Hands-On: The New For 2021 43mm Royal Oak Offshores, With In-House Caliber 4404
For the first time, the Beast’s beating heart comes from Audemars Piguet.
The Royal Oak Offshore is a watch that invites controversy, and it’s done so since the first day it appeared, back in 1993. The Offshore has always been a love-it-or-hate-it watch – Gérald Genta, the designer of the original Royal Oak, is on record as disliking it immediately. Its size, heft, and unapologetically aggressive take on his original design could seem like anything from a brilliant take on the Royal Oak, to a hideous near-parody, but over the years the Offshore has not only remained a mainstay of Audemars Piguet’s collections, but also an extremely versatile platform for further experiments in design, materials, and complications.
One thing, however, that the Offshore has never had – and this may come as a surprise to those somewhat new to fine watchmaking, or just getting acquainted with Audemars Piguet – is an in-house movement. The Offshore has instead, generally relied on base calibers, with chronograph modules added. The first models used automatic base calibers from Jaeger-LeCoultre (the caliber 888 and 889/1) and more recently, the 3126/3840, which is AP’s own in-house caliber 3126 but again, with a chronograph module. AP has also used the F. Piguet caliber 1185 (which is now the Blancpain 1185, as F. Piguet has been incorporated into Blancpain), which is an integrated, ultra-thin chronograph movement, but again, not in-house.
This year, however, AP has created new versions of the Royal Oak Offshore, both with in-house movements. The watches come in either 42mm cases, with the subdials at 6, 9, and 12 and with the date at 3 (the layout of the original model from 1993), or in 43mm cases, with a 3, 6, 9 subdial layout, and the date at 4:30. The 43mm models use the caliber 4401 chronograph movement first introduced in the Code 11.59 chronograph, and the 42mm models use the 4404, which is basically the 4401, but reconfigured to support the subdial and date layout of the original Offshore models.
Seen next to one of the models from the 1990s – in this case, the reference 25721SA, from 1999 – the changes to the design are immediately obvious. In addition to the changes in the dial layout, the modern 43mm version has more rectilinear pushers and maybe most notably, no cyclops for the date window (although the placement of the window at 4:30 just goes to show that the Offshore is as ready for controversy as ever).
Probably the most significant difference in terms of the presentation of a new movement, however, is the absence of the date cyclops. The modular Royal Oaks needed a magnifier for the date because of the modular construction. The date wheel is on the base caliber, and if you put a chronograph module on top, you end up with the date wheel fairly far behind the dial. The 42mm models from this year have retained the magnifier, although since the movement is an integrated chrono you don’t really need it (albeit you could make the same argument for any Rolex watch with a date cyclops).
The two-tone ref. 25721SA shown above, by the way, is an interesting example of just how complex the history of the Offshore has been, over 25 years. This particular watch belongs to a friend and fellow watch enthusiast, and it was bought by his father (who was 6’3″ and apparently, thrilled to finally find a watch big enough for his large frame) in 1999. There are supposedly only four of this reference known to the market, and he had more or less forgotten he had it until he found it at the back of his closet a few weeks ago. The bezel is pink gold.
I find it unspeakably charming, but then again, one of the biggest episodes of horological yearning in my entire life was closed when I finally got a 36mm yellow gold Rolex Day-Date (which, as my friends and family never tire of reminding me, is the ultimate Grumpy Old Man watch) and there is no doubt that the reference 25721SA is a mighty ’90s watch. There is also no doubt that the presence of modular chronograph movements in watches from AP, which has a history as one of the most renowned makers of complications in all of fine watchmaking, seemed increasingly inappropriate as the 2000s wore slowly into the 2010s and 2020s. Pretty much ever since the caliber 4401 was announced, AP watchers have been waiting for the movement to roll out into watches other than the Code 11.59 chronograph, and while we did have the quite striking [Re]Master chronograph, this is the first time the 4401 and 4404 calibers have appeared in regular series-production watches outside the Code collection.
The new 43mm Royal Oaks are, of the two options available with the 4401/4404, certainly more contemporary in look and feel and of course, this is by design. While it’s taken 25 years the new calibers are a very welcome update to the design, whose ursine heft has always, at least to me, felt slightly let down by the use of a modular movement. The calibers are 32mm in diameter and 6.8mm thick and definitely feel a better fit for what is still a fairly large, eye-catching timepiece.
The new movement, aside from looking like a good fit through the display back, also has an overall design and layout that suits the 43mm Offshore very well. It’s clearly intended to impress the wearer as a contemporary caliber, rather than an exercise in horological nostalgia. And on that score it’s very much a success.
As we discussed in our Hands-On with the Code 11.59 chronograph, the modernity of the movement is more than skin deep. This is a vertical clutch design, with a 70-hour power reserve, a tooth profile for the column wheel designed to minimize friction, ceramic bearings on the rotor, and a single, integrated reset hammer. There’s a balance bridge, rather than a balance cock, and the balance is a freesprung, adjustable mass-type.
While the 42mm models are perhaps a bit more the purist’s take on an in-house movement in the Offshore, I very much liked how the 43mm model really leans into its more up-to-date design, and as well, I give it a bit of an edge over the 42mm model for sticking with the original configuration of the caliber 4401, rather than altering it for the sake of an homage.
The three watches shown here are in steel with a black dial, and titanium with a blue or grey dial. The titanium models make wearing an Offshore about as low impact weight-wise as an Offshore is ever likely to be – they’re extremely comfortable – but there is something very handsome about the steel model with the black ceramic bezel and as there isn’t the added mass penalty of a bracelet, that would probably be my choice. After all, what’s an Offshore without at least a little heft to it?
For first impressions and full specs, see Jon Bues’ Introducing post. Current list prices are: Titanium with grey dial, $37,500; titanium with blue dial, $36,200; and steel with black dial, $37,500. All three models with the in-house automatic chronograph caliber 4401, flyback chronograph with time and date, small seconds. 70-hour power reserve, selfwinding, running at 28,800 vph in 40 jewels.
All photos, Tiffany Wade.