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Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak Offshore is still making waves

Chris Hall
April 15, 2024
10 min

As it turns 30, how should we appraise the Royal Oak Offshore? Is this erstwhile enfant terrible grow­ing old gracefully? What does its history tell us about the evolution of the watch industry across the last three decades, and what role does it look set to play for the next decade?

In the first instance, we must confront the obvious: regardless of its image or target market, the Offshore itself is no longer young. Indeed, it is older now than the Royal Oak was at the time of its launch, and this by nearly a decade. Continuing on that basis, it should have been superseded by a third generation by now: a new model to shock and surprise with the same power that both the original Royal Oak and the Royal Oak Offshore did. You might turn your thoughts to the Code 11.59, but for all the gnashing of teeth that accompa­nied that watch’s arrival, it’s not quite the same.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore. Photograph © Firat Arslan for QP Magazine UK

It’s also stating the obvious, in today’s climate, to note that the Royal Oak was anything but superseded. If everything had gone to plan, we would have celebrated the Offshore’s thirtieth and the Royal Oak’s half-century together, last year, but the Offshore’s ges­tation proved more drawn-out than expected. One has to wonder whether anyone at Audemars Piguet ever expected the Royal Oak to have such a remarkable boost in its fifth decade, but it arrived at 50 in the form of its life. Displace the Royal Oak? Good luck with that.

We take it for granted that the Royal Oak and Royal Oak Offshore exist side-by-side, but even a cur­sory glance across the industry reveals how rare that is. How many iconic designs have spawned such a successful… sequel? Spin-off? Second act? During the ‘big watch era’ of the 2000s, several famil­iar names were reborn as bulked up, steroidal versions of their ear­lier selves; the TAG Heuer Grand Carrera, Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Squadra and the Omega Seamaster Planet Ocean spring to mind. But these have either gone the way of the dial-up modem, or settled into a back-seat role, commer­cially useful but not necessarily setting the agenda. With the Royal Oak Offshore, AP has managed to establish an entire second franchise alongside its first, as well as sus­tain it for much longer than a sin­gle trend cycle. Only Rolex, with the Explorer and Explorer II, has pulled off anything like it, and – to take nothing away from either watch – that on a much more modest scale.

It is reasonably well-known that the Offshore was launched as an update to the Royal Oak; that it was crafted by a young gun named Emmanuel Gueit, that it nearly didn’t see the light of day at all and that, as the designer has stated, it was nec­essarily developed in total secret. What’s more, when it emerged, Gerald Genta took such affront to the super-sizing of his perfect octa­gon that he called it ‘the whale’, or ‘the sea elephant’, depending on which translation you refer to. It has also become common knowledge – since the release of a limited edition in homage to the very first Offshore – that the firm was not confident it had staying power at all, as evi­denced by the early case backs that didn’t even use the Offshore name.

What wasn’t known until recently – or rather, was redis­covered upon Audemars Piguet’s Sébastian Vivas and Raphael Balestra revisit of the brand’s archive for the 30th anniversary – was that the name had its origins in powerboat racing. It was suggested to then-CEO Stephen Urquhart by the brand’s German distributor Dierk Wettengel that AP produce a watch for the 1990s that epitomised the testosterone-soaked excess of ‘cigarette’ powerboat racing. It was a world in which AP already had a presence; it had sponsored a duo of Italian racers, Alberto Di Luca and Alessandro Zocchi, who had won the World Offshore Championship in 1986, as well as putting its name to the Monaco-St Tropez powerboat race in the same year. Nevertheless, the connection between these marketing activi­ties and the arrival of a watch bear­ing the Offshore name had been lost to history, until the discovery of Urquhart’s memos from the late eighties, culminating in the request to trademark the name in 1989.

What Audemars Piguet’s 30th anniversary celebrations have also revealed is that even once given the green light, the Offshore still struggled to make it to production. The rubber coating on its crown and pushers – a completely origi­nal process – proved challenging to perfect, as did the waterproof­ing of its case, to the extent that by September 1993, nearly six months after the press launch, a mere five cases had passed the water-resist­ance test.

Even once the Offshore had descended the slipway to begin bob­bing about in the harbour of pub­lic opinion, it still took some time to capture the imaginations of watch buyers. Figures released by AP show that in its first three years, a total of just 716 Offshores were sold.

“It was not such a success,” says Sébastian Vivas, Audemars Piguet’s Museum and Heritage Director. “Retailers resisted, saying it was too large, too heavy, too thick. Mr Franco Ziviani, who was at that time in charge of the Italian market­ing, said ‘Yes, but just think of the guy with his arm hanging out of his Ferrari with it on’. This was convinc­ing. But it took three years to add new variations. In 1996, Audemars Piguet could have said ‘Enough,  we’ll stop, let’s forget this crazy commercial failure of a watch.’ But instead they wanted to build a fam­ily around it.”

The product line was duly broadened, with the introduction of smaller pieces, models on leather straps, and time-only models. But it was the development of another kind of family that really lit the fire underneath the Offshore: the international ‘family’ of celebrities who would be seen wearing the watch, beginning with superstar skier Alberto Tomba in 1997, who became one of the first ambassa­dors for the Offshore.

