In recent horological history, there is a subject that has been frequently debated and fiercely defended by fans from both sides: the similarities between Audermars Piguet’s Royal Oak and Hublot’s Big Bang.
This is no ‘friendly’ feud nor cordial rivalry; it is an all out war.
Audermars Piguet (AP) is a centuries old watchmaking house with a rich history. It remains as one of a handful of watch companies today that are still family owned. Seen above is their most iconic model, the Royal Oak Offshore (ROO) with its trademark octagonal bezel lined with 8 screws that’s synonymous with the brand.
Hublot is the relative new kid on the block, best known for its Big Bang (BB) series. The company was founded by Carlo Crocco, an Italian who shifted to Switzerland to set up shop in 1980.
Similarities between the Royal Oak and the Big Bang are immediately apparent, but upon closer inspection, there are slight differences: the BB has 6 ‘H’ shaped screws (instead of 8) on a round bezel (among other cosmetic characteristics). That said, identifying either one from a distance is not the easiest task one can undertake.
First, there were diving helmets
In 1971, Audemars Piguet was struggling, just like any traditional Swiss watchmaker, and feared the impending collapse of their brand in the midst of the quartz crisis. It was then decided that disruptive change – in the form of a new watch design that broke all the rules – was required to turn things around.
The task fell to Gerald Genta, a renowned watch designer whose clients include Omega and Patek Phillipe. Instructions given were short: never before seen design, sporty looks and a high level of finishing.
Gerald Genta drew inspiration from a diving helmet he once saw, translating the 8 screws that were sealed onto a dive suit to keep water out into his design, which resulted in the Royal Oak’s oddly shaped (for its time) octagonal bezel. This, he did in one day and it was patented.
When the Royal Oak was unveiled in 1972 at the annual Swiss watch show (now known as Basel World), it was met with horror, and even disgust; this was not how a watch was supposed to look like. Back in the days, watches were small (32 to 35 mm), thin and meant to look elegant, the Royal Oak was a monster at 39 mm with an out of place angular design. To cut things short, sentiments soon changed (obviously) and Gerald Genta has oft claimed the Royal Oak as the defining moment of his career.
Then, there were portholes
In 1980, 8 years following the Royal Oak’s introduction into the market, Hublot’s designers were in the midst of creating a nautical inspired timepiece. Among the various influences considered, they narrowed down on the porthole – a small round window mounted onto ship hulls to admit light and air. The french word ‘hublot’ also means porthole.
But how on earth could you design a porthole inspired watch without accusations that it was a Royal Oak ripoff?
Jean Claude Biver, who started his career with Audemars Piguet, and who also brought Hublot to stellar success during his tenure as CEO from 2004 to 2014, shared the great lengths Hublot took in its initial design process to separate itself from the Royal Oak.
His truncated statements below were documented in an interview with Benjamin Clymer of Hodinkee.
- Royal Oak was octagonal, Hublot will be round
- Royal Oak came with a steel bracelet, Hublot will come with a rubber one
- Royal Oak was automatic, Hublot will be quartz powered (it was the 80s and the quartz crisis was not yet over) at half the price
- Hublot watches will have a cover attached to it, mimicking the closing and opening of an actual porthole. Royal Oak did not have one.
Regardless, when Hublot launched their watch, everyone said it looked like the Rohal Oak despite all its differences, and to be honest, you couldn’t really fault them on that one. It did look like a Royal Oak but that’s because the Royal Oak looks like a porthole.
The similarity comparison soon died out. It was an initial impression and a generally passed comment. They each found their own market and all was well and good.
More similarities, more animosity
In 2000, Audemars Piguet took away the steel bracelet and started placing rubber straps onto Royal Oaks.
In 2004, Jean Claude Biver joined Hublot as CEO and had a new vision for the company. Hublot should no longer produce quartz watches if it wants to be taken seriously, the size of watch case should also be increased to 44 mm (Royal Oak’s size) to fit modern preferences of larger watches. On top of that, they decided to add some screws to make it look more like a porthole. So, they did all of that but retained the rubber strap, since that’s what Hublot is known for.
Hublot’s move to produce automatic watches with a blown up case size featuring screws, coupled with AP introducing rubber straps onto the Royal Oak 4 years prior resulted in 2 very similar looking watches. For those without any idea about the events that led up to this, it certainly looked like Hublot was copying AP.
People were raging at how the 2004 Hublot was even more similar to the Royal Oak than its original incarnation in 1980. And they were right. Again. But similarly to the 80s, the general public sees only the superficial.
Hublot’s design changes were driven by an underlying corporate strategy set out by a new CEO to improve its competitiveness in the current market.
The Royal Oak, as a dive watch, was meant to go into the water and a rubber strap was a matter of practicality.
It goes all the way back, to that point in time, when both watches were first conceived with design cues taken from 2 wholly different nautical objects; it was never about one ripping the other off. Unfortunately, some 20 years have passed since then and bad memories injected with flawed truths were slowly accepted as facts.
Hublot and its Big Bang took the world by storm and they recorded astonishing sales figures year on year. While the Big Bang is still somewhat considered to be a watch requiring acquired taste to appreciate with some of its outlandish variations, the Royal Oak remains a true classic.
Within the AP fandom, hatred for Hublot is strong. Inversely, you’d be hard pressed to find a Hublot fan who would be unhappy getting a Royal Oak.
For me? I’ll pick a Royal Oak any day.