Second Opinions Join Me As I Try To Make Sense Of The Royal Oak Concept 'Black Panther' Flying Tourbillon


I’m new to the watch world. So new that this story should probably be filed under First Opinions. My background is in design, and my hobby is other people's drama, so here I am today thinking out loud about the Audemars Piguet Black Panther watch with you fine folks. 

In my previous jobs, I spent a lot of time contemplating impact vs. intent in regard to objects. You make a chair not just because someone needs to sit, but because you want to put American design on the global map, or propose that upcycled-plywood is the way of the future. Then you release it into the world and whatever it becomes is out of your hands – a status symbol, a talking point, a source of ridicule.

No watch in my short time at HODINKEE had the kind of far-reaching impact the AP BP has. Head to the comments of Danny’s original Hands-On and you will see 458 (and counting) different hot takes. Everyone was deep in their feelings. The $164,000 watch was divisive, and it remains so. Some think it's ugly, some beautiful, some simply confounding. But we're still talking about it!! Try to remember whatever else you were talking about in April – are you still talking about it? I'm not. At least seven TikTok dances have come and gone, plus a whole dang Summer Olympics, and several dozen hosts of Jeopardy!

Black Panther Royal Oak

We may never know AP’s true intent. We do know the brand wanted to appease the core-comic book audience. "This was really the make-or-break moment for the watch," Michael Friedman, AP's head of complications, told Danny back in April. "Fans of the comic-book world are so detail-oriented." The celebrities they tapped for the launch event, Kevin Hart and Serena Williams, were clearly chosen to telegraph a certain message – this is a watch that celebrates Black culture. Sitting next to that message was the clarification that AP started working on the piece well before the corporate world's inclusivity gestures and diversity-hiring scrambles of summer 2020, before Chadwick Boseman died tragically young, before the movie even came out.

Look, would I be writing this essay if it were Ant-Man on that dial instead of the most iconic Black superhero, who just happened to arrive on a luxury watch during a moment of profound racial reckoning? Absolutely not. Implicit (and sometimes explicit) in the whole Black Panther-watch conversation was a question of whether this timepiece signified celebration or exploitation – or, somehow, both. It's the question nobody wants to ask out loud, and the hardest one to answer fully and truthfully, because a complete answer requires divining the intent of designers and executives whose business, to a large extent, revolves around discretion.

Whenever a consumer product gets a certain amount of cultural cachet from Blackness, I always wonder: Who was in the room when this was made, and who is profiting from it? Even in a watch that costs as much as a four-year education at a liberal-arts college, representation matters. It is not everything, but it is something.

AP went out of its way to ensure that proceeds of the $5.2 million auction price of the white-gold Black Panther piece unique went to two charities, First Book and Ashoka, which according to AP aim "to give students from low-income communities, aged 10-18, the resources to drive change in their communities." That is something, but it is not everything.

Stepping back from the tangled web of money and cultural capital, we're still left to wonder: What is this watch, really? Is it a timepiece for serious horological collectors who value ingenuity and rarity, or is it a bauble for well-heeled comic-book nerds – an action figure for the wrist? Are AP execs sending a warning shot out to Richard Mille that they, too, can create luxury watches with a hint of the absurd? Did LeBron James tell Olivier Audemars that he wanted a watch like this and Olivier was like 'bet.' The mind reels.

I was, like many, totally confused until I saw the watch in the metal (have been waiting to type that) and then its place on this earth became crystal clear: It's art. Popular art, almost street art. More Basquiat than Botticelli, more Kaws than Kandinsky. Art meant to reach a mass audience on Instagram, which (let's face it) is how most of us experience art these days anyway. The AP BP is wrist-sized art that everybody who saw the Black Panther movie or read the comic book can, on some level, relate to. That's hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people. Suffice it to say that few watches will ever reach this level of cultural penetration.

"I look at it as a sculpture," art advisor and watch collector Gardy St. Fleur told me. "The color, all that detail. When I first looked at it I thought: This is something I wouldn't wear out." 

Imagine, for a moment, that you own the Black Panther watch. You wouldn't put it in a safe.  You'd display it in your marble foyer, alongside your favorite Hebru Brantley, and everyone who walked through your incredibly large and expensive front door would have some way of understanding it.

Like a true piece of modern art, the watch is poised to make money on the auction circuit. The first watch out of the 150 examples is already on the block at Christie's, set to hammer on September 7. We are, for sure, living in a truly wild period for watch auctions, but big-ticket timepieces don't usually show up at Christie's so quickly after their release. "The response has been phenomenal so far," said Alexandre Bigler, Christie's Head of Watches for Asia Pacific. "This piece has been debated on the market ever since its release, and continues to create animated discussions amongst the watch community." The estimate has been set at US $380,000 to $650,000. It will certainly go way beyond.

The Black Panther watch has also done what great contemporary art should do, which is start an open-ended conversation. An argument no one can win. An animated discussion. The timepiece is confounding — and how rare it is to be confounded these days. When it comes to a watch, it's even more unusual to be baffled by the big picture (by what it all means), as opposed to perplexed by the minute details (how it all works).

The pragmatist in me knows that after I've teased out every line of thought, and held both my feelings and the watch itself up to the light, the answer of what it means is probably just money. Is there a more consistently lucrative, broadly appealing entertainment juggernaut than the Marvel Universe? There is not. Is AP also a consistently lucrative, broadly appealing (if prohibitively expensive) entity of its own? It is. Perhaps the two aren't such strange bedfellows after all.

What this watch needs is cultural patina. Time for it to settle into what it truly is – to put a few dents into our hypotheses, to challenge our knee-jerk reactions, to make us reconsider. The watch world (and to some extent, the rest of the world) will eventually see what AP does next with its ongoing Marvel collaboration. Meanwhile, someone new will buy the Christie's piece. And the merry-go-round will continue to spin. As we observe who continues to collect and wear this watch, we'll get a better idea of where to place it in the hall of cultural ephemera. Until then, I'll be here watching the comments and living for the drama.