The real turning point, however, was the support of a certain heav­yweight screen star, who walked into a retailer in Austria one day. “The shop owner called the head of the German market and said ‘We have (Arnold) Schwarzenegger in the shop!’” laughs Vivas. “Nobody believed him at first. It was not that nice a shop and the guy was a big storyteller, you know? But he loved it.”

The momentum only grew from there. Schwarzenegger was invited to Le Brassus and later, over lunch with Francois-Henry Bennahmias, plans were laid to collaborate on a watch. Bennahmias, the current and soon to be ex-CEO, was a piv­otal figure in turbocharging the success of the Offshore. It didn’t matter that End Of Days, the 1999 film in which Arnie wore his distinctive black Offshore, was a critical and commercial failure. The charity auction that followed, where the watch was sold to ben­efit Schwarzenegger’s foundation, and the sheer presence of the watch in Hollywood circles, had already sparked the desired effect. By 2000, the Offshore had broken four fig­ure sales in a year for the first time, but that slow burn was about to become a blaze, as ignited by Schwarzenegger’s patronage.

Bennahmias – then responsi­ble for the US market – also saw the potential in the relatively untapped world of hip-hop, primed to burst onto the global mainstream (and the luxury market). Facing down scep­ticism from the board in Switzerland, he gave them the comparison of Jay-Z and his generation of musi­cians to the world of jazz in the 1920s and 30s: it was the cultural zeitgeist, and Audemars Piguet should be a part of it.

Royal Oak Offshore self-winding chronograph. Photograph © Firat Arslan for QP Magazine UK

In terms of collaborations, this move opened the floodgates. The Alinghi sailing team would rein­force the Offshore’s connection to its eponymous pursuit, while part­nerships with F1 drivers including Rubens Barrichello and Juan Pablo Montoya gave the brand licence to experiment with new materi­als such as forged carbon fibre and titanium. In the design stu­dio, Gueit was replaced first by Claude Emmenegger and then, in 2003, Octavio Garcia, who between them concocted some of the wild­est Offshores: the ‘Rubber Clad’, in 2002, with its black rubber bezel; the T3 Prototype, in 2003, with its extruded bezel bolt heads and shielded pushers; the ‘Pounder’, from 2009, the yellow-gold watch so named because it weighed nearly an imperial pound; or the ‘Survivor’, from 2008, with its drilled-out lugs, enormous crown and pushers.

It looked as though the Offshore could do no wrong. As Vivas notes, “In 2008, I think we launched more than 50 references in the 42mm case alone.” Success begat suc­cess, and the Offshore helped to usher in not only an industry-wide trend for oversized watches (picked up by IWC, Panerai, Hublot and more) but a template for pop cul­ture-driven marketing that has since become industry standard. By the end of the decade it would be clocking up sales of 14,000 watches a year, accounting for exactly half of the brand’s total output. The beast had become a monster.

In 2008 the Offshore gained something that a casual observer might have assumed it already pos­sessed: the capacity to operate far beneath the waves, as well as above them. The Royal Oak Offshore Diver ‘Scuba’ boutique edition, the brand’s first ISO-certified, 300m dive watch, gave the world a simpler vision of what an Offshore could be, with a relatively clean design that gives prominence to the over­sized hands, mega-tapisserie dial texture and inner rotating bezel (controlled by the second crown at 10 o’clock). Where many brands would see the addition of a con­temporary dive watch as grounds for experimentation, the Offshore Diver was actually smaller, subtler and more conventionally styled than many of its siblings. Its arrival coincided with the cooldown from ‘peak Offshore’; as Vivas explained, the 40th anniversary of the Royal Oak in 2012 catalysed interest in the original and saw the Offshore gradually move out of the limelight – although in the five years that followed, it would still welcome a grand complication to its ranks.

When it celebrated its 25th anni­versary in 2018, the occasion was marked with the release of two lim­ited-edition skeletonised tourbil­lon references that were almost unrecognisable as members of the Offshore family; the bezel and bridges appearing caught in the act of imploding towards the centre of the watch, as though pulled by a black hole. At the time it seemed like the collection’s design language might be about to evolve once more, but instead AP soon returned to more recognisable Offshore DNA. Subsequent limited editions have still shown the ability to surprise, or even confound, the brand’s fol­lowers, however: witness the reac­tion to the Offshore ‘Music Edition’ pieces, with gem-set or patterned dials that evoke a mixing desk’s graphic equaliser.

With three dec­ades under its belt, the Offshore is no longer AP’s only wild child – it has other models that also fly the flag for inno­vation. As Vivas says, “I would say that the play­ground is everywhere. The Royal Oak Concept is a play­ground for technology, high-com­plications and materials. Now Code 11.59 is clearly also a very impor­tant playground for innovation. And the Offshore remains a play­ful, futuristic, trendy watch.”

If there is any change to the Offshore’s character as it ages, Vivas would point to a general journey towards becoming more sophisticated: more a big brother than a newborn upstart. “We have introduced a bit more sophistica­tion in the case. The glass is now slightly curved. We have changed the tapisserie; we have applied elements that were previously printed, and we have in-house-de­veloped chronograph movements.” Becoming more serious, more impressive and better-equipped as it enters its thirties? I think we can all relate to that.