Sunday Morning Showdown: The Ecstasy Of Gold — Vacheron Constantin 222 Vs. Audemars Piguet Royal Oak 16202OR
Sunday Morning Showdown is back! It’s so good to say that. After nearly a year-long hiatus, Jorg and Ben are ready to duke it out once again. For those recently joining the Fratelli, this series is where two of our writers go head-to-head in an opinionated showdown. One, two, or more watches are thrown into the arena to be either torn to shreds or effusively exalted by each defending editor. We have some extremely hot-off-the-press timepieces to get us back into the action — the Vacheron Constantin Historiques 222 and the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak 16202. Both have roots in the 1970s and are bathed in glorious gold for these particular references. Will the comeback kid 222 knock the integrated links of the 50-year-old Royal Oak? You decide in the voting section below. And don’t forget to leave a comment to voice your decision.
Firstly, a little housekeeping is in order, as it has been such a long wait for this next SMS edition. We hosted a tag-team tussle between four Breitling Premier Heritage models in our previous outing. This happened to be our first four-way fight, although the rules stated that two chosen watches must collectively win the consensus to be crowned the victor. If you glance at the voting chart, it’s pretty clear who the outright winner is, but let’s break it down.
The winner is Jorg’s first pick, the salmon-dialed, steel-cased Datora, taking 47% of the vote. Ben then chose the blue-dialed steel Duograph, garnering 21% of the share. Taking third was Ben’s second pick, the gold Datora at 17%, and lastly was Jorg’s second choice, the gold Duograph at 15%. As this is a tag team, we combine each editor’s side and can see Jorg clinches the title with 62% of your votes. Ben scores a lowly 38% with his Premier Heritage picks, but today, he’s back for blood
After the gold dust settles
The combatants today are fresh 2022 releases. That said, their design lineage stretches back 50 years. The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak possibly needs no further introduction, but some may need to get up to speed with the Vacheron Constantin 222. The brand celebrated 222 years of continual production in 1977 and commemorated the occasion with reference 222. Jörg Hysek, the designer, took the hot new concept of the early ’70s and explored Vacheron’s take on the integrated-bracelet luxury sports-watch design. Fast-forward a few decades, and the 222 began morphing into the modern-day Overseas to carry on the legacy. Yet, the 1977 form was revitalized for 2022 as a near 1:1 recreation — albeit dressed in the most precious garb of gold.
I said the AP needed no intro, but this particular Royal Oak reference 16202 is also new for 2022. This Royal Oak represents fifty years of non-stop production and a relatively unchanged design since its inception in 1972. The artist, Gérald Genta, conceived his vision in record time following a short-notice request from Audemars Piguet. What followed was a design language that came to define Audemars Piguet to this very day. The latest model celebrates a half-century of excellence by executing this model in 18K pink gold and a smoky slate-gray dial. Not only that, but the watch also has the new caliber 7121 to boot. So, with our gladiators at the ready, let the games begin.
Jorg — Vacheron Constantin Historiques 222
This one is difficult for me, Ben. You know how much I love Gérald Genta’s trilogy of sports watches. More specifically, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak “Jumbo” is the Swiss maestro’s best creation out of all the spectacular designs. To give it even more praise, give me a choice to pick one watch to wear for the rest of my life, and I will most likely choose a steel Royal Oak “Jumbo” and never look back. So, are there genuine reasons for me to go up against the latest-generation Royal Oak “Jumbo”? There are.
The first thing I did was place both watches side by side to look at their designs. What stands out immediately is that the Royal Oak was less defined when it came into existence. The 222 is defined by that typical 1970s signature that we know these watches for, similar to the Rolex Oysterquartz. The design of the 222 is firmly rooted in the ’70s, whereas the Royal Oak’s design is timeless. It still feels as fresh and unique today as it did in 1972. So, we can credit Gérald Genta for creating something truly remarkable. Not that we don’t already, but seeing the watches side-by-side reminds us of the man’s brilliance.
The brilliance of a young Jörg Hysek
But Jörg Hysek wasn’t exactly doodling nonsense with his pencil and paper. His design of the 222 “Jumbo” has this 1970s pizzaz that makes it such a remarkable product of its decade. Seeing the combination of the 37mm tonneau-shaped case with the notched bezel, the well-balanced dial, and the elegant bracelet make this an iconic statement. It is exciting to see that design coming back to life in the new Historiques 222 because we haven’t seen it as part of the Vacheron Constantin collection since 1985. While we sometimes see glimpses of the roughly 700 pieces produced of the 222 “Jumbo” in 37mm — the watch also came in a women’s 24mm and mid-size 34mm — it is still special to be reminded of Hysek’s creation. And that’s why this new modern version of the 222 is such an exciting new introduction.
