During the first decade of the brand’s existence I was frequently asked, “Will Richard Mille watches age well? Will their overt modernism seem dated in 10 years?” Now, a full 18 years since the brand’s inception, we have our answer. In the same way that Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair and McLaren’s F1 have become enduring modern classics, so too have Richard Mille’s watches; timepieces like Richard Mille’s first-generation tourbillons, the RM 001, RM 002 or RM 003, represent a rupture, a seismic moment that cuts off the past and that defines the future.
And today they radiate with as much energy, authenticity, originality and appeal as they did close to 20 years ago when they were born. The common misperception is that Mille’s watches were designed to be futuristic in appearance. This is not true. Mille’s watches were designed to express his fascination with true high performance. Mille’s watches have become associated with futurism because they have been the single most significant design achievement in modern watchmaking.
However, Richard Mille has certainly been an iconoclast in two significant ways. He was the first to reject the classic “manufacture-made” marketing spiel. Mille openly collaborates with the very best movement specialists and case-makers in the watch industry. At the same time, Mille only creates products that offer innovation to the consumer, such as a variable-inertia automatic rotor, a mainspring torque indicator and a gear-selector function.
Mille was also the very first individual in the watch industry to champion lightweight materials and the performance advantages they bestow. Mille believes that in order to understand the appeal of the ultra-light performance timepiece, you need to first overcome the brainwashing about social status related to traditional luxury materials like gold and platinum. Mille explains, “The ultra-light watch is for you when you don’t need to prove anything to anybody, when you are ready to go for the extreme in comfort, the extreme in ergonomics, the extreme in performance, then you have arrived at a stage of maturity where you are ready for the extreme in lightness.”
This is the fundamental message of Richard Mille. It is the brand for when you have gone past the preconceptions about traditional luxury. Mille continues, “For me, it is not the first watch a collector will buy, but it is the last one he will buy once he has transcended beyond everything else, beyond social conditioning and buys this watch only to please himself. Before I started, gold was a symbol of wealth; it was a sign of importance, it was expressed luxury. It was funny because I wanted to convince people to wear much lighter watches, but it was not easy. I was the first to put a tourbillon inside a titanium case, but some people felt that it was almost a waste of money. It’s funny now we make many more watches in titanium and in carbon fiber than in platinum.”
Mille has been the industry’s most significant pioneer in the use of titanium both as a case material and, more importantly, as a material for his movements. Says Mille, “Titanium was used before only as a material for the case, and even as a case material, it was used in very simple geometric forms. The manufacturing process for titanium is expensive. This is why my titanium cases are almost the same price as gold [cases]. In addition, the finishing and the polishing are all done by hand and are very challenging.”
But for Mille it was about using titanium inside the watch as well for the performance benefits it offers. He says, “My interest in titanium was not just as the case of watches. I was the first to make a titanium baseplate for the watch. And this was so costly, so time-consuming and a headache, but I did it because the material benefits such as shock-resistance are substantial, and I will not make any compromises in my watches. In the next generation of my tourbillon movements, I began using carbon fiber and even aluminium lithium. But when I was conceptualizing a basic automatic movement, I knew that I wanted the movement focused around a titanium baseplate. I was warned that this would incur a huge rejection rate, which is true to this day. Discussing with my movement supplier, Vaucher [which makes the movements for the RM 005, RM 010 and RM 011] — to make 3,000 movements, they have to make 5,000 to 6,000 plates. This rejection rate is enormous. In any other industry or with any other brand, I suppose this ratio would be totally unacceptable, but this is the way I want to do things — without compromise!
“When people ask me how I can accept a rejection rate of 45 percent, I said this is part of the identity of the brand. In the past, there was something like this in watchmaking, which was true grand feu enamel. The rejection rate was incredible, but it gives some nobility to watchmaking, rather than to make things in a faceless, soulless, industrial way. And this is also the case for complicated watches for some brands today. You give pride to the watchmaker creating your watch.”
RM 005 and RM 010 — In Collaboration with Vaucher
While Richard Mille’s tourbillons and rattrapantes were created at Audemars Piguet Renaud et Papi, the movement for Mille’s RM 005 is made at one of horology’s most respected movement makers, Vaucher SA. Says Emmanuel Vuille, then managing director of Vaucher: “We benefit tremendously from the collaboration with Richard Mille in that he pushes us to try and achieve new things. To me, Richard Mille is one of the most creative individuals within watchmaking and his ideas are creating the future for watchmaking.”
