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By the 1970s, the Swiss watch industry was in a state of crisis. The introduction of the automatic chronograph movements--like the Zenith El Primero--proved no match against the innovation from Japan that shook the industry to the core. Faced with the influx of Quartz watches in the watch industry, consumers turned to the reliable Japanese products, and sales of Swiss mechanical watches plummeted.
But the Audemars Piguet, the venerable manufacture based in Le Brassus, had a secret weapon in their arsenal that would safeguard the future of the brand--and, they hoped, revitalize the faltering Swiss watch industry.
In 1971, a half-Swiss, half-Italian designer received a call at 4 PM the day before the Swiss Basel Fair. Gerald Genta wasn't an unknown entity to the head honchos of the Swiss watch industry, having designed pieces for Omega and Universal Genève. The man on the other end of the line, AP managing director Georges Golay, told Genta that he needed a design for "an unprecedented steel watch" for the Italian market.
Oh, and it needed to be done by the following morning.
But Golay, despite the short turnaround he gave Genta, wasn't crazy. The commission was the result of a stealthy campaign of market research. The Italian elite, he learned, might be interested in a versatile, sporty steel watch with impeccable finishing and killer looks that could transition from day to night seamlessly.
So Genta set to work on the design, using a diver's helmet as inspiration. By the next morning, he was done, and submitted to Carlo de Marchi and Charles Bauty--heads of the Italian and Swiss markets--the blueprint for what would become Audemars Piguet's most signature watch: the Royal Oak. Though intended to be crafted in steel, Audemars Piguet--never very familiar with the metal--cast the prototypes of the Royal Oak in white gold before finally getting the hang of the steel.
The cutting edge design featured a sharply angled case, with the exposed rivets of the bezel reminiscent of gaskets in a diver's helmet. Additionally, the eight sides of the case--and the name, Royal Oak--were inspired by eight ships of the Royal Navy that were hewn from an oak tree that sheltered King Charles II during the English Civil War. In keeping with Audemars Piguet's intention for the Royal Oak to be stylish, the case was 7mm thin, and the bracelet (made by Gay Fréres) was integrated into the case to create a slim profile.
That first Royal Oak, a Reference 5402, introduced in 1972, was something entirely new--so new, in fact, that it more or less created the genre of a "luxury sports watch," a sports watch that would not look out of place on a yacht. However, sales of the Royal Oak were sluggish at first, with authorized dealers failing to sell out their allotment of 400 Royal Oaks a piece. But all that changed in 1974, when the head of Fiat, Giovanni Agnelli, greeted the public wearing a Royal Oak.
After that, the response was so positive that the initial allocation sold out, resulting in an extension of the line as Audemars Piguet scrambled to meet demand. It can be said without question that the original Reference 5402 "A Series"--nicknamed by collectors the "Jumbo" for its then-massive 39mm size--single-handedly paved the way for a very bright future for Audemars Piguet. Now, the Royal Oak line is of course a core component of their collection today.
The beautiful thing about Genta's design is how well it lends itself to being adapted to many different case materials and sizes. This stunner of a watch is a Reference 5402 BA from the late 70s, in 18k yellow gold. Carefully preserved, the case and its integrated bracelet are hefty despite the slimness, and the grey of the dial positively gleams in the light--a beautiful piece that is sure to delight.
18k yellow gold case is approximately 39mm (excluding crown). Audemars Piguet Reference 5402 BA. Caliber 2121 Self-Winding Movement. Circa late 1970s.
Overall Condition: 18k yellow gold case is in excellent condition with minimal signs of light and careful wear. Original grey micro tapisserie dial is in excellent condition, having gained a fine patina over time. Unsigned crown. Signed case back bears serial number 506. Case back is in very good condition with faint signs of light wear.
Integrated bracelet is in very good condition overall, with signs of faint wear, particularly on the clasp.