Richard Mille has long held a mastery for progressing technical watchmaking that remains far and ahead of the pack. Particularly in the use of sapphire, with marvels such as the RM 056, the RM 56-01, the 56-02, and even the RM 07-02 Automatic Sapphire with the colored sapphire cases, it’s clear to see that the brand is peerless.
But let’s not forget that Richard Mille is also known to often apply métiers d’art to his watchmaking, the likes of which are always unheard-of. Case in point: the RM 19-02 Manual Winding Tourbillon Fleur (2015), RM 26-02 Tourbillon Evil Eye (2015) or the RM 68-01 Tourbillon Cyril Kongo.
And here is where we find the RM 57-03 Tourbillon Sapphire Dragon: a timepiece that combines Richard Mille’s sapphire knowhow with the unprecedented approach to métiers d’art. So how does one go about incorporating a miniature, nano-scale sapphire dragon into a wristwatch? Does the movement need to be designed first, or is it the dragon itself that needs to be sorted out before the movement is built around it?
Salvador Arbona, Technical Director at Richard Mille’s movement producing arm, Valgine — took on our questions: “Everything was more or less developed in parallel. The movement and the dragon have been conceived as a whole in order to integrate it perfectly with the movement in a complementary manner. We developed the movement to be as translucent as possible with lines inspired by Asian culture, with the dragon itself designed to make as much use of the interior space as possible.”
Now, as easy as Arbona makes it all sound, truth of the matter is that sapphire is a very difficult material to work with. It is as hard as it is brittle (i.e. it is prone to shatter). How does one then go about crafting something so miniscule from the material? “Sapphire is an extremely hard material, however, the manner in which it is cut and worked has a great influence on its mechanical performance,” explains Arbona. “The complex volumes of the dragon with its intricate curves were studied in order to guarantee the greatest shock resistance.
“For this, we utilized computer simulations to predict the exact points where breakage might occur after undergoing extreme shocks in order to eliminate the chances of this happening. Thus, during the laser machining of the sapphire dragon, we were sure in advance that a structurally perfect product would result.”
So not only did Arbona and his team research into how best they should go about crafting something so miniscule from sapphire, but in identifying and eliminating points of possible failure, they’ve also ensured that the final micro-sculpture will not be affected by accidental trauma to the watch.
Arbona goes on, “we actually start from a sapphire block created using the Kyropoulos process. Of course, it goes without saying that the dragon is composed out of a solid, single piece. The rest of the information on our production process is however proprietary.”
Once formed, the dragon then goes on to polishing — a novel hand-polishing technique, to be specific, with the purpose of enhancing the natural transparency of the sapphire. “This polishing technique, developed by Olivier Vaucher’s workshop, is the result of the great expertise of this renowned engraver, says Arbona. “As you know, sapphire is an extremely hard material, only one step below diamond on the hardness scale, so of course it does not allow for the use of traditional polishing methods to achieve a result that meets our specifications for the RM 57-03.
“Olivier Vaucher’s team have developed a unique technique that is now part of their little secrets! I can mention that this technique is executed by hand, because with watchmaking at this level there are no machines capable of such coordination that relies fully on the hands and the eyes of an artist.”
With all that effort, you have to wonder though: why wasn’t the entire dragon formed in sapphire; why is its head and some other minute details made in gold? Arbona explains, “actually, yes, we could have created a dragon completely from sapphire, however, for artistic reasons that way we would have lost some visually pleasing contrast and the intensity of the dragon’s expression. The combination of gold and sapphire also makes the visual impact more three dimensional, which is why we have also coated some scales with gold.”
Okay, artistic reasons are why the complete dragon wasn’t made in complete sapphire. How about the case then? Could there be a complete sapphire cased RM 57-03 Tourbillon Sapphire Dragon? Well, the Carbon TPT® version that we see here in the pictures is going to be produced in a limited run of 55 pieces and there will be an additional 5 pieces in sapphire cases.
Summing up the conversation, Arbona shared, “Watches with sapphire cases and/or parts make up only a specific segment of the various Richard Mille collections, where many different materials are utilized for specific characteristics. That being said, creations at Richard Mille in sapphire represent some of the most challenging timepieces we create, due to the unforgiving nature and hardness of sapphire as a material. However, the ultimate goal for us will always be the next new material that we discover and use in future timepieces!”