reportedly gave up the challenge. The idea of a Royal Oak in all-black ceramic has long been mooted, but the very qualities of ceramic that make it attractive for a watch case – it’s virtually unscratchable, withstands high temperatures and is resistant to ageing – makes it a nightmare to apply a Royal Oak finish.
It is this that is so startling about the perpetual calendar version Audemars unveiled earlier this year: the graining, polishing, beveling and play of light are all there to such an extent that, despite being all-black, it barely looks like a ceramic watch at all.
“Usually, brands adapt their product to the ceramic material, with simplified construction, round angles, polished finishings without any contrast,” says Chadi Gruber, Audemars Piguet’s head of product development. “We did exactly the opposite: we decided to adapt the ceramic to our Royal Oak codes.”
Which is easily said, but according to Gruber required hundreds of hours of research to develop, and the labour intensity only goes up from there. For instance, while it takes four hours to produce a stainless steel case, for ceramic you can add another 10 hours on top. For the steel bracelet, six hours are needed to machine, polish, hand-finish and assemble it, but in ceramic it takes 30: practically a working week for a single bracelet.
“Numerous operations demanding patience and know-how were required to achieve a uniform, compact and hard material that can then be machined,” says Gruber, who oversaw the development of secretive new methods of handfinishing ceramic. “The single most difficult obstacle was to align the sharp edges of the bevels, which are present all over the watch – the bezel, case, case-back, every link.”
Perhaps it’s understandable, therefore, that Audemars Piguet is making only 50 examples of the watch. Though given the demand, it’s tempting to imagine what other Royal Oak models might receive the all-black treatment next.