Why the fierce 90s style remains fascinating
The fascination for the 80s-90s, this intense need to be provocative, to see big, go fast and strong, now mirrors the urgency of our decade. Everywhere, codes of the 21st Century take their inspiration from that freedom in art, fashion, and watchmaking. An icon of those years, the Royal Oak Offshore is now celebrating 30 years of unconventionality.
By Cristina D’Agostino04 mai 2023
Artistic retrospectives speak for themselves, as graphic and fashion inspirations pop up in museums and display worldwide. “Basquiat x Warhol, à quatre mains” at the Louis Vuitton Foundation challenges us to question our relation to violence, racism, and the craze for consumerism. Or even “1997 Fashion Big Bang” at Palais Galliera, which analyzes 90s fashion, a crucial time leading up to the new Millennium. Today, a new leap towards unconventionality and strong slogans are emerging everywhere. A need for disruption to face the urgency, be it climatic, social, or geopolitical.
The young post-Covid generation finds inspiration in this street art and streetwear movement, born in Los Angeles or New York at the end of the 80s, which coexisted alongside the chic and powerful golden boys of sizzling Wall Street. Jean-Michel Basquiat, this “Radiant Child,” a gifted and committed artist with an abundant body of work, is a vibrant symbol of that time. He represented engagement that much-needed unconventionality born in the 70s and 80s, which exposed segregation and prohibition. Today, this same need can be found on walls and is emerging in the streets, with the same hope that everything could suddenly become peaceful.
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The 80s, a ground for strong and colorful designs
Strong designs found solid roots at the start of the 90s. All industries used these years as inspiration. The first iMac with flashy pop colors appeared, while in fashion, oversized streetwear emerged. For watchmaking, it was in this context at the start of the 90s that the Royal Oak Offshore was born, the trailblazer of a style where everything was bigger, stronger, and shiny.
François-Henry Bennahmias, CEO of Audemars Piguet, says: “The Royal Oak Offshore stands out by its aesthetics, both refined and industrial: in a few words, one cannot put it in a box. It is the essence of the Offshore collection: disrupt that rigid and old school, to become both beauty and beast.”
Back then, in 1989, Steve Urquhart co-directed the Audemars Piguet brand alongside Georges-Henri Meylan. At the time, the Royal Oak family already encompassed 129 models, including 86 with quartz calibers. While the “sport-chic” watch was born with the Royal Oak, a watch of superlatives appeared with the Royal Oak Offshore. Few watchmaking brands foresaw that a new style would soon be needed. However, Steve Urquhart listened to an important German watch distributor, Dierk Wettengel, who told him about this trend.
The neo-liberal mindset rules
The context of the time is widely dominated by liberalization, disruption, and globalization of economy and finance. Neo-liberal thinking is everywhere, with super powerful yachts and glowing racing cars as its testimonies. Steve Urquhart explained: “During my conversations with Mr. Wettengel, he told me about a centerpiece for the 90s, which according to him, should find inspiration in the idea of cigarette boats and offshore racing, which were increasingly growing at the time.” A young designer of only 22, Emmanuel Gueit, joined the brand in 1987 alongside Jacqueline Dimier and started then to design a few sketches. His watchmaking design culture was shaped by his father’s great creations, the designer of many successful watchmaking pieces, and by Gérald Genta and Jacqueline Dimier. He says: “I was a young designer, very carefree, convinced that everything I did was right, as one can believe at that age. It was an amazing time when anything was allowed. At Audemars Piguet, the energy that Steve Urquhart put into this project was significant. For him, the most important thing was to try, to see whether we would be successful. And if it had not been the case, then we could move on. The times were very creative. Marketing didn’t exist, and we would not spend our time watching others. The idea was to create a watch for the youths and to find a new client base.”
“The Beast” creates a shockwave
His sketches already presented the main attributes of the future Royal Oak Offshore collection in 1989: oversized cases (42mm-diameter, 16mm height), joints of significant thickness, crowns in blue, green, yellow, or pink rubber, and round links.
The Royal Oak Offshore’s diameter size of 42mm seemed gigantic for its time. Next to it, the biggest Royal Oak only measured 36mm. It is, however, what was decided. Powerful and manly, it was created to impose a new, bolder style. It was presented at the Basel fair in April 1993. Immediately, the watch created a shock wave. The scandal of this outrageous model in its dimensions, as in its allure, spread in only a few seconds among all relevant distributors. Its nickname, “The Beast,” popped up in its first moments. The reaction of Gerald Genta was as crude. He said in a meeting in 2011: “When I saw the first offshore, I screamed madness!”.
Raphaël Balestra, Heritage and Archive Manager at Audemars Piguet explains: “The scandal it provoked when it was launched was proportional to its immoderation. But while the watchmaking world was indignant, the younger generation adopted it. Despite its difficult beginnings, the Offshore eventually reached popularity and established itself during the 2000s.”
Emmanuel Gueit, today an independent watchmaking and jewelry designer, creator of many successful pieces just like his father, looks back on the scandal: “I didn’t care. I told myself it was a good sign, as that had been the case when the Royal Oak launched in 1972. I have always believed in this watch ever since my first sketch. I fought for four years against resistance and people who didn’t believe in it. But I knew it; I had a gut feeling you can’t explain. Thankfully Steve Urquhart believed in it too. And we were proved right with time.”
30 years of unconventionality
Since then, the Royal Oak Offshore has been adopted by the entire watchmaking world and great personalities in sports and artistic fields, such as Jay-Z, LeBron James, Serena Williams, or Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was already a great fan in 1997. About that, François-Henry Bennahmias explains: “The out-of-the-box oversized concept of the Royal Oak Offshore opened the doors to the street culture at Audemars Piguet and eventually to the entire watchmaking industry. The collection is celebrating this year its 30th anniversary and is not done surprising us.”
Thirty years later, in 2023, the Royal Oak Offshore still finds its way in the avant-garde. It welcomes its first models entirely in ceramic, including the new Royal Oak Offshore Flying Tourbillon Selfwinding Chronograph in black ceramic and an architectural dial blending black and green tonalities.
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