Head to Head: The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak vs. the Patek Philippe Nautilus

Head to Head: The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak vs. the Patek Philippe Nautilus

| 10.05.23

The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and the Patek Philippe Nautilus are two of the most desirable watches on the market today. With similar backstories and design remits, collectors often compare them, invariably falling into one camp or another. But despite a shared lineage (and a shared designer in Gérald Genta), each model is imbued with its own sense of self. 

Both watches were departures from their brands’ respective norms upon their introduction in the 1970s. Today, however, the Royal Oak constitutes the majority of Audemars Piguet’s revenue, and no contemporary watch is more emblematic of Patek Philippe than the Nautilus. How did the stainless steel sports watch emerge as such a significant industry fixture? How did brands that previously specialized in haute horlogerie  dress watches gain a new reputation for industrial, robust designs? 

Today, we’ll cover these questions and more in a head to head with AP and Patek Philippe’s iconic, geometric icons!

The Backstory

Audemars Piguet 'Royal Oak' & Patek Philippe Nautilus 'Jumbo' White Gold 

1969 saw the beginning of the “Quartz Crisis” — the shrinking of the mechanical watch industry via the birth of the battery-powered quartz movement — with the release of Seiko’s Astron. The innovative movement sent the traditional Swiss watchmaking industry into what appeared to be a death spiral. Brands that had comfortably manufactured mechanical watches for decades were forced, for the first time, to reevaluate their strategies as a threatening, affordable new alternative to the labor-intensive Swiss watches of the old order came into being. 

Audemars Piguet’s distributors determined that the best way to react to a changing market was to change as well — and to do it by going upmarket. AP managing director Georges Golay called up a young watch designer named Gérald Genta on the eve of the Swiss Watch Show (later Baselworld) and requested “a steel sports watch that has never been done before.” The sketch that Genta delivered would become the Royal Oak. Revolutionary in its design (which included an integrated bracelet), thinness, and sophisticated decoration, it took time to catch on.

Not only did the Royal Oak originally retail for much more than many gold watches of the era, but it also represented a radical departure from both the brand and the industry’s perception of what a watch should look like. AP was known for high-horology watches — indeed, an expensive, time-only timepiece with no strap and a sporty presence was something entirely new for the brand. When the Royal Oak began selling, Patek Philippe took notice, enticing Genta to work his magic once again in their employ. This time, the result was the Nautilus, which debuted in 1976.

Though each watch represented a move away from complicated watchmaking in precious metals, both marques certainly continued down the path of haute horlogerie. But the integrated bracelet helped build out a new dimension for AP and Patek; indeed, it’s likely a different type of collector who would spring for a Nautilus than a Reference 3940.

Furthermore, by taking a stainless steel timepiece and elevating its aesthetics through ultra high-end finishing and premium movements, Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe were symbolically asserting that luxury watchmaking isn’t just about raw material. Rather, it’s about the craftsmanship associated with cultivating that material to create a fine timepiece. Thus, a stainless steel watch from AP or Patek Philippe could be a luxurious masterpiece to compete with any precious-metal watch. This emphasis on craftsmanship and quality became important in a post-quartz watch era in which collectors were looking for something that wasn't a mass-produced piece of consumer electronics. 

The Royal Oak

 Audemars Piguet Royal Oak - IN THE SHOP

The Royal Oak has the claim to being the first stainless steel, integrated-bracelet sports watch — or what the industry has come to call a “luxury sports watch.” Regardless of whether you prefer it to the Nautilus, AP was the brand that took the risk with its avant-garde design in the early 1970s. The shocking, luxury-positioned, versatile watch paved the road for other brands to follow, starting a trend. In this respect, the Royal Oak beat the Nautilus out of the gate; it is indeed the “O.G.” luxury sports watch.

The name “Royal Oak” came from a series of eight successive British ships in the Royal Navy bearing said name. The nautical naming convention itself stems from the watch’s design supposedly being inspired by a diver’s helmet that had fascinated Genta. (Ironically, no such helmet looking quite like the Royal Oak’s bezel has turned up, but that’s a story for another day.) 