While some may view the RM 005 as an entry-level Richard Mille, I feel it is my responsibility to dispense with this perception because the RM 005 is an exquisitely designed and beautifully crafted automatic watch with a unique technical innovation that comes directly from the DNA of Richard Mille’s insistence on high performance.
The RM 005 features the only variable-inertia automatic rotor that can be adjusted to suit the needs of different people. The variable-inertia rotor incorporates wings that allow you to manually adjust the rotor so that it spins either faster or slower. For example, individuals with active lives or those who wear their watches while playing sports would set the rotor to have less inertia so as not to over-wind the watch and strip out the barrels.
Conversely, those with a more desk-bound existence would want to set the rotor at its highest inertia level to allow quicker winding. What is my view of the functionalism of this mechanism? In all honesty, while it works, I prefer to view it from the perspective of Mille having incorporated something different, unique and very beautiful into his basic caliber. I feel that focusing on the functionalism of this rotor sometimes distracts from the fact that it is singularly one of the coolest-looking watch components I’ve set eyes on. It looks like the wings of a Japanese manga bird of prey, and we can’t help but be enamored by the stealthy contrast of its grade 5 titanium outer arms with the white-gold mass of the two wing masses fixed in place with Mille’s signature grade 5 titanium screws.
Mille was also the first to use functional parts of the watch movement and transform them into aesthetic elements. This can be seen in his use of a large, visible sapphire date wheel. All the dates of the month are printed in black and obscured while they float above the black PVD titanium plate of the watch, except at seven o’clock where they are made visible in the date aperture.
What were the greatest challenges in creating this movement? “The tremendous difficulty with the movement for the RM 005 was the creation of the titanium baseplate,” says Vuille of Vaucher. “We had to research and invest in the right type of tools to allow us to create these.” However, the challenge was not simply in rendering these plates, but also working on them. “Because the plates are PVD-coated, our watchmakers have to be extremely careful not to mark them while they are assembling the movement. One scratch and we will reject the entire plate because we know this will not be up to Richard’s or our standards,” Vuille explains.
There has been an attempt to draw parallels with other brands that use a similar Vaucher base caliber, such as Parmigiani Fleurier or Hermès. And while both brands make beautiful timepieces to begin with, their movements are made from brass. This is a soft dense material that is easy to machine and to decorate to hide any tool marks. All of Richard Mille’s Vaucher movements feature baseplates and bridges in titanium — a material that is far more difficult to machine, necessitating special cooling so that resulting gases don’t combust during the process.
In addition, with the RM 010 (and also the RM 011 which uses the same base caliber with an added chronograph module), when you examine the movement, you will never see a more radically skeletonized basic automatic caliber than this. Look through to see the twin barrels of the movement and you can see that every single component has been finished to a breathtaking ethereal level.
The Richard Mille RM 005 was launched in 2004. Its case dimensions of 37.8mm by 45mm make it perfect for the individual with a smaller wrist, or those looking for a more classically proportion Richard Mille. It is also a watch worn with great aplomb by ladies. The titanium-cased RM 005, thanks to the additional weight savings represented by the watch’s signature titanium baseplate and rotor, weighs in at a scant 52 grams or about one-third the weight of a steel Rolex Daytona.
On the wrist, the RM 005 is stunning. It expresses all the powerful iconography of a classic Richard Mille watch. Its sapphire dial with applied numerals float over a second sapphire ring that bears the indexes for the date wheel. In the center of the watch, you’ll find the titanium baseplate decorated with Mille’s signature engine-style motifs, consisting of raised splines contrasted by sandblasted effect areas in between. The eight grade 5 titanium screws holding the tripartite case together are echoed by similar high-polished ones used in the movement. Turn the watch over and you’ll see the full technical majesty of the black PVD-coated, engine-motif decorated baseplate complemented by the slate gray grade 2 titanium rotor assembly. Note that the pulsating balance wheel, which is also visible on the dial side of the watch, is free sprung, or variable-inertia, the most highly regarded and chronometric type of oscillator.
