Feature: Vacheron Constantin Overseas vs Audemars Piguet Royal Oak
It’s the icon of an era, an unmistakable shape that marks the turning point of an entire industry. It’s expensive now, it was expensive then, and it will always continue to be expensive. But what if you could have a watch with all of the finesse, all of the heritage, all of the looks of this Audemars Piguet Royal Oak—but for half the price?
In the 1970s, Audemars Piguet was very much living on borrowed time. It was the elderly man shouting, ‘Slow down!’, the remnants of a golden age that had long since dulled. Streets glowed under the wash of electric light, cars started with the turn of an electric motor, semiconductors in computers shared data up and down an electric highway—and here was Audemars Piguet, like many of its dying breed, using the meshing of teeth and coiling of springs to regulate and display the time.
The classic Royal Oak design that launched Gérald Genta's career into orbit
It’s a miracle mechanical watches got as far as they did, really. The first watch to use electric instead of elastic energy, the Hamilton Electric 500, emerged over a decade before. During that period, mankind had reached the bottom of the deepest ocean, soared as high as the moon—and still Audemars Piguet was trying to sell mechanical watches. As you can probably imagine, it wasn’t working.
It was a radical re-envisioning of the mechanical watch’s market position that ultimately saved Audemars Piguet, and the mechanical watch itself. That vision was the Royal Oak, penned by up-and-coming designer Gérald Genta. It was purposely bold, purposely brash, purposely expensive. For the first time, people saw watches as something more than simply an object for telling the time—a watch could also be aspirational.
Genta’s legacy continued with the design of the Patek Philippe Nautilus, another wallet-busting icon from another top three watchmaking giant. But what about the third of the big three, Vacheron Constantin? After all, Vacheron Constantin is the oldest of the trio by the best part of a century. And they often worked closely together, sharing Jaeger-LeCoultre’s calibre 920 for example, so it would stand to reason that they would seek some kind of collective safety as they sheltered through the worst of this electrically powered storm.
The Vacheron Constantin 222—which has since evolved into this Overseas—is surely that watch? Originally made as a limited run in 1977—a year after the Nautilus and five years after the Royal Oak—to celebrate the two centuries, two decades and two years the watchmaker had been consistently and uninterruptedly making watches for, it was a design that carried all the hallmarks of a Genta offering. It’s got the flat, simple case with integrated lugs that latch onto a seamlessly blended strap, it has a prominent bezel with a repeating geometric design as a centrepiece, a simple dial that’s clear and bold, long, skinny hands raking across it. And that calibre 920 of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s, mentioned earlier—the 222 had that inside, and so did both the Royal Oak and the Nautilus. The family resemblance is striking.
If only it were so simple, because the 222 is actually something of an illegitimate child. Is it Genta’s? Isn’t it? When Genta reprised the success he’d had with the Royal Oak for the Nautilus, it was only through investigation by the press that his involvement was revealed—not that one look at the design wouldn’t have all but confirmed it anyway—with Genta under a non-disclosure agreement with Patek Philippe. Could the same be said of the Vacheron Constantin, whose limited edition 222 simply didn’t spark the same level of interest?
The shape was revolutionary at the time, a really distinctive silhouette that could be spotted from a mile off
Yet when a former CEO of Vacheron Constantin confirmed Genta’s involvement in 2004, Genta’s response two years later was, “I am flattered when people mention me in conjunction with products.” Not a direct contradiction, but surely not some steadfast adherence to a 30-year-old contract either?
The answer became clear in 2008, when after doing a little bit of archival digging, Vacheron Constantin confirmed that the 222 was indeed designed by a young German named Jörg Hysek instead.
The 222’s—and subsequently the Oversea’s—disassociation with Genta has had an interesting effect. While the Vacharon Constantin actually sits between the Patek Philippe and the Audemars Piguet in terms of price new, the Vacheron Constantin’s resale is surprisingly discordant. The Nautilus is of course the poster child for investing in watches, and the Royal Oak offers a decent resale proposition, too. Five to ten years ago, a 15300 with a few years under its belt could be found for around £5,000. Now—not so much.
But the Vacheron Constantin, the Overseas, a watch from the third oldest watchmaker in the world—for some reason, it struggles to hold its value in anything like the same way. Not something you want to hear when you’re buying new, but for those looking wistfully at the Royal Oak and Nautilus as their values steam away into the ionosphere, it presents rather an exciting opportunity.
Vacheron Constantin's Overseas has some very similar traits, but does it share a Genta lineage?
All three watchmakers have since booted the calibre 920 aside in favour of in-house movements—the calibre 324 SC in the Patek Philippe, the calibre 3120 in the Audemars Piguet, and from 2016, the calibre 5100 in the Vacheron Constantin—although Audemars Piguet is the only brand that continues to offer a variant with the original Jaeger-LeCoultre 920 in it; interestingly, for a premium.
This Overseas, the last of the previous generation, doesn’t contain Vacheron Constantin’s new, in-house calibre 5100—instead it has the older calibre 1126, based on the Jaeger-LeCoultre 920’s centre second sibling, the 889. In-house movements are generally regarded as superior, but in this context, it’s not so clear cut. That seems to be a bit of a theme with the Overseas.
And you don’t simply get some Royal Oak-esque rip-off, despite the close lineage. The dial design is unique to the Ovearseas, as is the bezel, which intersects the minimal crown guard with a toothed pattern that draws inspiration from the Vacheron Constantin Maltese Cross logo. Watches on a bracelet get the same pattern connecting every link. And, in case you’re not convinced, I’ll say it again: all the finesse, all the heritage, all the looks—for half the price.
It may not be designed by Genta, but it's made by a top three watchmaker and offers tremendous value pre-owned
There’s not an angle or a finish or a detail on the Overseas that succumbs to the might of either of the other two watches—it is a Vacheron Constantin after all—yet it offers astonishing value on the secondary market. Sure, it won’t give you the same investment opportunities as a Nautilus or, to a lesser extent, a Royal Oak, but if what you want is a steel sports watch from a top three watchmaker from the era that turned watchmaking on its head—and you don’t want to spend more than the price of a new Rolex Submariner— there is literally nothing else on offer.
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