With all that he’s achieved on the movement front: the world’s lightest mechanical watch movements (tourbillons, no less, created with I-beam aluminum-lithium bridges), the first carbon-nanofiber and titanium baseplates, the first movement designed after the steel trellis frame of a Ducati motorcycle, the first movement with an orthorhombic-titanium-aluminide baseplate, inspired by the honeycomb inner structure of supersonic aircraft wings — all in the pursuit of shock resistance, rigidity and resistance to thermal variation, it is sometimes easy to forget that Richard Mille has also been the watch industry’s foremost innovator in the realm of case materials.
While many other brands lay claim to introducing us to an all-new universe of performance-oriented materials, they are opportunists that have attempted to replicate Mille’s success — with less impressive results. The critical difference is that with each watch case, whether it’s the RM 009’s AluSiC case, resulting in a watch impervious to even a nuclear blast, or the (mostly carbon) composite case of the world’s lightest mechanical watch,
the RM 027, the timepiece strapped to Rafael Nadal’s wrist when he won the US Open, Wimbledon and the French Open, Mille has had a clear purpose.
This impressively focused attitude stands in stark contrast to the various pretenders to the throne, who decoratively festoon their watches with carbon or ceramic when the underlying structure of their cases are no more than pieces of stamped steel.
But while Mille has focused on performance goals in the past, with the new RM 056, his goal has been achieving a watch-industry first in aesthetics. When you first lay your eyes on the RM 056, nicknamed “The Ghost” by Mille,
you can’t help but stare slack-jawed at it. Before you is a watch that is massive in proportions and bristling with the high-performance engine of a split seconds chronograph tourbillon, but also totally transparent. While CEOs and designers have for many years posited the concept of an all-sapphire-crystal watchcase, no one but Mille has had the daring, and the sheer financial testicular fortitude, to realize this dream.
Says Mille, “This is the result of a childhood goal to have a watch that was fully transparent and that, at times, seems to almost become invisible on the wrist. While I have always been associated with achieving performance benchmarks in watches, this year, I wanted to achieve an aesthetic benchmark that, in many ways, is no less technical than creating the world’s lightest watch.”
The technical journey of the RM 056 is reflected in what the less informed have referred to as its “stratospheric cost” of $1.65 million. But let’s break that down. Already, the split seconds tourbillon movement represents a marvel of horological prowess. Though Mille states, “I never wanted to put tourbillons in my watches simply as a marketing gimmick. To me, they actually represent a very small part of the overall cost of my watches — they are there simply because they aid in the accuracy of the watch and are beautiful to look at. The main cost of my watches is related to research and development, and because I always want to be a pioneer. For example, with the RM 009, we were the first to use a material in any application that was initially created for satellites. This material had to be spun in a centrifuge, and then only the top layer, where the aluminum and silicon had bonded on the molecular level, could be used. Then we had to find new technology to machine these super-hard cases. The guy working on these cases finally had a nervous breakdown.”
Mille explains, “The sapphire-crystal case is no different; it takes 1,000 hours to machine the case, another 430 hours to grind it, and finally, 300 hours to finish all the details. Furthermore, I would never compromise this case with the use of metal pushers or crowns, and so we had
to make sapphire chronograph pushers and crowns. Then we had to figure out how to make the watch water resistant, because I cannot allow my customers to make any compromise when wearing this watch.”
The result is a watch that has, in terms of groundbreaking visual aesthetics, single-handedly ushered in a third millennium in watch design, as significant as when Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus movement introduced transparency into architecture. Five were produced, and all five were sold. And the world will never be the same.