The foundation of the watch’s unique aesthetic is of course the octagonal bezel with exposed screws paired with an integrated bracelet, which is incredibly comfortable on the wrist. One of the key differentiators between the Royal Oak and other sports watch offerings is the high-end finishing practices applied to this bracelet, as well as to the case. While the Royal Oak is technically a sports watch, this emphasis on finishing reinforces its premium positioning within the market. 

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Ref.5402BA - IN THE SHOP

The vertical surface of the bezel is fully brushed, while each of the eight facets is polished. Similarly, the bracelet’s main surface is brushed, while each of the side facets is black polished. One advantage to the integrated bracelet is that it provides much more surface area for finishing than a strapped watch would; for a high-end brand like AP, this means a larger canvas for high-end finishing techniques. Thus, in spite of the incredible cost of these watches at the time, their quality was palpable — and still is. 

Although the Royal Oak is known for being a steel watch, the initial prototypes were ironically made of white gold. The reason for this is hotly debated: Some point to the fact that white gold, being the softer metal, is easier to polish to a mirror shine, whereas stainless steel is much more difficult to finish in the way that AP was striving for. In order to properly finish steel, the company had to order new tooling that wasn’t available during the prototype stage; further, AP was partnered with a case-making firm that specialized in precious metal cases. Still others suggest the choice to go with steel occurred later on, and that the initial blueprint was for a precious-metal watch all along. 

 Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Ref.5402BA - IN THE SHOP

Another captivating aspect of the Royal Oak is its sheer thinness. Audemars Piguet had established a legacy built upon thin watches, producing the then-thinnest pocket watch movement in 1921. Then, in 1938, they released the world’s thinnest manually-wound movement. The challenge AP faced with the ultra thin automatic movement was that as the automatic rotor is made thinner, it also loses mass, and thus torque to wind the mainspring decreases. The maison’s Calibre 2120 — which was built upon the framework of a Jaeger-LeCoultre movement — used ruby bearings to help decrease the resistance on the automatic winding rotor, thus “fueling” the watch. When it launched in 1967, it was the thinnest automatic movement to feature a central rotor (though thinner micro-rotor movements existed). 

In addition to the mechanical attributes of the Royal Oak, the rest of the watch is key to its identity — alongside the case and bracelet, the dial and handset help define it. A tapisserie dial is the norm, with raised square shapes that have been subtly textured, while the handset is bathtub-shaped to match the applied hour indexes. The grande tapisserie pattern is particularly important on the Jumbo model, where it helps reign in the visual size of the dial.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore 'The Beast' - IN THE SHOP

The Royal Oak collection has grown since 1993 to comprise a secondary collection, the Offshore, with a more overbuilt, bulky aesthetic stemming from the mind of designer Emmanuel Geit. Furthermore, Audemars Piguet has increased the range of complications featured in both Royal Oak and R.O.O. collections, adding perpetual calendars, tourbillons, annual calendars, and more. 

Today, Audemars Piguet is largely centered around the Royal Oak tentpole, with the recent addition of Code 11.59 adding a welcome — or entirely unwelcome, depending upon whom you ask — respite. By contrast, while Nautilus is incredibly important to Patek Philippe, the brand still produces a range of core dress models outside that collection; thus Patek as a maison isn’t synonymous with a single collection. The Royal Oak, however, has indeed become synonymous with AP’s identity. 

The Nautilus

Patek Philippe Nautilus - IN THE SHOP

Next to the Royal Oak, the Nautilus is certainly the second pillar of the integrated bracelet game. Also designed by Gérald Genta, it was inspired by a ship’s porthole, which we find represented in the watch’s design language. The case has a hinged setting on its side like that of a porthole, and the bezel is similar to that of the Royal Oak. That said, wherever AP has a sharp facet or a corner, Patek Philippe has a curve or an eased edge. 

The earliest Nautilus references were truly built like portholes in a “monocoque” design — the bezel hinged off the case, and the dial and movement were set within the case from the front. In more recent years we’ve seen the adoption of sapphire case backs — which in some ways lessen the porthole feel of the watch — but the “ears” on the sides of the Nautilus remain as a vestigial reminder of the original hinged case construction. 

Patek Philippe Nautilus 'Jumbo' White Gold Ref.3711/1G - IN THE SHOP

The Nautilus’s bracelet is quite different from that of the Royal Oak as well, shedding the sharpness of the AP in favor of sausage-shaped center links that complement the handset and hour markers. The dial is grooved rather than “tapisseried” and the hands are strategically sized to match the spacing on the dial. 

