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You perspective is a bit too narrowly focused and maybe your experience growing up in the age of rappers and sports stars wearing APs has prevented you from really seeing the brand beyond what it has been in the last 20 years. As mentioned AP really invented the luxury sport watch with the Royal Oak and others followed. In addition, AP was really known for dress watches and highly complicated pieces for decades before the RO existed. In addition, even in the 1980s the RO was a pretty rare sight and was not as prominent a model as it has been during the last 15-20 years. Also their advertising campaign and who they associated with up until the 1990s, included old aristocracy, old actors (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), historians (Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.) and others that were hardly the house hold names back in the 1980s, that Lebron James and JayZ are today. Check out these old watch ads (for fun just to see the pricing of an all gold AP or Rolex). http://www.vintageadbrowser.com/jewelry-and-watches-ads-1970s http://www.vintagepaperads.com/1984-Audemars-Piguet-Royal-Oak-Watches-Ad_p_51976.html
AP and Patek are both relatively young compared to VC which was established in 1755. Until roughly the 1950-1960s, VC was considered the top brand of the big three. I think some of what caused that to change were the changes in ownership that I believe took place around that time. VC also went through periods when they were underfunded and had lots of different models but no real cohesive collections.
Patek is well known, they make roughly twice as many watches as AP or VC. And although coveted by colletors and auction houses today...years ago dealers sat on huge stocks of them and as recently as 2003/2004 you could easily walk into dealers and get 30%+ off anything other than a 5070. Heck my Dad bought a brand new Calatrava from an AD back in 1994 or 1995, and just to move it they gave him 40% off the list price. So these watches were not always these items that people covet in the same way they do today. Years ago one dealer told me they carry it more as a novelety and occasional sell them, but they make all of their money selling Rolex and Cartier...they could live on those alone, all the other brands were for show.
Vacheron makes beautiful watches. I have 2 of their dress watches and I adore them. Although the oldest brand of the three they seem to have been the the least well known of the brands during the last 30-40 years. In part as mentioned, they have had several owners, sometimes been underfunded, sometimes had collections with no real direction, they were the last of the big three to figure out how to make a sport watch that would be successful and enduring (They started with the 222 in the 70s which I thought was nice looking, then came out with an ugly offshoot the 333, then the uglier Phidias, and finally in the mid 90s they released the 1st generation Overseas). Overall I like some of their dress watches, but I don't think the quality of their sports watches in terms of finish and reliability have been on the same level as AP or Patek.
Personally, I don't like the marketing direction that AP has taken. I think it cheapens the brand and maybe your perception of the brand is proof of that. However, I suppose their success and need capture the attention and funds of a younger generation, may be proof that being an obscure brand with a slogan "Known only by those who know" will not provide the clients, success, or funds neccessary to carry on with important R&D and to sustain themselves rather than having to be bought out like most companies.
I'm a bit saddened that you really only know the brand as a watch that appeals to rappers and sports stars, as I think you have not seen or been given enough information by AP to know how rich and strong their history of making superb watches is. However, I can't blame you based on their ad compaigne which I don't like. I think if you do some serious research into the brand you will see and understand they are deserving of being one of "The Big Three."
I started my watch collection at 7 with a (ladies-sized) Bucherer diver bought in their Zurich boutique.
I'd like to echo some of Dino's other comments here about AP; while in latter times they are best known for the Offshore line, their more classically-styled watches and complications are every bit as exquisitely made and finished as the PP, VC or ALS watches out there. One thing I have liked about AP is that they don't skimp on materials or finishes, unlike VC, which is known to use slightly less 'noble' materials at times (e.g. use of a 22k gold rotor in the AP Extra Thins vs VC's use of steel rotors, etc.) - kind of irks me given the higher price point that VC is trying to command!
A few of my personal favourites from among their more classically-inspired watches:
Jules Audemars Chronograph
Jules Audemars Escapement
Jules Audemars Minute Repeater
Edward Piguet Chronograph
Tradition Extra Thin (in rich platinum!)
AP stand out for me compared to the other great houses because of their daring and willingness to innovate (both in terms of design and materials). For example, the fact that AP have watches like the Offshore and Millenary in their collections, whereas PP and VC have tended towards conservatism in their designs. In the past, as Dino has said, they led the pack when it came to launching the luxury steel sports watch, finished to much finer degree than anything that Rolex or Omega could churn out. This evolution has continued with the ROO, imitated but never bettered by newer marques like Hublot, etc. I also like that they experiment with new materials (e.g. forged carbon, ceramic, etc.) that other traditionalist great houses steer away from -- it's a sign of their modernity to me.
While I do agree that the use of celebrity ambassadors and the mass marketing behind the Offshore range does 'cheapen' AP in the eyes of some, I interpret it as their attempt/willingness to engage with a younger, more current and contemporary customer base. They are not remaining snobbish and aloof in the same way that PP, VC and ALS are, but have tried to keep themselves 'young'. Also from a business stand point it clearly makes sense, given that they are a smaller entity than PP and don't have the backing of a large parent company like Richemont. I don't think this means that they have compromised on their heritage by any means; the classically-inspired models quoted above are clear examples that - while their more trad watches many no longer be their bread-and-butter - they still know how to make elegant and stately watches.
Edited by academe - 1/24/13 at 1:41am