Giulio Papi is a legend in the watch world. With Dominique Renaud, he founded one of horology’s greatest laboratories for outside-the-box, larger-than-life thinking — the incomparable dreamland for high complications, named Audemars Piguet Renaud & Papi.

In the ’90s, he began working with the then head of high-jewelry company Mauboussin, a man named Richard Mille. Together, they created innovative works of high-complication magic, such as tourbillon watches with baseplates crafted from semi-precious stones, like aventurine, for clients such as the Sultan of Brunei.

Shortly after departing from Mauboussin, Mille returned to Papi with a vision for watchmaking that he recalls being “the single most provocative concept for new-world watchmaking I’d ever heard.

Richard wanted to create a rupture from the past and everything that was baroque or backward thinking. He wanted to create watches that were lightning rods for all the cutting-edge, high-performance universes of auto racing and aerospace. In other words, he wanted to connect high-end watchmaking with the future.”

Over the 15-year history, Papi and his company have focused on realizing Mille’s vision, from the world’s first watches with carbon-fiber baseplates and titanium cases capable of withstanding F1 driver Felipe Massa’s near-ballistic crash on the track to the world’s lightest mechanical timepiece worn by Rafael Nadal to countless Grand Slam victories.

On the occasion of Richard Mille’s 15th anniversary, Papi reflects on the decade-and-a-half collaboration between these two extraordinary men, culminating in some of the world’s most groundbreaking timepieces.

Giulio Papi

How did your collaboration with Richard Mille begin?

It all started in 1996, so 20 years ago. He said to us (Renaud & Papi), ‘I would like to make a very high-end watch. But today high end is equated with a baroque style, with engraving and Côtes de Genève, or enamel and materials like gold or platinum. And that’s wonderful, but I am sure we can make a watch without any of these codes.’

It was funny because we had been thinking of the same objective to create a new language of watchmaking for our time. So when he came to us, it was a wonderful moment. We had previously proposed this idea to Georges-Henri Meylan (former Audemars Piguet CEO) but he wasn’t so convinced. He told us it was a bit too exotic.

So when Richard expressed the desire to make a very contemporary watch that broke all the traditional codes related to high-end watches, it was liberation for us. We said, ‘Oh wow, Richard, this is amazing.’

We showed him some designs and sketches, and he loved it. We agreed we wanted to use light materials because it would create a more-comfortable watch. It was Richard who pointed out that in auto racing everyone was focused on lightweight and that we should introduce this concept to high-end watches.

What did you think of his idea to break from the past?

It was really exciting because we were convinced that we were creating a rupture in the story of watchmaking. Where before watchmaking had taken all its references from the past, we were trying to reflect and channel all the design codes of the present and the future.

You know, today, 20 years later, you can see that there are many brands that are modernist, that express a certain design that is related to auto racing or aviation, but at the time Richard was the very first!

You must understand that what he was doing was very daring! If you look at his very first watch, the RM 001, I think this will be a timepiece that will be in horological museums one day, as representing the moment when everything changed and the future was born.

Richard Milles were one of the first watches to show the movement with transparent dials. How did this come about?

The idea of being able to see the movement came from Richard’s fascination with car engines. He gave me pictures of Mecachrome engines and instantly I understood what he wanted and I adjusted the design of the movement to reflect this.

Did you ever doubt that Richard would become a huge success?

Of course we were nervous because of the daringness of the concept and from how much Richard wanted to push the research and development related to his first watch. We knew because he was not producing many of them (17 RM 001 watches were created), the watches were going to be expensive.

The price of the RM 001 was considerably higher than the tourbillons from the most-established brands at the time, was this an intentional provocation?

No. You have to understand that a Richard Mille is expensive not as a conscious choice but because it is so extreme in terms of how it has changed the language of watchmaking. You have engineers, you have prototypists, that have to be paid. We were making things that were totally new and amortized in tiny quantities. The point was we were not constrained by any price limits. We pushed the technology as far as we could possibly go and then we looked at the price we reached.

What are, to you, some of the most historically significant Richard Mille watches?

After the RM 001, I would say the RM 006 was a very significant watch because it was the first with a carbon-fiber baseplate. The idea was to have a baseplate that was dark colored but not as a result of a surface treatment.

We thought of carbon fiber because of how much it has revolutionized the aviation and automotive worlds. It is strong, rigid, lightweight and highly resistant to contraction and expansion when exposed to temperature variations.

So the material was sourced from aviation technology, specifically the brakes for an airplane. And just to tell you the price, when we received each piece, the price was USD2,000. And we have to use a special tool with a diamond bit to cut the carbon fiber because it’s hard. So I have to change all the tools every time I cut one mainplate. One tool costs me CHF500. And we can use up to 100 tools depending on what we are cutting.

What other watch do you feel is important to watchmaking history?

I would say the next watch that was very important was the RM 009, which was an exercise to convince the market that high end doesn’t mean heavy. This watch used an Alusic case made from a material that was a combination of aluminum and silicon bonded at a molecular level in a centrifuge, and a movement made from aluminum lithium.

In many ways, it was the predecessor to the Nadal watch, which is the world’s lightest mechanical watch. It was interesting to see people put the RM 009 on. It weighed only 30g and you could see their brains struggle with the concept, because in their minds, heavy meant luxury and here was a watch that totally inverted this.

It was an expensive watch, not because it had diamonds or gold but because of the technology that went into achieving its incredible lightweight. It’s expensive for us to make this kind of watch because we are really explorers in the jungle cutting through the vines and undergrowth, trying to discover a new path.