The Nautilus was named for the submarine in Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. That vessel’s portholes are usually depicted as being ovular rather than angular, which is consistent with the Nautilus’s eased edges and more rounded bezel profile. The curves of the Nautilus are likewise consistent with the prevailing Patek Philippe aesthetic, in which relatively few models feature sharp angles. (Sharp angles is simply not the look the maison typically uses, and while the Nautilus is a departure from your average Patek, we still see much of the brand’s identity and philosophy extended to this model.)

Patek Philippe Nautilus 'Jumbo' Ref.3700 - IN THE SHOP

The 1976 Reference 3700 was actually more expensive than the already astronomically priced Royal Oak, and Patek Philippe leaned into this pricing, specifically advertising it by saying, “One of the world’s costliest watches is made of steel.” The initial Nautilus, at 42mm, was also larger than the Royal Oak — a big piece for the time. Patek Philippe isn’t the type of brand to merely respond to an instantaneous trend; rather, when they make a move, it’s because they’re anticipating a macro shift in the industry or the broader culture. This has certainly turned out to be the case; a revolution has occurred within fine watchmaking favoring sportier, more casual designs alongside a more casual sartorial atmosphere. 

Movement on Patek Philippe Nautilus Power Reserve Moonphase - IN THE SHOP

Patek’s Nautilus was initially outfitted with the Calibre 28-255, which was developed by Jaeger-LeCoultre and was previously used in the Royal Oak. You may notice by now just how many commonalities the Nautilus and Royal Oak share. In many ways, it’s easy to view the Nautilus as an exploitative play on the Royal Oak, with the same designer, same movement, similar geometric bezel, the same metal, etc. Over time, however, it would seem that Patek edged away from AP — at least in the movement department. Many of the more complicated Nautilus variants, such as the Reference 5172, feature the micro-rotor Calibre 240. This movement os leagues ahead (with respect to sophistication) of the central-rotor movements that are common in many Royal Oaks. 

Patek Philippe Nautilus 'Jumbo' White Gold - IN THE SHOP

The demand for the Nautilus has always seemed a bit greater than that of the Royal Oak, and there could be a number of theories for this. Perhaps it’s the general attention the Nautilus has received in the press lately, with enormous auction prices for Tiffany-stamped examples inflating the prices of regular-production examples. Or maybe it’s the fact that Nautiluses remain far rarer than Royal Oaks— AP and Patek Philippe make roughly the same number of watches each year, yet the Nautilus represents just a small segment of the total Patek repertoire, while AP’s catalog is largely is dominated by the Royal Oak.

(Don’t get us wrong — Royal Oaks are still incredibly difficult to procure, particularly in the most popular colors and sizes, but there’s no doubt that Nautiluses today are fewer and farther between. This is a selling point of the Nautilus — for those attracted to “hype” watches, anyway — that’s difficult to deny.)

Audemars Piguet vs Patek Philippe

The ultimate question is, which watch is the better pick? 

Different collectors have vastly different views on this, and ultimately, nothing can supplant personal preference. That said, AP was the first to step out into the fringe and attempt to redefine the high-horology segment via the Nautilus, so extra points to them for the intrepid spirit. It can be debated whether or not their market positioning today, with such a pronounced emphasis on Royal Oak production, is a good thing. But when comparing the Royal Oak and the Nautilus, we have to compare the watches themselves, and not their respective brands’ business decisions. 

Symbolically, it could be said the Royal Oak has a bit more personality — romantically, it inspired a revolution that has changed the face of high-end watchmaking as well as the ultimate definition of luxury in the modern horological era. However, we fully acknowledge that there are collectors who prefer the Nautilus, and we respect that entirely. Likewise, some feel that Patek’s actual watchmaking within the Nautilus collection beats that of the Royal Oak, though this is also up for debate. 

Ultimately, it’s tough to go wrong with either one of these iconic designs — which is why we carry so many of each! Genuine horological legends, each has endured nearly five decades of continuous production for good reason.

Reach out to us to stop by and peruse the Royal Oak and Nautilus models we have in stock at any given time.