It's inconceivable to think that this category didn't even exist until the 1970s.
Up to that time, Stainless Steel was used in the typical "Tool" or "Dive" watches. Dress watches were also made in stainless steel, but then those would never have been considered "luxury" dress watches.
So, when Audemars Piguet decided to create a new watch, one that would deserve to be called an Audemars Piguet, one that would merge "Sport" and "Luxury", and in essence create a whole new category of watch, a Stainless Steel case must have been an obvious choice.
But, given the fact the future of the company (arguably) hung in the balance of this "new watch", it must have also been tense times at AP.
In other words, how could they sell a material that was never referred to as luxurious, as suddenly being luxurious?
Well, the only way would be to create an icon. And an icon is exactly what they created.
Gerald Genta, who had designed most of the AP watches up to that time, sketched out on a napkin what would eventually become the legendary Royal Oak.
Unlike anything ever seen before (although some of it's design-DNA can be seen to some degree in previous Genta designs), the Royal Oak was based on an octagon, had an integrated bracelet, and all of it would be made in stainless steel.
It was considered by Genta himself as his masterpiece, and I can not think of another watch that represents what Audemars Piguet is, better than the Royal Oak.
It was such a success, Patek, IWC, Vacheron Constantin (and others), quickly worked to get their own "luxury sport watch" to market.
And not surprisingly, the most successful ones were either designed by Genta, or had the same Jaeger LeCoultre 920 movement the Royal Oak used housed inside their stainless steel (obviously) cases, or both.
Patek Philippe Nautilus ($26k) - Once Patek Philippe realized the Royal Oak created a new category of watch, they reacted with their equally legendary Nautilus. The Nautilus was not a pure octagon, but if you smooth out the Royal Oak's edges, you can see how Genta evolved the Royal Oak design into the "Elephant Eared" Nautilus. Dimensions were similar, it used the exact same JLC 920 base movement (although Patek replaced the JLC 920 with their own in-house movement about 10 years later), and it too was made entirely in stainless steel.
IWC Ingenieur ($6k) - IWC also hired Genta to design their new-version Ingenieur. The Ingenieur would have some amazing anti-magnetic features the Royal Oak and Nautilus would not, and they did not use the JLC 920. In those days, IWC had their own legendary movement they could use, their in-house 8541 with their patented Pellaton winding system. It was robust and thin enough to stick iniside the Genta designed case and the rest is history. And while Genta did not use an octagon for the base shape of the Ingenieur, he did keep the principle intact using a pentagon instead, as well as the integrated bracelet.
Interestingly enough, today, IWC no longer has an in-house movement that can fit inside the Ingenieur case, so they opted for a heavily modified ETA movement instead. Other Ingenieurs have amazing in-house movements, but not the Genta-designed case.
The added bonus in using the ETA movement is that they can keep the price of their Genta designed Ingenieur well under $10k.
In other words, instead of trying to go head to head with the Royal Oak and Nautilus, they just decided to have the price-point below the Royal Oak and Nautilus all to themselves (business decision).
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak ($16k-$22k) - If you haven't guessed, while it's not easy to pass up a Nautilus, or even the Ingenieur at only $6k, the obviously winner here is the Royal Oak.
Today one has two options though: the 'purists choice' 15202, which uses the same JLC 920 (named c.2121) as the original, is 39mm x 8.1mm for around $22k.
Or, the 15400 which uses AP's in-house c.3120 (which many call the greatest automatic movement ever made), is 41mm x 9.8mm, and *only* $16k.
Either way, you get the legendary Genta design in its purists and most original form, and its the watch that started it all.
But, one I'd love to have again, and again.
Next week, the Ultimate Tool/Dive watches.