On June 7th, 2010, a revitalized and transformed Rafael Nadal came back from what had been one of his worst seasons to become the most dominant force in professional tennis. On this day he was unstoppable, playing his unique blend of tennis best described as sheer entropy, non-stop kinetic magic as he blitzed past Robin Söderling in straight sets to win his fifth French Open and seventh Grand Slam, and be reinstated as the highest-ranked player in the world. As he raised his trophy above a jubilant crowd, on his right wrist was a marvel of engineering, a carbon-fiber-cased, aluminum-lithium tourbillon watch that had been his companion through every single stroke of every set throughout the tournament: the RM 027. This 20-gram masterwork of technological innovation was made by Richard Mille and it is proof positive that his watches can be worn in even the most brutal and punishing conditions. For Mille, without this extreme test and vindication, the exercise of making the world’s lightest mechanical watch would have been meaningless.
Richard Mille is quick to point out that each of his forays into extreme lightness has always been accompanied by a real performance objective linked to an elite athlete. His 48-gram RM 006 and his 28-gram RM 009 were both created to be worn by F1 driver Felipe Massa during races.
Mille explains, “The idea of pushing a watch to the very edge of lightness was only interesting as part of the comprehensive goal of making a timepiece worn by an elite athlete like Rafael Nadal. And ultimately, lightness was only one component to this. Shock-resistance and ergonomics were equally important. People ask me, ‘What use can Rafael Nadal have for a watch when he’s playing?’ But Nadal explained to me after he won the French Open that during the semi-final, which was a very challenging match, there were critical moments when he wanted to check the time. He wanted to know what the condition of the light would be, and also if he were to go on for a certain number of sets, whether they would have to come back the following day.”
What Mille achieved by equipping Nadal with a tourbillon wristwatch that he wore to victory in every single match of the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open, was totally unprecedented. While multitudes of watch brands sponsor athletes across an array of sports, until Nadal strapped on his Richard Mille, not one of them had ever worn a mechanical watch, much less a tourbillon, while in competition. That Nadal did, and the watch obviously had zero negative influence on his game but in fact was an asset to him, is proof positive of Mille’s assertion that his timepieces are ultimate performance instruments.
Mille explains, “I consider Rafael Nadal and Felipe Massa to be partners. And the critical difference is that I am not interested in having them wear my watches in ads or off-court, or away from the racetrack. I want them to test my watches in competition; I want them to use the watches to the very limits of pressure and even to abuse the watches to demonstrate their value as high-performance technical instruments.”
Winning Nadal over to the idea of wearing a watch during competition, says Mille, was no easy task. “I knew he would be really hard to convince. He is a total maniac when it comes to preparation and details. When he comes onto court, he has to arrange his drinks in a certain way; he has a certain routine and he cannot deviate from this in any way.” When he first broached the subject with Nadal, Mille recalls, “He immediately said, ‘No way. It is impossible. I cannot wear a watch when I play. It would destroy my balance, it would make me lose focus. It would be a disaster.’” Not one to shrink from a challenge, however, Mille says, “It became something of a mission for me to convince him to wear the watch when he was playing. This dictated four objectives for the watch I would create. The first was lightness, the second was shock-resistance, the third was comfort, and the fourth was no compromise mechanically, which meant for me I was not going to create a ‘dumbed down’ movement, it had to be a tourbillon for this watch.” An encounter between Nadal and the King of Spain, who rhapsodized over the comfort and lightness of his RM 009 tourbillon, prompted the tennis champion to reconsider the idea — at least, in principle. “Finally,” says Mille, “he agreed to try it out, with no promises that he would wear it during competition.” Thus, began the development of the RM 027.
(From Left) Richard Mille’s RM027 prototype – one of the first experiments with carbon injected polymer: Carbon nanotubes to be exact; the RM 027 features a monobloc carbon-nanofibre case, aluminium lithium bridges making it ultra lightweight and super strong; a close-up of the tourbillon of the RM 027.
To isolate the tourbillon device from shocks — in particular those during Nadal’s ferocious backhand — the ultra-light movement is connected to the case using skeletonized bridges designed like suspension arms of a racecar.