Give us an example of blazing a new path…

The aluminum lithium used in the movement is an example of this. Because one of them is a metal and another is in liquid form so they normally are unable to bond because the temperature for them to fuse is not the same. They have to be mixed together in powder form and placed in a centrifuge to bond. It is made in a specialized laboratory and we have to purchase it from them. The addition of lithium to aluminum creates a material with the properties of steel but at much less weight. Even lighter than titanium.

Whose idea was this?

It’s Richard who is always pushing us to integrate these new performance materials. He is in contact with many specialists related to materials.

The surface of the RM 009 had an almost-brutalist finish, which is in total opposition to traditional luxury. Was this intentional?

This was Richard’s idea — he said that in auto racing, high-performance parts are often sand casted, and when they are finished, they have this kind of rough texture.

So what did you think when Richard decided to make a watch Rafael Nadal would wear during competition?

Richard came to us and said, ‘So we have to make this watch. It has to weigh around 13g, it has to have a tourbillon and it cannot break even when Rafael Nadal is wearing it in competition.’

I said, ‘Oh wow, now that is a challenge. It’s a good challenge because it pushes to the very limit.’ The lightness of the watch was created, first of all, because it would be more comfortable for Nadal to wear, and also because we made some calculations related to the shock resistance of the watch and determined if it was the lighter, it was less affected by shock.

We spent a lot of time with the engineer to understand how much more shock resistant the watch would be at varying levels of lightness.

Why so?

How it works is that because the whole mechanism has less inertia, it is affected less when it receives a shock. Further, the movement was designed in such a way that all the energy from a shock can move through the watch.

Really? How does that work?

The bridges of the movement are designed so as to direct the energy into the strap.

Tell me about the super-cool way the movement is suspended by a cable in the second Nadal Tourbillon, the RM 27-01…

Each new version of the Nadal watch uses a new solution to dissipate shock.

The 27-01 featured the movement suspended using a cable. The idea for this came about in 2011 when I broke a cruciate ligament in my leg playing football.

This ligament is essentially two cables. And I got the idea to use cables to suspend the movement inside the case.

An engineer here looked for a supplier to make a very tiny wire. But actually the challenging part was finding a way to fix the wires together under tension.

So we came up with a system with a screw, and when you turn it, it creates tension on the wire.

What is the anti-shock system used in the latest version of the Nadal Tourbillon, the awesome 27-02?

In the 27-02, the bridges of the movement are in carbon fiber and created as a monobloc structure together with the caseband.

There are two additional bridges, one for the barrel and one for the tourbillon, in Grade 5 titanium. The case is also in carbon fiber, and as a result, the watch is also extremely light.

What did you think when Richard expressed the desire to create a totally transparent watch, the RM 56?

When Richard proposed the idea to have a completely transparent watch in sapphire crystal, I thought it was possible but it would be very, very expensive to create. It is very costly to machine sapphire crystal into shapes.

You can machine anything round relatively easily. Even domed shapes are relatively easy to achieve. But if you need to make a tonneau with an extreme radius, it takes a huge amount of time. We can only machine five cases per year.

I own a RM 21, please explain to me a bit about the baseplate for this watch…

The eight-sided honeycomb material used as the baseplate for the RM 21 and 22 comes from aerospace. It was used for the fuselage of the airplane. What’s used in the watch is exactly the same material crafted in the same way for an aerospace application, just in miniature. So it is not stamped or cut out using electro erosion, but real metal that has been bent and soldered. The bridge of the tourbillon in this watch is inspired by a jet turbine.

I’m always impressed by the level of finishing in a Richard Mille watch…

Even though the watches are very modern, the finishing in every Richard Mille is to the most-elevated standard; it is the pleasure of creating something incredibly artisanal.

The baseplate of the RM 022

Is the idea behind the Tourbillon Fleur to create a women-specific complication?

This is a really poetic watch as the flower opens and closes every five minutes, but you can also activate it on command. The idea was to create a watch that a man could offer to his wife with the statement: “You are the flower of my life.” Because in the world of Richard Mille, behind every watch, there is always a man. It is meant to be a gift to the woman in his life.

What are the flower petals made of?

The petals of the flower are in gold, engraved, and then painted with grand feu enamel.

Tell me about the inspiration for the RM 69, the Erotic Tourbillon…

The idea was actually not for an erotic watch originally. In Italy, there is a small book for children that is full of answers. So what you do is you ask a question and you randomly stop in the middle of the book and you will receive an answer like “don’t do that”, or “you can do it”. So I proposed to Richard a watch that would answer any question you had.

You asked the question, pressed a button and an answer would be randomly displayed. So we started the study. And then we commissioned the components.

But when we received the parts, we saw that there were sexy words on them. When I asked Richard, he laughed and said, ‘It’s been a long time that I wanted to create an erotic watch. But in all the erotic watches on the market, they feature a man and a woman on the dial or the back, and they move to emulate sex.’

But Richard felt this was not so refined. He felt the RM 69 was a great way to propose an erotic watch that uses only words. If the watch hands cover the sentence, there is a button you can press that moves the hands.

Where did the idea for a watch with a movement painted with graffiti come from?

The idea for a graffiti watch came from Richard. He met Kongo and he thought it could be really cool to mix street art with the world of haute de gamme.

So we had to adapt the tools for Kongo to create a microscopic airbrush, so he could paint on the movement and even the gear wheels.

What is the most remarkable quality of Richard Mille’s watches?

The most incredible thing to me about Richard’s watches is that they are worn by the most elite athletes during competition, such as Rafael Nadal and Bubba Watson, and even recently at the Rio Olympics by Wayde van Niekerk, and, of course, Yohan Blake.

This is the biggest challenge to watchmakers. Every watch is calculated by physicians and engineers to ensure the watches perform in even the most challenging circumstances.

This is very different from the watches that emulate Richard Milles but are just an aesthetic exercise. This is Richard’s genius: the creation of true performance machines for the wrist.

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