From The Streets To The Wrist

In 79 AD, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried Pompeii under innumerable tons of volcanic ash, instantly extinguishing the lives of the inhabitants, but also preserving the ancient city until it was rediscovered in 1748 by a Spanish engineer. On the walls of this ancient city, an archeologist discovered some of the earliest examples of graffiti, specifically a touchingly crude paean to the broken-hearted, which read, “Let all who love go to hell! I want to break Venus’s ribs with a club.”

Since time immemorial, man has felt the compulsion to elucidate his Freudian id, and pour the inner mechanics of his consciousness onto the public walls of those edifices to civilization known as cities. And whether the motivation was political such as the graffiti that emerged after the May ’68 student protests in Paris or the signifier of a broader cultural evolution such as the graffiti by Futura 2000 that accompanied the emergence of the hip-hop scene in New York in the early ’80s, graffiti has always been one of the most visceral methods of artistic communication.

Revered artists such as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat were prolific graffiti artists. The French 123Klan have parlayed their street cred into a wickedly successful design firm that has collaborated with the likes of Nike and Lamborghini. At various times, IBM, Sony, Coca-Cola and even the Nasdaq have sought out graffiti artists as a way to connect with the youth audience. But it is, in particular, France that has embraced and elevated the art of graffiti to the realm of high art. In 2015, Harlem-born graffiti artist JonOne (née John Perello) was commissioned to paint a graffiti version of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité that was hung in the Palais Bourbon, the seat of the French National Assembly.

Conspicuously on the wrist of this iconoclastic artist was none other than a black titanium Richard Mille RM 005. When asked about it, he replied, “It’s the only watch I’ve ever wanted, and it was a dream come true when I got it.”

His choice of timepiece is fitting enough because there is no greater iconoclast in Swiss high watchmaking than Frenchman Mille. In the first year of the new millennium, he launched a new vision for horology that shattered and inverted the old mythology. His watches looked nothing like anything from the past. Instead, they looked transported from alien distant shores. They were not so much timepieces as they were high-luxury lightning rods for all things technical, fast and badass. It is no wonder his watches soon found themselves on wrists of the likes of Pharrell Williams, Jay-Z and Swizz Beats. Mille eschewed traditional luxury materials, turning instead to lightweight performance materials such as titanium, carbon fiber and even ALUSIC, a metal designated for use in space satellites. Capitalizing on his expertise in material innovation, he created the world’s lightest mechanical watch, which he then put on the wrist of the world’s most brutally powerful tennis player, Rafael Nadal, who then went on to win countless tournaments while wearing it.

So it is appropriate enough that just as he redefined the boundaries of sporting performance for a haut-de-gamme tourbillon wristwatch, this year, Richard Mille becomes the first to integrate the universe of street art into that of the artisanally-made high complication. The RM 68-01 is Mille’s collaboration with graffiti artist Cyril Kongo. If Kongo’s name sounds familiar, that’s because in 2011, he created a series of wildly successful graffiti-themed scarves in partnership with the venerable Maison Hermès.

As a child, Kongo (née Cyril Phan) arrived in France with his grandparents after emigrating from Vietnam. A shy and reticent boy, for him, graffiti was like having an alter ego, the Spiderman to his Peter Parker. He would roam the cities at night vibing on the energy, spontaneity and liberation that graffiti endowed him with. Artistically, Kongo was inspired by the likes of Basquiat, Dubuffet and Monet, and one look at the bold plasticity of his tag-based painting combined with his grab-you-by-the-ears vibrant color palette, and you can understand why it wasn’t long before Kongo became a cause célèbre in Paris and was soon sought out by none other than Hermès’ artistic director Pierre-Alexis Dumas. Kongo wasn’t sure if his street-based work would be relatable to the erudite Dumas, but their interaction proved extremely positive. Kongo recalls, “He said he loved it. It gave me oxygen and strength.” Along the way, Kongo set up Kosmopolite, a collective he shares with other street artists and that also helps to educate burgeoning talent in Bagnolet, a suburb east of Paris.

Through a chance encounter, Richard Mille and Kongo met, and were immediately charmed by one another. Says Mille, “Soon, we began to discuss whether it was possible to use a watch movement as the canvas for his painting.” Says Timothée Malachard, Richard Mille’s head of marketing, “Before he answered this, Kongo first came to our manufacture and spent a vast amount of time looking at how our watches are created. He was particularly interested in how the movements are assembled. He was searching for expressive opportunities within the inner mechanics of our watches.”

Finally, Kongo realized that he would have to develop all-new technology to be able to integrate his work within the dimensions of a watch. He explains, “It took the development of special tools and a year of experimentation for me to be capable of painting on a watch some five centimeters square. Certain pieces were barely a few millimeters long, some even smaller, and I had to put the lettering directly on them, enough for the visual effect but without using much paint so as to avoid throwing off the balance of the movement. It’s as though, starting from a complete automobile, I had to paint the chassis, the engine, each piston, etc.”

Says Mille, “Once Kongo was able to achieve his micro-painting, I decided that the movement should reflect the energy of his street art. That’s why the bridges of the movement arc in different directions like the wild paint strokes seen in graffiti. That’s why, from the back, the central form of the baseplate radiates outwards like paint thrown against a wall. To me, the movement had to bring additional energy to Kongo’s painting. There had to be this artistic synergy between the painting and the mechanics. What is remarkable is that because he hand-paints each of the 30 watches, every one of them is a unique work of art.” Kongo adds to this, “Graffiti is a language with its own codes, a form of writing, whether this be on a gigantic wall, on a canvas or a watch movement. I am not a painter bound by a single space.” Such was Kongo’s enthusiasm for the project that he soon found himself wanting to paint the gear wheels of the tourbillon movement. Mille laughs, “There we had to make quite a lot of trials to ensure that the paint on the wheels would not affect the performance of the watch. Fortunately, in the past, we’ve made some watches with precious-stone gear wheels and have some experience in the creation of unconventional wheels.”

The Richard Mille RM 68-01 features a case with a NTPT carbon caseband, a TZP ceramic bezel and caseback retained by splined Grade-5-titanium screws while the stylistically skeletonized movement is crafted from Grade 5 titanium. The watches feature a tourbillon with a variable-inertia balance wheel, and has a power reserve of 42 hours. It will be made in a series of 30 unique watches.

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