The difference between Richard Mille and every other watch manufacturer that works with brand “ambassadors” can perhaps best be summed up in a visual from the sporting world of tennis. Picture a Grand Slam final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Federer’s left wrist is bare; his signature Rolex is hastily strapped on only in the event of victory, to hoist the trophy for the assembled legion of photographers. Nadal, on the other hand, is wearing his Richard Mille timepiece throughout the match, as he has throughout the tournament. The watch that he wears to kiss the trophy will be a watch that has been through the same gauntlet that Nadal himself has endured to win a championship.
Richard Mille, the founder and namesake of the watch brand, once stated that he makes “extreme watches for extreme conditions,” and that the only condition he insists upon from an athlete before signing him or her to an endorsement deal is that the athlete must wear the watch while playing his or her sport — the only such deal in the watch industry, as far as is known. It’s unsurprising when one considers the brand’s philosophy of creating time- pieces that are made to be worn and used — in some cases, very hard used — despite their often stratospheric price points. And some of the most exclusive and hard-to-get models come by that status not entirely through their materials, their limited numbers or even their use of traditional high-horology elements like tourbillons, but through the R&D that went into their meticulously designed, fully mechanized, utilitarian complications. Here we look at some of Richard Mille’s most significant technical milestones and how they address specific needs and requirements for their intended users.
“When we make a watch specifically for use in tough sports environments, it is only logical that we want to be able to verify this within a real-life scenario,” says Salvador Arbona, Richard Mille’s technical director of movements. “We don’t believe in PR for PR’s sake. If our athletes or other ambassadors don’t truly enjoy wearing our watches every day, then a collaboration loses its true value. It is our experience that only authentic relationships can be really inspiring in the long-term.”
Among Richard Mille’s most renowned and recognizable timepieces have been the ones it has created for elite athletes, working in cooperation with those athletes to develop the optimum watch for their particular sport. Mille began partnering with Nadal, the Spanish tennis champ, in 2010, and has been making watches built to endure the rigors of a Grand Slam tournament ever since, improving upon their toughness, light weight and shock resistance along the way. In 2017, the company debuted the RM 27-03 model, whose case featured a red-and-yellow striped pattern in homage to the Spanish flag. The tonneau-shaped case (a hallmark of the brand) was constructed from Quartz TPT, a material whose colorful, textured surface is created by impregnating quartz fibers just 45 microns thick with tinted resin in a proprietary process developed for Richard Mille by North Thin Ply Technology (NTPT), a Swiss firm that specializes in lightweight prepreg materials. The partnership with NTPT has yielded materials for other Richard Mille watches, notably the ultra-rare RM 50-03 McLaren F1 model, developed with the famed racing team, which set a record as the world’s lightest split-seconds chronograph watch with a tourbillon.
The tourbillon-equipped movement inside the RM 27- 03 underwent a battery of “pendulum impact testing,” which simulated the linear acceleration that occurs when the wear- er is subject to sudden motions or impacts, rendering it able to withstand shocks up to 10,000 Gs — a record in the wristwatch industry and ideal for the punishment a watch undergoes during a tennis match.
Golf, like tennis, is another sport that is extremely unkind to watches, which is why you rarely see the professionals wearing a timepiece during play. An exception is Bubba Watson, another Richard Mille brand ambassador. The RM 055 model made for Watson has a skeletonized tourbillon movement whose baseplate and bridges are made of lightweight grade 5 titanium, adding up to only 4.3 grams of weight for the whole mechanism, inside a titanium case. The construction of the movement ensures it can resist up to 5,000 Gs, which means it can withstand the jarring force of one of Watson’s legendary drives.
In 2018, Richard Mille tackled a sport that few watch manufacturers have embraced since Jaeger-LeCoultre created the first Reverso in1931: polo. Working with Argentinean star Pablo MacDonough, the company developed the RM 53-01 Tourbillon, whose carbon TPT case houses an innovative cable-suspended movement. To build it, Mille’s team used two separate titanium baseplates — one fixed to an inner, sapphire glass case to support the tensioner mechanism, the other connected to the first baseplate through multiple cables and equipped with the movement’s wheels and winding mechanism. This second baseplate rests on two braided steel cables measuring just 0.27 mm in diameter and joined in a 10-pulley system leveraged by four tensioners. Both are shielded behind a laminated sapphire glass similar to those used in cars. This system creates even dis-tribution throughout the pulleys, and the stiffness of the plates adds to the shock protection, resulting in a movement that won’t get knocked out of service by an errant polo ball or a fall from a horse.