Richard Mille’s RM 010 launched in 2006 represented an increase in size and a higher level of skeletonization to the movement. One easy way to tell the RM 005 and RM 010 apart is by the jewel that appears at four o’clock. On the RM 005 it is red while in the RM 010 it is clear. The dimensions of the new case are 39.3mm by 48mm, although as with all Richard Mille watches, because of the extreme radius of their curvature, this is not as large as you imagine. Like the RM 005, this watch features absolutely no casing ring, as you often find in more ubiquitous timepieces. Instead, the entire movement is fixed to the caseband of the watch using Mille’s signature five splined screws. However, because of the radical skeletonization, the resulting architecture is such that the movement looks connected to the case through thin titanium bridges, pre-dating some of the radical technology we would eventually see in watches such as the RM 009 or the RM 027. It is also important to note that in his pursuit of isolating his movements from shock, Mille specified that they ride on chassis mounting rubbers — a component that appears in many other Richard Mille watches, including the RM 005 and RM 011.
It is in the back view of the RM 010 where you see how radically different the level of skeletonization is. Says Mille, “The challenge I made to Vaucher was to go the real maximum of skeletonization to open up the entire movement so you can see how every component interacts like the other. I love that even though there is no power-reserve indicator, you can just look at the state of wind of the mainsprings in the barrel to see its state of wind.” Additionally, the highly skeletonized balance cock is a true visual marvel.
RM 011 — Featuring a Dubois-Dépraz Chronograph Module
The chronograph is one of the most appealing types of watches in that it gives its wearer power over time. Simply by starting and stopping it, you can time any sporting event with precision down to a fraction of a second. Says Mille, “Because of my brand’s roots in motorsports, I felt an accessibly priced chronograph with all the visual and technical innovation you expect from a Mille watch was extremely important. I wanted a watch with a minute as well as an hour counter because many of my clients participate in endurance racing. At the same time, I wanted to keep the base caliber I had developed with Vaucher with the titanium baseplate and variable-inertia rotor because this had become a signature for my brand.”
In order to achieve his chronographic ambitions, Mille tapped one of the most respected and venerable names in the creation of modular chronograph movements, Dubois-Dépraz. However, the resulting chronograph developed for Mille’s RM 011 watch was nothing like what the company had ever created, in terms of the level of skeletonization with the entire architecture of the chronograph train visible through the watch’s sapphire dial. It also boasted a vast array of information.
Press the chronograph start button and the large sweep-seconds hand begins its imperious march around the perimeter of the dial. A continuous seconds counter appears at three o’clock to let know you the watch is under power, while at nine o’clock, you will find the watch’s chronograph minute counter set up in 60-minute format. At six o’clock, you’ll find a counter that provides a reading for elapsed hours for up to 12 hours. But in addition to its performance-timing abilities, the Richard Mille RM 011 is also an annual calendar. This means that the watch will automatically calculate the shifting 30/31-day cycle of the months, needing only to be corrected once each year at the end of February. The indication for the month is subtly and elegantly integrated between the four and five o’clock indexes.
Having owned an RM 011 for more than a decade, what I find extraordinary about the watch is that despite its somewhat Herculean proportions of 40mm by 50mm, it is one of the most comfortable timepieces I’ve had the privilege to wear. And in both its carbon-fiber or titanium-cased versions, the watch is unbelievably light and comfortable. Finally, Mille has been a pioneer in ergonomics. Every single part of his watch case is curved, necessitating much more detailed and expensive stamping (68 steps in total) and machining operations to achieve. All in the effort to create watches that offer heretofore never-achieved levels of comfort on the wrist. Proof positive of their amazing ease of use is the fact that his are the only watches that appeared on the wrists of countless Olympic and professional athletes worn in the heat of battle.
Says Mille, “In the watch business, we work with antagonistic shapes. The movement that is central to the watch’s architecture must be flat, yet at the same time, we are striving to make the case curved and ergonomic. In order to reconcile these two elements, we have to bring in a lot of technical elements, even to the point of reconfiguring the gear train, so that the case can become as comfortable as possible. For brands that use ubiquitous movements and then try to adapt a case, this is very difficult, but because I always work from scratch, ergonomics is of primary importance even at the stage of movement development. This is similar to F1 — for example, the body of the car is always moving toward further aerodynamics, but the shape of the engine, which is a constant, must always be integrated. In addition, in F1, you must avoid overheating and balance issues, and so the engineering teams for the body and the engine must work together. I feel this is exactly the way you must work with watches, taking the human body as the constant, because they are meant to be worn.”
Mille’s intention to avoid discomfort and maximize ease of use is even seen in the unique titanium deployant buckle created for these watches. Here, a folding butterfly buckle eliminates any need for springs, utilizing only the innate flexibility and resilience of titanium to create what is simultaneously a pragmatic element and a miniature modernist art form.