For five decades, the Royal Oak “Jumbo” has been available (somewhat). Therefore, it has been part of the horological landscape for a longer time, and its existence feels natural. But seeing the Historiques 222 come back to life is exceptional, and judging by the reactions, I’m not alone. At the launch of the new Royal Oak “Jumbo” earlier this year, almost everyone agreed that the latest model was a perfect next step for the Royal Oak. It was met with approval and a deserved “well done.” But was there any real buzz? If there was, I couldn’t feel it.
The Vacheron Constantin 222 in yellow gold tops them all
When Vacheron Constantin announced the new Historiques 222, the fervid passion was incredible. The Vacheron Constantin Historiques 222 was met with resounding praise and was possibly the most exciting release of Watches And Wonders 2022. I shared that sentiment, as it was my favorite release of the show. But does that make the new Historiques 222 my pick over the Royal Oak? In stainless steel, definitely not. But as presented in 18K yellow gold? Oh my, yes.
An 18K yellow/rose gold Royal Oak has always felt slightly uncomfortable to me. The highly technical nature of Genta’s creation combined with 18K gold makes the Royal Oak a striking statement, yes, but one that feels contradictory. A Royal Oak “Jumbo” needs stainless steel to be at its best. However, the Vacheron Constantin Historiques 222 shines bright in 18K yellow gold. It looks a lot more refined, classier, and easier to wear. The smaller 37mm size, the slightly more modest and elegant shape, and the bracelet work a lot better in yellow gold. Seeing the 222 return in 18K yellow gold makes me pick it over the Royal Oak “Jumbo” in any shiny precious metal.
A smart modern update
The hot topic for purists is the switch from Vacheron’s caliber 1120 to the modern caliber 2455/2. Are you a purist, Ben? From a nostalgic point of view, I understand that not using the legendary caliber 1120 was disappointing, especially as it was based on the same ultra-thin Jaeger-LeCoultre 920 that was used for the Royal Oak and the Nautilus. But the modern caliber 2455/2 is more reliable and accurate with its higher 28,800vph frequency than the caliber 1120 at just 19,800vph. And it adds the functionality of a quick-set date.
On top of that, the new caliber will be more accessible to service and probably more robust. And lastly, it makes for a better design with the date window a bit further from the edge of the dial. As a result, it doesn’t cut into the minute track like on the old 222. It is slightly thicker at 7.95mm than the original 7mm, but it still beats your Royal Oak, which is 8.1mm. So, I welcome the updated movement with open arms. Seeing the 222 return is a true joy. But the Vacheron Constantin oozes brilliance. The quality of the construction, the finishing, and the movement are a lot better than in 1977. It makes the Historique 222 a €62,500 statement of pure brilliance. And it is my pick over your Royal Oak “Jumbo” in gold.
Ben — Audemars Piguet Royal Oak 16202OR
To clarify, Jorg, this is certainly not my Royal Oak. I wish it were; I’d move to Miami, start wearing white jeans, and bathe in aftershave. Unfortunately for me, the gold RO is but a dream. And dream I shall, as it nails the subtle iteration on a luxury stalwart. You mentioned how the buzz fizzled out shortly after the 50th-anniversary launch earlier this year. I also noticed the sudden drop-off of interest in the new Royal Oak. It undoubtedly explains why AP is giving the new collection a little boost to remind everyone of its existence. Sure, Audemars Piguet wanted to honor the day the Royal Oak was born all those years ago, but it felt like it needed a bump up the inbox.
You may have explained why, considering these watches do not appear dramatically different from what we saw last year or the many years before that. A movement upgrade is notable but doesn’t send a shot of adrenaline or make your spine tingle if the rest of it is the same. So, you said it well already; a knowing nod from the enthusiast crowd is about as much as we’ll see as a tribute to this great design. But I think it’s more than that. The perceived lack of availability is just a huge turn-off. Even if you haven’t registered your interest, visited a store, or picked up the phone to call a friend “that knows a guy.” Many are surrendering to the notion that obtaining a regular Royal Oak, let alone with a time-limited unique 50th-anniversary rotor in the back, is a futile fight.
AP is playing the long game
That said, that might work out better for Audemars Piguet in the long run. Those desperate to own a Royal Oak with the new caliber 7121 can say, “OK, I am not up for a bum-fight to get one with a special rotor. But I can maybe put my name down for the future.” These collectors now have a year to let the idea of owning a Royal Oak fester in their minds. As they read more, see more, converse more, and feed their enthusiasm, they can save up for it next year. I know this feeling, and you begin involving yourself in the goings-on with the brand and build relationships with the sales consultants. When the time comes, the sense of owning a timepiece you’ve studied for so long is euphoric.