The automotive world, of course, has provided much of the inspiration as well as materials for Richard Mille’s purpose- built, high-end tool watches. In 2013, the brand, whose founder and namesake is a longtime auto racing enthusiast, launched a timepiece with a specially designed complication for road safety, designed in collaboration with Jean Todt, a French motorsports executive, and built exclusively for Richard Mille by Renaud et Papi, who have developed high complication movements both for Richard Mille and for Audemars Piguet, which owns a majority stake.
The RM 036 Tourbillon G-Sensor Jean Todt measures the “G-force” — or the extra weight felt by a body rapidly accelerating or decelerating in any direction — with its patented “G-Sensor” mechanism, assembled directly on the movement’s baseplate. It is designed to visually display the “Gs” accumulated by the watch’s wearer during rapid deceleration, thus making a driver aware when he is approaching dangerous road speeds. The system, composed of more than 50 parts and measuring only 17 mm, withstands decelerations of several tens of G’s. While the wearer is driving, he can read the scale at 12 o’clock, whose needle indicates whether he is decelerating at a safe (green zone) or unsafe (red zone) speed. To reset the scale to zero, the wearer simply presses the push-piece at 9 o’clock. As G-force increases, a weight slides along two parallel rods, transferring its motions to the scale’s hand to move it from green to red, provided the watch is properly oriented to the direction of travel.
The RM 036’s tourbillon-equipped movement is made entirely of grade-5 titanium and ARCAP on a carbon nanofiber baseplate, and beats inside an ergonomically crafted tonneau case, also made of titanium. A limited run of just 15 pieces, proceeds from its sale were donated to the FIA Action for Road Safety, a global organization devoted to road safety, and to the ICM Brain and Spine Institute, an initiative co-founded by the watch’s namesake, Todt.
Many materials used in the automobile and racing world are themselves derived from the even more space-age sphere of aeronautics. As of 2012, Richard Mille began playing in this arena as well with its first dedicated watch for pilots, the Tourbillon Flyback Chronograph RM 039 Aviation E6B. The 50-mm titanium-cased watch reproduces materials and visual codes used in the aviation industry, displaying much of the same information provided by the famous E6B flight computer, invented by U.S. Naval Lieutenant Philip Dalton (and first applied to a wristwatch by Breitling for the Chronomat and later, more famously, for the Navitimer). This round slide rule — incorporated into two bezels, one fixed and one rotating bidirectionally — can be used to read off and calculate fuel burn, flight times, ground speed, density altitude and wind correction, as well as fast conversion of units of measurement.
The RM 039 is even more complex and versatile than the Navitimer. The rotating bezel has yellow transfers showing a logarithmic scale (from 10 to 99) and units of measurement in red that can be used to convert the measurements common in aeronautics — kilometers (KM) and nautical miles (NAUT) to statute miles (STAT); liters (Liters) and U.S. gallons (US GAL) to imperial gallons (IMP GAL); meters (Meters) to feet (FT); and kilograms (KG) to pounds (LBS). The indications shown in yellow enable the air temperature to be selected from -60°C to +50°C, essential for calculating real altitude in flight in relation to temperature. An altitude scale, expressed in thousands of feet from 0 to 50, is provided via a red transfer on the out- side of the bezel at 12 o’clock. The same scale is visible on the outside (white transfer) at 2:30, but graduated in this case from -10 to +45. Using these two scales on the outside of the bezel combined with the slide rule enable real flight speed to be calculated in relation to air temperature and altitude.
All of this, and more, shares real estate in this massive watch with an oversize date display, a UTC function that displays a second time zone with a Super-LumiNova-filled hand, a flyback chronograph and another Mille specialty, a “function selector,” similar to a car’s gearbox, in which a push button in the crown allows one to easily select the winding, neutral and hand-setting functions. A hand at 4 o’clock displays the selected function: “W” (Winding), “N” (Neutral), H (Hands) or “U” (UTC, for setting the UTC hand). Only 30 pieces of the RM 039 were made.
