Within our wonderful realm of watchmaking lies two of the most storied, legendary, and universally desirable watchmakers in the world, Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet. Both titans of the industry, these goliaths regularly compete with one another to take the watchmaking crown and be named the king of Swiss watchmaking. But that's a tall order, no matter what brand you are. Simply put, each brand has their pros and cons, and as you could imagine, a lot of subjectivity is at play when one collector puts for the case that one brand is better than another. So, let's try to remove that subjectivity and explore both of their most easily compared and iconic modern watches, the Patek Philippe Nautilus ref. 5711 and the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak ref. 15202.
What's the history?
While we are comparing the modern versions of two historically legendary timepieces, let's explore the history behind these watches and understand their origins. Starting things off easy, generally speaking, he who strikes first wins, and in this instance, the Royal Oak wins this bout due to its earlier release.
Launched in 1972, the Royal Oak was AP's attempt to subvert the impending Quartz Crisis and develop a luxury stainless steel sports watch - the first watch of its kind. Responding to industry research from Italy, AP reached out to watch designer Gerald Genta in 1971 to design a watch to be showcased at Baselworld the very next day. With his incredibly unique design complete, AP held off the release and launched the watch the year after in 1972 to a bewildered public. Following some public backlash due to its price, exposed screws, octagonal bezel, "Jumbo" sized 39mm case, and integrated bracelet, the Royal Oak sold slowly until the mid-70s when it picked up steam. This is when Patek Philippe took notice and decided to get in on the action.
Launching their competitor to the Royal Oak in 1976, Patek Philippe sought to capitalize on the same trends that AP created with their Royal Oak by creating the Nautilus and releasing it in 1976. Designed by Gerald Genta, just like the Royal Oak, the Nautilus featured a stainless steel construction, integrated bracelet, octagonal bezel, and sports watch utility. Following a similar period of slow sales, the Nautilus picked up and slowly became the behemoth that it is today. So, while the Nautilus was originally the pupil, it is undoubtedly safe to say it is a master now.
On the face of it, both of these modern timepieces are stainless steel sports watches given their original mission, but they are far from equal with regards to how they perform. As the Royal Oak ref. 15202 is a historically accurate modern re-interpretation of the original Royal Oak, the ref. 5402, its ability to keep pace with the Nautilus ref. 5711 is hindered. With just 50m of water resistance, a push/pull crown, and the historically significant, yet lackluster by today's standards, AP cal. 2121 movement, the Royal Oak ref. 15202 fails to meet the modern needs of active watch collectors. Audemars Piguet even acknowledged this when they released the Royal Oak Offshore in 1993 as they sought to expand their sports watch offerings into a watch that could truly take a beating.
On the contrary, the Nautilus ref. 5711 is a wonderfully modern sports watch with a plethora of useful capabilities that enable it to take a beating should you decide to give it one. With its 120m of water resistance, a screw-down crown (with crown guards), and capable modern movement, the Nautilus ref. 5711 is an infinitely more capable timepiece as a sports watch. While the Nautilus was definitely the student in this regard when it was first released, the Nautilus ref. 5711 has quickly overtaken the Royal Oak ref. 15202 as a genuinely capable sports watch.
While we all might want to deny it, a watch's ability to store value or even appreciate has become a core piece of its function for modern collectors. So it is only understandable that we wish to protect our capital and rationalize what will ultimately be a rather large purchase. After all, a healthy secondary market might just suggest how your fellow collectors view your watch, and ultimately, that is a vivid means of seeing if one watch is better than another, so who has performed the best on the open markets.
Released in 2012, the Royal Oak ref. 15202 has been highly sought-after by collectors due to its place as the modern reincarnation of its ancestor, the ref. 5402. Faithful to the original in just about every department, it is beloved by collectors, and its strong secondary market demonstrates that. Impossible to buy for its retail price of $27,700 and available on the open market for around $85000, depending on the dial color and other factors; it represents a genuine investment opportunity for those looking to invest in timepieces given its consistent approach towards its current value. Furthermore, with its announced discontinuation, it is yet to be seen what Audemars Piguet will replace the ref. 15202 with, and it may not be a design that is faithful to the original. As such, the ref. 15202 may be the last of its kind. Only time will tell.
On the contrary, the Nautilus ref. 5711 is not a period-correct re-interpretation of its ancestor model (the ref. 3800) - its movement is different, and it is 2mm smaller (at 40mm) alongside some other small differences. Priced at around $36,500 at retail, the Nautilus has long been impossible to purchase from an AD, with the secondary market the only feasible solution for most. As such, the Nautilus ref. 5711's market value is well in excess of $100,000 even though a lot more examples currently reside on Chrono24 than the ref. 15202 (127 vs. 217).
With their similar build styles, both featuring stainless steel constructions, octagonal bezels, integrated bracelets, beautiful finishing, and stunning textured dials, the Royal Oak and Nautilus wear similarly on the wrist from a practical standpoint. However, the Royal Oak appears aggressive on the wrist with a more angular aesthetic, while the Nautilus is subdued with its rounded aesthetic. So, ultimately, your personal sense of style will undoubtedly be the deciding factor regarding which you long to wear.
Given their market values aren't too far apart, it is also likely that budget won't be too much of a concern, whereas utility might be. With the Nautilus miles ahead in terms of water resistance and robustness, the Nautilus does win as a daily wearer, but only if you plan on wearing your watch as a sports watch. Otherwise, they aren't very far apart, and you should buy the one you like more, as is always the case with collecting watches or anything else.