There was a surge of new energy in the watchmaking sphere when Richard Mille introduced the RM 001 in 2001. It was something new in both design and form; the curvature of the case, the three-dimensional form for the movement and the emphasis on technique. Richard wanted to create a “total” watch: No gimmicks.
It’s not that he was about to neglect traditional finishing techniques and processes that are known and (rightly) lauded in the Swiss valleys. Rather he wanted to use these in conjunction with others learned from the automotive world — particularly Formula 1 — to produce a watch unlike any other.
While the RM 001 had already shown what was possible: The transition from brass to titanium baseplate and a titanium case; Richard decided to discontinue the watch at number 17 and issue the RM 002 as the base model in 2002.
The brand was less than a year old at this time and Richard was already setting out his production philosophy: Limited runs of innovative and experimental watches. One of major leaps with the new watch was the integration of a clutch mechanism and selector into the winding stem of the watch. Much like a gear selector on a car. And with its inclusion, the RM 002 moved a little closer to the race car ideal that Richard was searching for. But, of course, it being his second watch, there were many lessons to learn as well.
Stress on any engine occurs the second you engage it! With a car engine, once the gears are engaged the engine’s power feeds through the crankshaft, through the gearbox and to the wheels.
For a watch, the point of stress lies in the winding stem. There is a considerable force — in terms of the size of components — exerted on the watch movement, when someone pulls the winding stem out to adjust the time.
Likewise, winding the watch exerts a force, and stress, on the mainspring during winding. Both forms of stress on the movement were limited back when pocket watches had different keys to adjust time and wind the movement. If you want a modern-day counterpart, look at one of George Daniel’s pocket watches.
To get around the problem, the RM 002 had a clutch and a function selector (the button located in the middle of the crown) that could switch the necessary gear to either wind the watch, set the time or remain in neutral. In neutral (N), the movement is disconnected from the crown. With the selector set to W the watch can be wound; when set to H (hand set) the watch can be set. Coupled with the selector mechanism was a modular approach to the time-setting mechanism itself. Richard had this designed outside of the main movement to allow both ease of maintenance (it only requires the back of the watch to be removed and not the minute and hour hands) and also to minimize stress on the movement at the crown.
Notably, another watch appeared at the same time with the same basic functions as the RM 002: the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Concept Watch (CW1). With the RM 002 and the CW1 movements both being produced by the same manufacturer: Audemars Piguet Renaud et Papi, understandably, questions were asked as to who was first.
Richard, as always, was completely open about the process; he never shied away from disclosing exactly who had done what. It was a joint effort and rather than, at the time, set up a manufacture that was in house for Richard Mille, Richard changed the game and made the movement manufacturer explicit.
But what sets out the RM 002, both now and then, is the use of new and traditional finishing coupled with the innovative design. Take the back plate to the watch, the engine like spoked back plate. Designed as it is, it is rightly evocative of an engine plate. Yet the finishing is purely traditional. Frosted plates and black polishing have been part of watch decoration for centuries, but Richard used it and turned it into something different. For all intents, in terms of design, an engine plate. Seems obvious now, but at the time, nothing looked like it or was finished like it.
What offset the use of traditional techniques was the use of brushed metal surfaces and then the black PVD plates. After the switch to the titanium black PVD plates with the RM 001, the RM 002 had the same as a standard. PVD titanium baseplates brought with it a set of problems unseen in watchmaking before. Even the smallest of mistakes by the watchmaker in constructing the movement would be visible on the open worked movement plate. The slightest slip of the screwdriver, a dropped screw, a crack in the finish from overtightening the adjoining plate — the list goes on. Any fault, however small, would see the baseplate scrapped and all work would have to begin again. Understandably, the search was on for a new material. Not just for the Formula 1 ethos and aesthetic, but for more practical matters in watchmaking related to finish and execution.
The change to the carbon nanofiber baseplate, after the material was introduced in the RM 006, helped in terms of the robustness of the baseplate. But it added some new challenges of its own. First, the surface of the carbon nanofiber was scratch resistant. In fact, it was scratch resistant to the extent that available cutting tools were getting worn down in cutting the complex pattern on the baseplate for the RM 002.
And second, another problem. The carbon nanofiber acts like sand if you are trying to screw a bridge or plate to the material. In other words, you can machine a hole and even cut a track for the screw, but there is no ability of one surface to bind to the other.
Over time, the screw will become loose. Yet another new solution was necessary. The use of inserts that are glued (same adhesive used to construct the Airbus A380, I might add) into the carbon nanofiber. The bridges and plates can then be adhered to the surface. In the same way that Formula 1 team had to think innovatively on how to incorporate carbon into certain structural areas of the Formula 1 car, so Richard was required to do with his watches. And that process was most apparent through his longest running racing machine on the wrist: The RM 002.
At the same time Richard had also launched his GMT version of the same watch: The RM 003. Similar in design and layout with the addition of a second time zone disk. The disk was simply operated (forward) by a pusher on the left side of the case. The readout was simple and straightforward. Just as Richard wanted it. No gimmicks!
A Future Classic Racing Machine
The RM 002 and 003 are undoubtable future classics. Like so many search for variants of classic Patek Philippe or Vacheron Constantin watches — written about and feverishly sought by collectors — the RM 002 variants are unknown in variation and number. Coupled with some special requests from individual clients, the use of different type faces for the numerals, the use of different case materials and finishes (some are brushed, others are bead blasted, others are Titalyt® treated), and like the Revolution authorized pre-owned, the variants are all undertaken under Richard Mille’s sanction and control.
In some senses, the RM 002 has been Richard’s testing ground. Like any racing machine, there are street legal versions. This is Richard Mille’s “street legal” racing machine on the wrist! What happens if the “bleeding edge” new material is introduced into the normal range of watches? How adaptable and useful is it? The RM 002 has been the vehicle (and I guess, the pun is intended) through which Richard has examined the applicability of new materials and designs for production watches (such as they are at this end of the horological spectrum).
The RM 002 is the horological bridge from the future to the past. The watch contains elements of each. The traditional haute horlogerie, polished and brushed plates and bridges, the carbon nanofiber borrowed from the Space Shuttle braking system, with glued inserts for the screws. What mattered to Richard was not the material per se, but the techniques. How to render the material into watchmaking in a necessary and logical manner. And in that he is so very far ahead of the field.
The watch, when first released, was seen as more generous sized watch. Now, with the four-screw case, the initial proportions are considered normal; almost “dress watch”. Indeed, given the curvature of the case, the dimensions of the watch, and the styling of the watch, it is perhaps the perfect “dress down” (jeans, t-shirt, and sneakers) and “dress up” (dinner suit, bow tie, and patent leather shoes) watch. Particularly if you can find one in the red gold. It’s a watch for every moment of life! It will look as good on the wrist today, as it did back in the early 2000s. And it will continue to look good, far into the future.