MAKING A CASE FOR THE ROYAL
BY WALT ODETS
Born in 1972, the Royal Oak is a good bit younger than The Queen. But they are both stately in their own ways, and they are both long-standing institutions. As with The Queen, I have always experienced the Royal Oak as something of a styling exercise. I’ve also had difficulty experiencing both as “sporty.” Even on a horse–no matter where they go–The Queen and the Royal Oak have seemed less sporty than–well, institutional. You don’t see the woman, you see The Queen. And you don’t, somehow, see the watch, you see “a Royal Oak.” Their reputations precede them.
The Queen and a Royal Oak have something else in common, which is the Royal Oak. This brings me to the issue of style. The Royal Oak is named after the Royal Oak, a British frigate, but from well before the Queen’s time. The octagonal bezel and the eight hexagonal screws that adorn it are the watch’s most obvious visual clues and are presumably modeled after the gun ports on the frigate. So why model a watch after a gun port? That’s a good question, and one I haven’t yet quite answered. The watch is basically round, the bezel is eight-sided (corresponding to nothing on the twelve-pointed dial), and the screws are five-sided. The case is peculiarly angled, and as if the military metaphors were not already mixed enough, the immaculately finished metal bracelet looks like nothing so much as tank treads.
But, you know what? I’ve recently spent some time with a Royal Oak. After a quarter century eyeing it from a ceremonial distance, I actually like it. (I cannot yet speak for The Queen, who has, so far, refused to see me.)
Until I’ve dealt with the screws, there is no point discussing this watch further. The hexagonal “nuts” (in Audemars Piguet’s parlance) that adorn the bezel are not nuts, but screws (below right). They do have a screw slot cut in the heads, but they cannot rotate in the hexagonal holes in the bezel. The “screws” on the case back (above right) are not screws, but nuts. They also have a screw slot cut into the heads so that the nut can be screwed onto the stationary screw. Despite the conceit of slotted heads on immovable screws that are called nuts, I have come to understand that the case of the Royal Oak is far more than a styling exercise. Besides, I challenge you to visualize the Royal Oak without the slots in the screws on the bezel. It’s like conjuring up the Queen without a hat.
Another detail: The screws and nuts are made of white gold, regardless of the case metal of the watch. Why? Why design a watch around the gun port of a scrapped British frigate, even a great one? On a steel watch, the white gold contrasts nicely with the case metal and gives the watch a warmer, more expensive appearance. These are screws and nuts fit for a Queen.
The thought of a frigate brings to mind the subjects of water, shock, and vibration. As it turns out, the styling of the Royal Oak conceals an extraordinarily intelligent case design, and one that provides remarkable protection for the movement. As shown left, the case is a single piece, excepting the bezel itself. The eight nuts on the case back are removed and the bezel, with its eight screws dangling, is lifted from the front.
The movement, with metal support ring (1) and large rubber sealing ring (2) may then be lifted out of the case. Because the rubber ring seals against the inside of the case back and underside of the bezel, the moisture sealing is remarkably thorough. The rubber ring also almost completely decouples the movement mechanically from the case.
It is the eight white gold screws and nuts that hold this steel and rubber sandwich together. The bezel, rubber ring, and case are compressed by the screws into a perfect waterproof design. (In this illustration, the rubber ring is lifted out of the case.)
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