The lighter the movement, the less it would be influenced by shocks, and so Mille turned to aluminum-lithium, a material from aerospace that he had introduced to watchmaking several years ago with the RM 009. Says Mille, “I wanted to make a movement that was less than four grams — and we managed to create one that weighed 3.4 grams.” This is the ultra-high-tech chassis upon which the entire barrel, train and tourbillon is attached.
To make a super-light case, Mille utilized a material that he had introduced to the watch industry with his watch, the RM 006. He explains, “When I began, I wanted to use carbon fiber on the most critical part of the timepiece, the baseplate, which is the skeleton of the watch. The watch we made, the RM 006, was actually on the wrist of Felipe Massa when he suffered a horrible crash of over 30g’s, and it survived with not even a need for the slightest adjustment. Now, I decided to use carbon nanofiber for the case of Nadal’s watch. The objective was to have the case as light as possible but [still] rigid enough, because the force is so violent, it could twist the case. So instead of a normal three-piece case, I made it monobloc.”
To shave off the final few grams, Mille decided not to use a sapphire crystal, but a type of high-end Plexiglas you find in the windshields of racecars. He says, “What we did was adapt an extreme machine for a very extreme purpose.”
Mille traveled to Spain to present the first prototype to Nadal. His reaction was impressive. Mille recalls, “He was really shocked because when you have an object that is less than 20 grams in your hand, it is like holding nothing. What is funny is that after this, he started to train with the watch, and he came back with a list of requirements. He began telling us about small improvements and so on. Then I encouraged him to really brutalize the watch, to never hold back, because I wanted him to forget about it, to never compromise on his performance. At one point, the crown came off; at another point, the hands flew; and at another point, the crystal came off. But each time, it showed us where we had to strengthen the watch. To meet these demands, we had to slightly increase the weight but the final product is still 20 grams. If it didn’t have to be worn during real competition, we could have made it much lighter.”
Even then, there were still minor issues to overcome up until the last minute. Mille explains, “One of the last big issues ended up being the strap. A normal buckle was hurting Nadal, so finally we arrived at a type of Velcro strap. I had a few sleepless nights over this strap because I was worried that if it detached during the French Open, it might fall off, and it would be in front of all the cameras of the world. But to be a pioneer, you have to take risks.”
To answer the question as to whether the watch has been any hindrance to Nadal, Mille points out, “He wore the watch when he won the French Open, then he won Wimbledon wearing the watch, and he went to South Africa to watch Spain win the World Cup wearing the watch. And then he won the US Open with it on. So, he told me that now, it is his lucky watch.”
During the US commentary for the French Open, the irascible former tennis star and now-commentator John McEnroe went on something of a prolonged rant proclaiming that he couldn’t believe Nadal was wearing a “half-million-dollar watch” that smacked not too vaguely of jealousy. But to focus on the price of the RM 027 is to miss its point entirely. Says Mille, “Nadal is an incredibly humble guy and he doesn’t know how to reply to a commentator like John McEnroe when he asks something like how a watch can cost US$500,000. So, he replies that this watch is a technical exercise, and I think this is good because I don’t want him to oversell the watch. The fact that he wore it while playing was the best testament he could make.”
THE EVOLUTION OF AN ICON: RM 27-01, RM 27-02 and RM 27-03
Winning Nadal over to the idea of wearing a watch during competition, says Mille, was no Over the next seven years, Nadal and Mille would strike up a deep and enduring friendship, which would culminate in 2017 with Nadal once again re-achieving world number one status, winning the US Open and a record-setting 10th French Open, all while wearing his beloved RM 027 on his wrist. These seven years would also yield some of the most innovative Richard Mille wristwatches ever created, each time in pursuit of ever-higher performance. Here is an up-close look at these magnificent machines and the technical breakthroughs they represent.
A unibody baseplate in Carbon TPT®, grade 5 titanium bridges and strategic reinforcements at the heart of the calibre all contribute to the rigidity of the RM 27-03, enabling it to withstand impacts of 1000 Gs shock.