More recently, Richard Mille partnered with Airbus Corporate Jets (ACJ), maker of bespoke private aircraft, for another aviation-specific high complication — a high-tech twist on the mechanical alarm pioneered by such beloved historical timepieces as the Vulcain Cricket and Jaeger- LeCoultre Memovox. What sets Richard Mille’s 62-01 Tourbillon Vibrating Alarm apart in the category is that its alarm is not audible, but silent — much like a mobile phone in vibrate mode but accomplished entirely through mechanical rather than electronic means. Rather than using a hammer that creates a sound by striking a pillar, a gong or the interior of the case — a system common in other alarm watches — this one transmits its time signal by a vibration only the wearer can perceive. Richard Mille describes it as “designed for the discretion prevailing in the hushed atmosphere of luxury.”
The watch’s 816-part movement incorporates an offset gold weight for this discreet alarm, which is set not by winding but by pressing a pusher 12 times to fully charge it. In addition to a tourbillon, its array of first-class-flier functionalities includes a UTC indicator, an oversize date, an indicator for the 70-hour power reserve stored in two barrels, and a function selector with five settings, including three for the alarm. Richard Mille spent five years creating the RM 62-01 movement — a “gestation period” that Arbona says is “not the longest but certainly one of the longest” for a Richard Mille watch.
Following the design codes established in Richard Mille’s first timepiece developed in cooperation with AJC, 2016’s Tourbillon Split Seconds Chronograph AJC, the model’s tonneau case combines titanium and Carbon TPT. The latter material’s wood-grain texture evokes the dark wood panel-ing of private jet cabins, the sapphire crystal is shaped like an airplane window, the pushers echo the look of pylons connecting engine to wings and the crown resembles a jet turbine — all aesthetic elements borne of Richard Mille’s close collaboration with AJC’s design team.
One of Richard Mille’s most ambitious and downright audacious projects comes from a collaboration with actor Sylvester Stallone, known for his portrayals of cinematic action heroes in films like the Rambo series. The RM 25-01 Adventure Sylvester Stallone, a limited edition of just 20 pieces, debuted in 2018 as the ultimate rough-and-ready “survivor’s watch.” The titanium-and-Carbon TPT case measures a titanic 50.85 mm by 23.65 mm and resists water pressure to 100 meters, but what really distinguishes it are its two interchangeable bezels — one, a bayonet-mounted working compass with both a fixed and rotatable setting, the other a bidirectionally rotating ring marked with both a 24-hour and 360o scale and the cardinal directions. The compass’s Carbon TPT-coated top surface (with mirrored back) has a round aperture at 12 o’clock, made of nonreflective sapphire, to view the compass needle. An antimagnetic coating protects both the compass’s precision and the workings of the movement beneath it. (The compass was an element specifically requested by Stallone, according to the brand.) To use the other bezel for direction finding, the wearer simply points the dial’s hour hand toward the sun and turns the bezel so the local 24-hour time is indicated, thus determining north, south, east and west.
But that’s not all the survivalist bells and whistles the 25-01 offers. A built-in spirit level at 4 o’clock — the kind used by carpenters — ensures a precise compass reading by dis- playing whether or not the wrist is perfectly horizontal while using the function. At 2 o’clock is another feature that you won’t find on any other outdoor-adventure-focused watch: a hermetic compartment, made of titanium, to store water purification tablets that can make a liter of polluted water safe to drink as quickly as 30 minutes.
The movement, optimized for reduced weight and energy consumption, has a 70-hour power reserve, displayed by coupling and function indicators, and an unusual 24-hour time display meant to help wearers deprived of sunlight distinguish between a.m. and p.m. Stallone’s influence is also evident on the Rambo-esque camo motif on the sculptural, natural rubber strap. “Sylvester Stallone is a very practical guy, and he knows what he wants,” Arbona says. “He wanted from us several specific types of complications in his watch, and it was our task to see if it could be executed and technically realized in the most perfect and practical manner imaginable.”
Perfection is in the eye of the beholder, of course, and practicality is rarely a selling point for a six-figure luxury timepiece, but Richard Mille’s mission statement of striving for both will continue to endear its watches to its dedicated core of enthusiasts.
This article was originally published in the June 2020 issue of WatchTime.