Review: Audemars Piguet Royal Oak vs Patek Philippe Nautilus

We've talked before about the wave of quartz watches that hit the west in the 1970s, but it's in the aftermath that things really get interesting. With established watch brands crumbling left, right and centre, unable to compete with the prices of their eastern counterparts, the mechanical watch industry was forced to pivot, to realign its business objectives into something that would keep it alive. What followed was a move so bold and so risky it should never have worked. What resulted was the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and the Patek Philippe Nautilus.

Watch our video review of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak 15300ST.OO.1220ST.02 vs Patek Philippe Nautilus 5711/1A-010

It's easy to forget that luxury icons like Rolex and Omega where simply everyday brands in the time before the crisis. These were companies like Apple is today, making the best products for day-to-day use—not necessarily cheap, but still pitched to a broad audience who wanted quality and reliability.

Designed overnight, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak changed watchmaking forever

Designed overnight, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak changed watchmaking forever

There were luxury watch brands—Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe included—but their luxury was earned through precious metals and exquisite complications, and almost overnight those complications were rendered obsolete by electronic devices that could do everything they could do—and more.

This was before watch collecting was a thing, before the popularity of vintage watches. Watches were simply a tool, like a mobile phone, and had no intrinsic worth. Somehow, someone had to make people believe that watches did more than just tell the time. That was the vision of up-and-coming watch designer Gérald Genta, the man who said, 'Watches, to me, are the opposite of freedom. I am an artist, a painter, I hate the constraint of time. It annoys me.'

The Patek Philippe Nautilus is often considered a refinement of the Royal Oak design, and it's easy to see why

The Patek Philippe Nautilus is often considered a refinement of the Royal Oak design, and it's easy to see why

It was this fresh vision that allowed the transition of watchmaking from function to form. First came the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak in 1972, and then the Patek Philippe Nautilus in 1976. These were big, bold, stainless steel watches with angular designs unlike anything ever seen before. What's ridiculous is that Genta was given only one day to design the Royal Oak concept; the Nautilus was no different, with Genta admitting it took just 'five minutes' to design.

But that wasn't enough. There needed to be something more. And there was: the price. These were some of the most expensive watches anyone had ever seen. The Royal Oak, for example, cost more than many of the brand's classic gold watches. It did, in fact, cost ten times more than the Rolex Submariner of the time.

The tapisserie dial is an important part of the Royal Oak's distinctive look

The tapisserie dial is an important part of the Royal Oak's distinctive look

This obscene gamble should have consigned the two brands to the annals of history, but it didn't. Both watches kick-started the segment Patek Philippe calls 'sports luxury watch', standout style icons that identify enough wealth to afford the luxury of wearing the most expensive watches in the world without even caring that they're only made of steel. Once the elite made this connection, the watches became a roaring success.

So, these two watches that were collective designed in less than a day have somehow become the legends that rebooted the watch industry into the luxury giant it is today. That's no mean feat. Perhaps it was a fluke, luck of the draw, the stars aligned? Exploring further might uncover the truth.

The Nautilus was designed with a smoky gradient dial in rich blue

The Nautilus was designed with a smoky gradient dial in rich blue

As the Audemars Piguet came first, we'll start with that. Genta was inspired by the window in a diver's helmet, but not just for the aesthetics, but for the engineering as well. Like the helmet, the Royal Oak uses compression to seal it from water, the bezel screws penetrating all the way through the case and clamping the sandwich of parts together.

But the design raises some immediate questions: why are the bezel screws slotted if they clearly can't turn? These white gold screws—a material originally chosen because steel could not be fashioned to spec cheaply enough—were on Genta's concept right from the start, designed originally to be, bizarrely, misaligned. Perhaps it's a subtle acknowledgement of the shift of mechanical watches from function to form? Most likely it's the lack of sleep Genta got when he put pen to paper to meet his ridiculous deadline.

Do you prefer the watch that kick started the luxury sports category off?

Do you prefer the watch that kick started the luxury sports category off?

The Nautilus isn't without its own oddities, however. While still nautically themed, Genta took a different approach to the design; it was a porthole that gave him his muse this time around, the vertical hinges found on a ship's window the basis for the case 'ears' that pin the front to the rear to keep the watch sealed. While Genta's original concept showed the 'ears' tucked neatly behind the octagonal bezel, the final piece was considerably more goofy, the thickness required for the pins making the 'ears' stick out much further than originally intended.

Ears notwithstanding, with more curves, polished surfaces and that smoky dial, the Nautilus feels very much like a more refined, more elegant version of the original Royal Oak. By comparison, the Royal Oak is a gritty, industrial beast, edges hard and aggressive, engraved dial pattern akin to the tread of a well-worn hobnail boot. Does that make the Nautilus better? It certainly makes it different. Does the Royal Oak's originality speak louder than the Nautilus' finesse? That depends: do you prefer the explosive Terminator 2 or the stark, tech noir original?

Or is the more refined design from Patek Philippe you favourite?

Or is the more refined design from Patek Philippe you favourite?

There's something these two watches share: they both pursue the human need to answer to the question, 'What if?' Watches already existed that exhibited far more water resistance without the need for clamping bolts or pinned ears, yet the Royal Oak and Nautilus are somehow visually stronger for having them. Much like the Bugatti Chiron is capable of ripping through 250mph in a little over 30 seconds, these watches pushed their respective industry from the front, daring to be different in a high stakes game of 'Will we still be in business tomorrow?'

And whichever way your preference goes, be it to Audemars Piguet or Patek Philippe, there's one constant at least—they were both designed by a man who admitted that he doesn't even like watches. Perhaps it was a fluke after all. Perhaps it was just the luck of the draw. Is that the real truth of it? I mean, let's not forget, Genta did originally design the Nautilus for women ...

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