Royally Screwed - Spear's Magazine

Royally Screwed

Nick Foulkes on why the 1970s Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, with its mighty metal parts proudly exposed, is still king of the chronos

Nick Foulkes on why the 1970s Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, with its mighty metal parts proudly exposed, is still king of the chronos 
 
 
I DON’T LIKE
having my picture taken, but I am also vain to the point of narcissism, so it is an uncomfortable balance between distaste for the process and desire for the result. So I found myself the victim of an argumentum cornutum when I was asked recently to appear in the pages of a book commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Royal Oak.

If you are not a watch obsessive, allow me to explain. The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak is an octagonal steel watch on a metal bracelet that first appeared in 1972 and caused a stir for a number of reasons: (i) it was a pioneer of the integrated case and bracelet design, thitherto watches and metal bracelets had been designed separately and stuck together; (ii) in design it was a radical direction for one of the most respected of haute horlogerie watchmakers, challenging accepted tenets with such details as visible screwheads; (iii) it was also the first serious luxury sportswatch in that, even though it was made of steel, it cost more than many gold watches.

At the time it was considered so daring that there was talk of it being made only as a limited edition; now the Oak and its pumped-up sidekick, the Royal Oak Offshore, are among the signifiers of what used to be known as the jet set. It is for this that I refer to the Royal Oak as the rich man’s Rolex.

As well as vanity, and the flimsy vindication that appearance in the pages of such a book would in turn help sell copies of my book about gambling in the 1840s, Gentlemen & Blackguards (shortlisted for a Spear’s Book Award last year and now out in softback), I had another personal reason for agreeing: I won my Royal Oak in a backgammon tournament and it is a story that I enjoy reliving.

These days one could argue that the Royal Oak is a tad overexposed. Certainly there are a lot of Offshores, but the slimline original version is as much of a cracker as it was in the Seventies. I suppose I became aware of the Royal Oak a little over twenty years ago, chiefly because it was on the wrists of the men I admired: men like club legends Mark Birley and Johnny Gold… indeed, back then owning a Royal Oak was a bit like being a member of a rather smart club.

I too got the Oak bug, and by November 1995 I had managed to persuade Marcus Margulies, who was, among other things, the importer of Audemars Piguet into the UK, to sponsor a backgammon tournament that would be hosted by Mark Birley, at his house, Thurloe Lodge. To the young(ish) man that I was then, Thurloe Lodge was a revelation; everything was calculated to enhance the comfort of its inhabitant. (Bear in mind that I did once call Mark only to be told that he was unable to come to the phone because he was ‘busy relaxing’.)

One of the things that stuck in my mind from that night was Mohammed’s cufflinks. Mohammed needs no introduction to habitués of Annabel’s (and therefore readers of Spear’s) and he was wearing a very handsome set of Cartier links on which I complimented him. He shot his cuffs with some pride and informed me by way of explanation, ‘When you work for Mr Birley you don’t mess about.’ Quite.

In those days I was an even worse backgammon player than I am now. I took such time pondering over each move that I heard someone shout, ‘Get on with it — it is not an O-level.’ And yet, through some miraculous alignment of extreme good luck on my part and extreme poor luck on everybody else’s, I found myself playing in the final on Mark’s sepulchral Hermès backgammon board, the one with the tapestry playing surface (he felt that the noise of dice falling on a traditional leather board was a bit harsh). That board is an item of near religious significance, and to have played on it is a little akin to what I imagine knocking a tennis ball back and forth on Wimbledon’s Centre Court must be like.

And then, mirabile dictu, I won the tournament. Of course my opponent was justifiably irritated, but then so would I be if I had been beaten by a neophyte player with the all the numeracy and skill of a tolerably well-educated baboon. However, he was gracious enough to invite me to lunch the following day. In the meantime, Marcus Margulies popped open a case of watches and I selected the slim Oak on a black sharkskin strap that I still wear to this day.

It was a wonderful fluke; in the end we held a number of those backgammon evenings and I was routinely out by the end of round one or two. They were wonderful evenings nonetheless, attended by great men many of whom are no longer with us, among them cigar king Nick Freeman, Alan Clark, Michael Stoop MC (the man who lent Lord Lucan the Ford Corsair) and of course the host. However one of those Thurloe Lodge veterans is very much with us and he has his own Royal Oak story, which is far more evocative than mine.
 

BEFORE HE BECAME the world’s best known and most lauded cigar merchant, Edward Sahakian, owner of Davidoff of London, was an industrialist of immense standing in Iran. His factories made everything from glass to ice cream, and when the Shah needed a few thousand cheering citizens to line the route taken by a visiting dignitary he would call Edward, who would have to close one or other of his plants, give the workers the day off and bus them to wherever they were required to wave flags and express their spontaneous delight.

At the end of the Seventies he left his country with commendable chic, taking only five kilos of caviar, his dinner jacket and five first-class airline tickets. Once he realised that he would not be going back he remembered that he had neglected to bring a few cherished cigars, and he also recalled having seen a Royal Oak in one of Tehran’s jewellers. As he had also left a fair of bit of cash behind, he asked one his staff to buy the Oak and bring it over to him with the cigars. I think they were the last things he got out of his homeland.

If there is a more stylish way of going into exile, or for that matter a better Royal Oak story, I have yet to encounter it. 
 
 

Above: A 1972 edition of Audemars Piguet’s much-loved Royal Oak.



 

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