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Review: Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Tourbillon Extra Thin

One of the industry’s most famous—or infamous, depending on how you feel about it—designs, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak set new standards for luxury watchmaking in the face of complete annihilation. It’s been heralded as an icon, a milestone, a game-changer—but does a tourbillon make it better, or worse?

In theory, it’s the ultimate combination: arguably the most superficial watch combined with arguably the most superficial complication. Before you reach for your pitchforks, let me explain. It was the early 1970s, and Swiss watchmaking was dead. There’s no two ways about it, the fine mechanical watch from Switzerland was going the way of the punch card computer, and no amount of tradition and heritage was about to stop it.

Backed into a corner, Audemars Piguet, one of the oldest and most traditional watchmakers in Switzerland, decided to do the unthinkable. Despite almost a century of history, it started over, went in a completely new direction that ignored everything the brand stood for. If you think Hublot is a controversial brand, this was like Patek Philippe ditching its complications and making decorative bongs instead.

Audemars Piguet sold its soul to the commercial devil in the hope that it would not breathe its last, by building a watch, in steel, that cost ten times as much as a Rolex Submariner. It was edgy, it was angular, it looked like nothing else ever seen before—and for a lot of people, not in a good way, but in a bad way, a really bad way. Hexagonal bolts that didn’t actually turn, not a complication in sight and—horror of horrors—a movement made by an entirely different manufacturer.

But the devil paid his dues, and the watch, a status symbol of wealth that could be spotted at one end of Port Hercule from the other, was a smash hit. If you wore a Royal Oak, there was no question that you weren’t just rich, but rich enough to buy an uncomplicated steel watch for more than a complicated gold one from the same company. Lighting a cigar with a hundred-dollar bill? That was poor people business compared to this.

So, that’s why the Royal Oak is superficial—but what about the tourbillon? First off, it’s not even really a complication; it doesn’t offer any additional information like a date or a moonphase or anything like that, so it’s already superfluous to the display of the watch, despite its prominence. And it is prominent, the great big hole punched through the tapisserie dial hogging a serious amount of real estate.

But if it’s so big and conspicuous, it’s got to do more than just look pretty, doesn’t it? Well, here’s the thing—it really doesn’t do a whole lot more than that. If you’re not too familiar with mechanical watch movements, what you’re seeing in the tourbillon is the watch’s escapement, the part that does the tick-tocking to stop the power from the spring unwinding all at once. The heart of the escapement, the balance wheel, beats back and forth, dictating how fast the hands go around the dial.

Back before wristwatches, when watches were too big to be worn on the person and were kept in the pocket instead, that balance wheel would spend its time hanging on its side, working hard to spin against the imbalance of gravity. So watch guy Abraham-Louis Breguet—you may have heard of him, he was kind of a big deal—invented a mechanism that seated the escapement in a cage and continuously rotated it, thus applying the imbalance of gravity evenly across the balance wheel and cancelling out its effects. Great idea, and very complex—but a wristwatch doesn’t hang in the same way, nor does it stay still, so the tourbillon … well, it’s a piece of history that’s nice to look at but serves no practical function whatsoever.

So that’s the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Tourbillon Extra Thin for you—but what we’re here to find out is if that tourbillon actually does the watch any favours.

The obvious answer to the question of a tourbillon making the Royal Oak better is demonstrably “no”. It’s a complication that’s not a complication that adds no functional benefit to the watch whatsoever. In fact, it’s worse than that: in order to make it fit the 8.85mm thick case, the Royal Oak Tourbillon Extra Thin has had to sacrifice the second hand, the date and automatic winding. Now you have to wind the calibre 2924 yourself. There’s some concession with the tiny little power reserve indicator on the back, but that won’t make up for the mild RSI inflicted by having to winding it every so often.

Also, the Royal Oak is an icon. Sure, it may have achieved its fame in the same way as Paris Hilton, but it still marks the moment in time when the Swiss watch industry was saved. Sounds like a bold statement, but given that, amongst others, both Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe copied the idea almost verbatim, and since the entire business of Swiss watches now revolves around luxury and prestige, it’s hard to dispute that the Royal Oak was not the turning point.

And if it’s an icon specifically because of the way it looks, boring a hole through it seems akin to sacrilege. Would a hole make Michelangelo’s David better? The Mona Lisa? Things that are better with holes in them are usually designed that way in the first place. But that’s being facetious, because this isn’t just any old hole; it has a tourbillon in it.

Rewind: back in the 90s, when the tourbillon had re-emerged as an haute horlogerie trend, manufacturers were putting them in the back, and that was that. But what’s the point of a pointless complication if it doesn’t do anything and you can’t see it not doing it? So the brands started writing “tourbillon” on the dial instead, which is a bit like hanging around in bars with a Ferrari key blatantly on show regardless of whether you actually own the car or not. And that’s how we came to have the hole in the dial. If the tourbillon does nothing but look pretty, you should at least be able to see it. Hole or not, the Mona Lisa would look pretty dull facing the wall.

But we’re going around in circles: is the Royal Oak Tourbillon Extra Thin blasphemy? Does combing two superficial things increase its worth, or is it like multiplying by zero? Maybe that’s too much thought. In 1972, when people handed over large wads of cash from their diamond-studded money clips for their brand new Royal Oaks, they weren’t thinking about the fate of the brand or the lack of complications, just like the owner of a Sunseeker 131 doesn’t concern themselves with how many miles to the gallon it’s getting.

If the Royal Oak was supposed to be the ultimate display of wealth, then adding a very expensive device that does absolutely nothing fits the bill rather nicely indeed. And as it costs magnitudes more than the already expensive £17,300 Royal Oak—if you have to ask the price of the tourbillon, it’s not for you, sir—then it honours the original brief to the letter. In a room full of Royal Oaks, this is the Royal Oak that’s the Royal Oak to all the other Royal Oaks. And if you don’t believe me, just try and buy one—they’re all sold out.

Of course, preference—and, more likely, budget—will dictate your choice between these two watches, and the argument over which is best, originality versus ultimate specification, will wage on until we’re all heads in jars and we’ve forgotten what wristwatches even are. But maybe there’s another way. Maybe we’ve been thinking about this all wrong, got too close to the problem to see the wood for the trees. The answer, it’s been staring at us in the face all along. It is, obviously, to quite simply buy both. There, problem solved.

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