And with a watch as iconic as the Royal Oak, you’d be hard-pressed to find yourself disappointed. Especially in 18K pink gold, the Royal Oak emits a sharp yet classic aura. Now, Jorg, I can see you lament that this RO is fashioned from gold and not stainless steel. In 1972, a steel watch priced as much as a gold piece meant there was not as much traction for the Royal Oak in the early years. Time — and some considerable marketing investment — eventually gave the new AP the audience it deserved. Therefore, the fact that a gold version exists could be an afront to the original idea. But that’s the point! After all these years, the Royal Oak can still be shunned and then adored, owing to its disruptive nature.
A generational shift
The changes to the new reference 16202 may be subtle, but they are appreciated. Firstly, I’m not sure how reference numbers are determined, but if I went from 15202 to the next version, I’d go with 15203. It may just be me, but that seems logical. I suppose it doesn’t appear different enough, or perhaps confuses the masses whether this is a new watch or a variant. A major number shift perhaps showcases a generational step without losing its rhythmic pronunciation of syllables. Either way, the updates under the hood make up for the perceived lack of change. Caliber 7121 now has a quick-set date adjuster in the crown, and the barrel ups the power reserve to 55 hours over the outgoing 40. While it comes with 0.15mm of added height for a total of 3.2mm, the overall case thickness remains a svelte 8.1mm, admittedly a touch more than the 222.
As always, the integrated bracelet is executed beautifully. It’s a testament to Genta’s detailed sketch that it happened to be ergonomic. AP might have reviewed the drawings, loved them, then dismissed the bracelet as too complex. Instead, that bracelet design found its way to showroom windows and has integrated itself into the watchmaking psyche as possibly the best bracelet ever. And if not for its technical prowess, definitely for its provenance. It’s certainly in the forefront of my mind when someone asks, “What’s the best luxury watch bracelet?” And seeing the links glisten in gold as you rotate your wrist is a welcome distraction.
I guess you’re wondering what I think of Jorg’s chosen 222. Like him, I came away from the show with that watch as my everlasting impression. Watches And Wonders 2022 could’ve been a disastrous show with brands coming on board and messing up the frankly Richemont-run showcase that was SIHH. While the big brands brought the big guns, it was models such as Vacheron’s 222 and the Grand Lange 1 that I’d be more willing to put my money down for. And that’s saying something with so many heavy hitters on display. You may think, then, that I’m raising the white flag and avoiding the fight. Nope! The 222 generated unbelievable buzz, but the brightest stars burn fast. I feel that hype has a shelf life, and soon most collectors will return to the Royal Oak.
The problem is, what happens with the Overseas? The Overseas was meant to be the descendant of the 222 — a natural evolution of shifting tastes and modern sensibilities. And the Overseas was on a good run, stepping out of the Nautilus and Royal Oak’s shadow. Specific models even garner a waitlist and huge premiums on the secondary market. But by adding the 222 in the mix, Vacheron is interfering with the trajectory the Overseas was on. I couldn’t help but find myself uttering, “Wow, the 222 looks great. Does it come in steel?” I tell you what, Jorg. It’s terrific to back scrapping over-€60,000 gold watches, but I feel my choice of the Royal Oak cannot be beaten.
Jorg: You raise a valid point about the Overseas, Ben. But Vacheron Constantin is already ahead of you by making the Historiques 222 an homage to the 222 from 1977. The newly introduced Perpetual Calendar Ultra-Thin Skeleton and the stunning Tourbillon Skeleton show the Overseas is still the de facto sports watch from Vacheron. While the 222 might have served as inspiration for the Overseas, the models represent different sides of the brand. It’s precisely why I don’t think the new 222 will hurt the Overseas. If anything, the two will strengthen VC, helping it become more of a household name.
Getting back to your Royal Oak, the selected pink gold version stifles the flashy Miami vibes compared to the 18K yellow gold version with a matching ombré gold dial. The smoky gray dial and pink gold are a more mature flavor than a solid gold shot to the tastebuds. Yet, in yellow gold, the Vacheron Constantin Historiques 222 is the perfect dish.
Ben: It was a perfect dish in the 1970s, but will modern tastes accept it as the third course of the sports-watch trifecta? The Royal Oak is still the first and most impactful entrée on the menu.
But now is time to hand it over to our beloved Fratello readers. Which of these two watches takes the gold for you? Vote now and make your voices heard in the comments below.