Hands-On: The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak 15500ST
“Mr. Genta, I need a steel sports watch that has never been done before, I want it to be something totally new and waterproof.” That was the message to Gérald Genta by then Audemars Piguet CEO Mr. Golay. Not much later, the Royal Oak was born. The rest is history. Today, it is one of the most coveted watches in the world.
There was a time, not even too long ago, that I wore a Royal Oak watch on the wrist almost every single day. It was my dream watch. Ever since I saw the watch in one of the Audemars Piguet catalogs, I decided that a Royal Oak was my grail watch. My first purchase was the Royal Oak 15300. A 39mm watch with AP’s then relatively new in-house developed caliber 3120. I couldn’t have been happier. So I thought. Because a few months later, I had the opportunity to trade it up against a Royal Oak 15202. The Royal Oak “Jumbo”, or “Extra-Thin” as it is called today. A direct descendent of Genta’s Royal Oak from 1972, the 5402ST.
Both the 15300 and 15202 were my “almost” every day watches. My full-time job was a position at this investment bank in The Hague, and fortunately, I had the opportunity to travel around the world a bit for them. The Royal Oak was a trusty companion during these trips. Except once, I never received a single comment on that watch by non-watch people. It was an under-the-radar piece, and only watch nerds (is Watch Idiot Savant still being used?) would recognize it.
A perfect addition to my modest collection.
Later on, I added the Royal Oak Chronograph 26300. Another 39mm that I really desired, after trading up my 15300 for the 15202. I missed the silvery-white color, and this 26300 had a silver dial with black sub-dials. A perfect addition to my modest collection. Mind you, the prices back then (10 years ago) were quite different from today’s retail prices.
2012: A new 15202 and a 15400
In my opinion, a lot of things changed for the Royal Oak and the consumer’s perception in 2012. That year, Audemars Piguet celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Royal Oak. The classic 15202ST received an update by having a dial design closer to the original 5402ST. The bracelet was revised as well. Thicker links and a more solid three-fold clasp came into play. I disliked the bracelet update, but the cleaner dial was definitely interesting and a step forward (and back at the same time). Then, AP also replaced the 15300 with the 15400. It was basically the same watch, but larger (41mm) and slightly thicker (by 0.4mm).
The movements for the new 15202 and the 15400 were identical to their predecessors, although the decoration on the rotor of the caliber 2121 (15202) change a little bit. What also changed, is that the retail price of the 15400 was closing in on the 15202 compared to the 15300.
For many years, the Royal Oak Offshore was the cool watch. The normal Royal Oak was a watch for people part of the watch collecting circles. That suddenly changed from 2012 onwards. The Royal Oak was cool again and was picked up by a lot of people that weren’t necessarily enthusiasts or connoisseurs. It went from an understatement watch to a watch with incredibly high demand. While waiting lists for watches used to be the territory of Daytonas, we could now add the Royal Oak to that select club.
From that moment on, I also started to get more comments on my trusty old 2006 Royal Oak 15202 from people who didn’t think much of it before. It shows that these things can evolve and that watches have become a topic of general interest for many people.
2019: Royal Oak 15500ST introduced
Last year, Audemars Piguet decided to discontinue the 15400ST and replace it with the 15500. It wasn’t as major a change as we’d seen in 2012 when the 15300 was replaced, but there were significant updates. The case of the Royal Oak 15500ST increased to a thickness of 10.4mm. That is still relatively thin for today’s standards, but an increase nonetheless. However, the biggest update was the movement. Audemars Piguet started to use its in-house developed caliber 4302 — a movement introduced in their Code 11:59 collection. The power reserve increased from 60 to 70 hours, and the operating frequency went up from 21,600vph to 28,800vph.
Technicalities aside, a more visible change was made on the dial. Audemars Piguet cleaned up the dial by removing the “Automatic” wording and repositioning the date window. Where the 15400 was clearly using the same movement as the 39mm 15300, the 15500 has a movement more suitable for a 41mm watch. Also, the shape of the second hand’s counter-weight changed.
On the wrist
With the experience of owning three different 39mm Royal Oak models, putting on a 41mm Royal Oak 15500ST still feels a bit awkward. It isn’t that 41mm is very big, but with this very specific lug design, it does wear bigger. So my 39mm Royal Oak watches wore much larger than the dry spec diameter size. That said, and also based on the pictures we took, the Royal Oak 15500ST doesn’t look bad at all. It feels more solid than the Extra-Thin 15202ST, but very close to the 15300 and 26300 I used to have. The bracelet is one of the most comfortable ones out there (check out our Top 10 watch bracelets article here), and one of the best looking bracelets as well. But that is, of course, in the eye of the beholder.
Royal Oak Bracelet
The double folding clasp works like a charm, the two pushers are there to release it. I like the little square link with the AP engraving, almost looking like a hidden button. The best thing about the Royal Oak bracelet though is the finishing. A beautiful brushed finish on most of the surfaces, while all angles from all links have a nice polished surface. The downside will be that it is a scratch magnet, the brushing won’t hide the slightest hairline scratch. But, as one of the previous designers at Audemars Piguet once told me, it is part of creating “character” on your watch.
AP Caliber 4302
The caliber 2121 was for me one of the key reasons to trade up my Royal Oak 15300 for the 15202. That doesn’t mean I don’t like the 3120. The 3120 is a beautiful looking movement, but lacked the hand-finishing and finesse of the 2121. Now, the Royal Oak 15500 is equipped with AP’s caliber 4302. Quite a leap forward from the caliber 3120, as it has a higher beat rate (28800vph vs 21600vph) and an increased power reserve from 60 to 70 hours. Now, power reserve for a self-winding watch is not really of my concern, or at least not when there are no complications other than a date. But, more is always better.
The caliber 4302 is beautifully decorated, with perlage, Côtes de Genève, and polished angles everywhere. The Naked Watchmaker did a very interesting break-down and disassembly of the AP caliber 4302 with close-ups and proper explanation per step. You can find it here. He indicates that this movement also has nice decoration on some surfaces you won’t see. Then there’s of course the gold skeletonized rotor, with the AP logo and “Audemars Piguet” clearly visible.
Just like the bracelet, the case has the same type of finishing on different surfaces. The case of the Royal Oak 15500ST consists of three parts, unlike the two-part 15202. The bezel, with vertical satin finishing on top, has polished sloped angles, and horizontal satin finishing on the side. The large case surfaces are satin-brushed, and the angles have polished surfaces. Although all Royal Oak watches have this kind of finishing, I am still always impressed by it. Also here, the watch is a scratch magnet.
Price and availability
It was great fun wearing a Royal Oak again. I all honesty, and this is perhaps rubbing a number of purists the wrong way, wearing the 15202 always felt a bit like you’re wearing a vintage watch. With the upgrade in 2012, with the new bracelet, that feeling disappeared a little bit. The 15202 is for the enthusiasts, the fans, especially of the Genta legacy and the incredibly nice 2121 movement. The Royal Oak 15500ST feels more like a modern watch, which it eventually also is. It has a bit more wrist presence, and it is available in a variety of executions. I like this version (reference 15500ST.OO.1220ST.04) with the silver-toned dial best. It is fresh and something “different” from the typical black or blue-dialed sports watch.
The Royal Oak 15500ST is a matured version of the 15300 and 15400, and Audemars Piguet achieved to create a modern alternative for the 15202. The retail price of the AP Royal Oak 15500ST is €22,200 (including VAT). These watches are in high demand, so even though it is not a limited edition, availability strongly depends on production capacity and markets. More information via AP online.