Maybe it’s the booming stock market, or the pandemic-era cash saved from Ubers, concert tickets, and vodka tonics, or the influence of popular new asset classes like trading cards and NFTs, but the once-cloistered world of watches has seen a huge surge in popularity. Especially from a younger cohort of collectors, who until a year or two ago were fine keeping time on their iPhones.
And the watch world — whether it has intended to or not — has responded in kind by providing plenty of stories to stir the hype. Global supply chain problems have made the already-packed waitlists for coveted watches even longer. And last year two of the world’s holiest grail timepieces — Patek Philippe’s 5711 and Audemars Piguet’s 15202 — drove unprecedented spikes in their markets when they were discontinued from production, and even bigger spikes with their swan songs.
In the case of Audemars Piguet, the 15202 (or the Royal Oak “Jumbo” as it is known) celebrated its final bow in two main acts. The first was the release of the “Smoked Green” Jumbo, a platinum version of the watch with a transfixing green ombre dial that won last year’s award for Most Iconic Watch from the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève. The watchmaker then followed this up with a one-of-a-kind titanium rendition of the Jumbo, which fetched 3.1 million Swiss Francs at the Only Watch charity auction in Geneva. In the case of Patek, the 5711’s last hurrah came with a run of 170 collaborative editions of their Nautilus model with Tiffany-blue dials, the first of which sold for around $6.5 million at Phillips’s New York watch auction in December. (I had the pleasure of running into Tiffany & Co.’s creative director Ruba Abu-Nimah on the day this watch was announced, and the news nearly broke her iPhone with requests to join LeBron James and Jay-Z on its allocation list.)
To pour even more gasoline onto what was already a 2021 rollercoaster, 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak, the collection inaugurated by the birth of the original Jumbo in 1972. The Royal Oak is arguably the most iconic of all luxury timepieces, and in keeping with our current times, its arrival was also a turning point for the popularity of the industry.
“When it was launched in 1972 at the Basel Fair, all of Audemars Piguet’s competitors were gossiping that the brand would go bankrupt because of the launch,” explains Phillips’s Head of Watches for the Americas, the man behind the auctioning of the aforementioned Tiffany & Co. Patek and the perfect person to give more background on this topic. “At that time the quartz crisis was underway, and Swiss watchmaking firms were doing everything in their power to stay afloat and switch gears into making quartz watches. And here comes Audemars Piguet launching the world’s most expensive stainless steel watch ever.”
The rest is history. Not only has the Royal Oak itself become one of the most consistently sought after watches in history, but it basically invented the luxury steel watch mania that sits at the center of today’s horological hullabaloo.
Fast-forward to today, and Audemars Piguet has announced the opening volley of its 2022 Royal Oak line up, headlined by four new Jumbos: one in yellow gold with an gold-to-black ombre dial ($70,500), one in rose gold with a gray dial ($70,500), one in steel in the amazingly-named color “Night Blue, Cloud 50” ($33,200), and last but not least, one in platinum that serves as a reprise of the aforementioned “Smoked Green” reference (price on request).
“But wait,” you may ask, “I thought the Jumbo was discontinued?” And the answer is “sort of.” Unlike the 15202 Jumbos that were taken out of production last year, the 2022 Jumbos (with the new reference number 16202) have been equipped with a new and even more precise movement called the Caliber 7121, which took the watchmaker five years to develop. It's an improvement that may have been a quiet update under normal circumstances, but in today’s watch world, there is no such thing.
“There were quite a few iterations before the 15202,” Boutros explains to me about the Royal Oak’s evolution up to now. “The end of the original 5402 ended the solid case back, and they introduced a sapphire crystal case back that thickened the watch. But back in the day, nobody cared. The new Royal Oak was just out, and people didn’t pay attention to the subtle differences. Today, because so many more people are interested in high end watches than ever before, people are monitoring the news and social media like never before. These normal product evolutions now have become major events and are pushing demand higher and higher.”
Somewhere in an undisclosed location on the Upper East Side, the Highsnobiety team and I were given a special early look at two of the new Jumbos. The yellow gold one in particular was a spectacular object to behold, one that I let linger for an extra minute on my person, Gollum-like, after filming a wrist roll for our TikTok. In bright yellow gold, the Jumbo is perfumed by the 1970s jet-set energy into which it was born. It bravely thumbs its nose to subtlety in a way that reminds me of that famous picture of Karl Lagerfeld sitting in his apartment stuffed with Memphis furniture in the early 1980s. But what’s perhaps most special about the new yellow gold Jumbo is its dial, which combines the “smoked” effect of last year’s 15202 with the Petite Tapisserie gridded texture underneath. The fade from gold in the center to black on the outside gives the dial an almost spherical impression in person, as though a fat tiger’s eye bead had been magically encased into a thin two-dimensional surface. It’s a very esoteric description, but watches of this kind of aesthetic magnitude when seen in person evade words.
Some observers may scoff at this triumphant return of this new Jumbo as a marketing ploy, but you would be cynical to think that Audemars Piguet would do anything but make more versions of its most iconic watch. Like Porsche’s 911 or Nike’s Air Jordan 1, Jumbo is a design original that is meant to be iterated on, coveted, and updated to stoke awe and frenzy. And I for one am glad the story didn’t end last year.
Alongside the unveiling of its four new Jumbos, today Audemars Piguet announced several new novelty models, including its first ever open worked tourbillon model, as well as a head-spinning line up of 2022 Royal Oaks, which includes iterations on the aforementioned Blue Nuit, Nuage 50 dial color.
2022 Royal Oak Novelties
Upcoming 2022 Royal Oaks