If Richard Mille had set out his early innovative and avant-garde philosophy on watchmaking with the RM001 and the RM002, it was with the RM006 that he fleshed out his vision of watchmaking codified in the language of high performance auto racing. Not a gram of precious metal was used; instead, Mille relied on cutting-edge technology and new materials to realise a minimalist movement, titanium case, and a carbon nanofibre baseplate. It was Formula 1 philosophy and technology as haute horlogerie.

Richard Mille — The Father of Modern Watchmaking
Richard Mille

Haute Horlogerie 2.0

By 2004 when the RM006 was launched, carbon fibre had already been used in the construction of Formula 1 cars. With this material, engineers could achieve extreme lightness and structural strength at the same time, increasing speed while reducing fuel consumption. The modern day Formula 1 car is a racing car in its purest form — its sculptured form and performance are for one purpose only, to race – and it is a purity of form and function that has been elevated to the realm of art, as seen by the Chicago Institute of Art exhibiting a Ferrari F1 car.

Ferrari F1 Car
Ferrari F1

Mille was convinced that such lightness and structural integrity would bring a new form of haute horologerie to watches; where the value of the watch was not dependent on the precious metals or jewellery contained in the watch, but dependent on the intrinsic work on the materials and in manufacturing the watch. His first foray into this interpretation of haute horologerie, was the RM006. Not only would Richard’s limited edition tourbillon (there were only 25 made) be made of anything but precious metal, the watch would be genuinely tested in the most telling conditions. The watch was to be worn by a young Brazilian Formula 1 driver just starting to make his name in the sport, Felipe Massa. In a new approach on brand ambassadors for watches, the requirement was that the watch would be worn by Massa while in competition.

Felipe Massa wore the RM 006 in the 2004 Hungarian Grand Prix
Felipe Massa wore the RM 006 in the 2004 Hungarian Grand Prix

The idea was to see how the watch performed and responded while being subjected to G-forces from the car at race speed and the impact from surfaces within the car cockpit. Felipe Massa challenged Mille to produce a watch so light that he would not feel it on his wrist when driving. Driving on the limit in Formula 1, Massa can feel every imbalance in the car: including the watch on his wrist. That’s why he asked Mille for a watch that would not be noticed, that wearing it, his left and right hands would feel exactly the same on the wheel.

Felipe Massa, Williams F1, arrives on the grid at the Mexican Grand Prix 2015 (Photography: Glenn Dunbar/Williams)
Felipe Massa, Williams F1, arrives on the grid at the Mexican Grand Prix 2015 (Photography: Glenn Dunbar/Williams)

Theory Crash Validated

That the watch, and driver for that matter, performed beyond expectations is testament to Mille’s confidence in both. Not only did the watch perform, it survived (fortunately along with the driver) a horrific crash (at the practice for the Canadian Grand Prix) and endured G-forces beyond the usual test conditions, and beyond what was thought to be the tolerances of a mechanical watch. In short, Mille had created a watch that was a number of firsts: the first watch that was not only assigned to a racecar driver, but was also worn in race conditions. A watch constructed using metals and materials at the very edge of science, and that had particular relevance for the engineering and construction of Formula 1 cars.

The watch was made in a very limited edition of 25 pieces and the price was simply the cost of bringing the watch to market: the research and development, the cost of manufacture, and a return on the capital. Mille then used the same marketing techniques from most high-end automobile manufacturers and offered the watch (first) to existing owners of Richard Mille watches. Mille had created the first sports watch of its kind: a watch that was made of the same materials, using similar techniques, to be worn in the heat of competition and survive the conditions. It was the model for extreme-performance sports or and tourbillon watches that he would produce in the coming years.

Torching Convention

At the time of its launch, and indeed to this very day, the RM006 was a sensation. How could such a watch (made out of non-precious materials) be priced so high? What was missed at the time, and perhaps is missed now (not just with the RM006, but with all the Richard Mille high end tourbillon watches) is the cutting edge aspect to the watch that has perhaps been diluted over time by other watch manufacturers using the same materials in various aspects of the watch. What is generally overlooked with Richard Mille watches is that being first requires not only the thought and realisation of the idea, but a substantial investment. For a small firm such as Richard Mille S.A. (especially in the early days of the 2000s), this was especially so. The degree of investment was so severe, in fact, that had the project not realised a watch, the financial commitment would have potentially finished the fledgling enterprise.

Using a metal that had been around for over 200 years, named after the Titans of Greek mythology, Mille chose a grade of titanium that allowed some malleability in the case shape. However, where the watch gained much recognition (and now legendary status) was in using a material well known to the automotive and space technology world, but in a new process form: carbon. Mille’s carbon baseplate would shape a number of developments in the haute horlogerie world for the decade to come, with carbon becoming a byword for almost anything advanced in watchmaking.

Carbon Nanofibre Movement Plate
Carbon Nanofibre Movement Plate

The RM006 was the first time that a watch was fitted with a carbon nanofibre baseplate. While the use of carbon might have become more commonplace since, Richard Mille remains the only manufacture with a carbon fibre baseplate. The technology required for manufacturing a carbon nanofibre baseplate to the required standard belongs to the same firm that manufactures them for the braking gear on the space shuttle.

The metal from the gods: titanium

While a number of watch manufacturers now use titanium in some form, in watch cases, or movement parts, Mille was the first to actually give the grade of titanium any form of consideration, and used it as a baseplate in the latter RM001’s and early RM002’s.

Richard Mille is a pioneer in using high tech materials like titanium
Richard Mille is a pioneer in using high tech materials like titanium

The two most useful properties of titanium are its corrosion resistance and having the highest strength-to-weight ratio of any metal. In its unalloyed condition, titanium is as strong as some steels, but 45 percent lighter. However, titanium in its elemental form is not suitable for industrial use as it is brittle. To be usable, titanium needs to be alloyed to improve on other characteristics such as rigidity.

There are, in fact, 38 grades of titanium at the current time. Grading is down to the type of titanium alloy created and the intended end use for that alloy. Hence, there is no overarching grading system where a scale determines whether the titanium is less or more rigid or malleable or strong. Each time a new titanium metal needs to be created, it creates a new grade.

Titanium grade 9 tends to be the commercially used variant, along with grade 38. While both have similar mixes of aluminium and vanadium in the alloy, grade 38 has iron which improves the cold working of the metal (machine cutting for example). Some grades of titanium are now redundant as they have been superseded by others. Mille selected grade 5N, not only for the case, but also for other elements within the watch and movement, such as the screws and the bridges.

Spline screws in grade 5 titanium are used for the case and movement bridges
Spline screws in grade 5 titanium are used for the case and movement bridges

Grade 5N titanium is significantly stronger than commercially pure titanium while retaining the same stiffness and thermal properties. Among its many advantages, grade 5N is heat treatable and presents an excellent combination of strength, corrosion resistance, weld and the ability for CNC machines to cut the metal into complex shapes. Because of these properties, it was used extensively in aerospace and car frames, engine components, but also in the marine, offshore, and power generation industries (because of the strength of the material) until Mille came along and started using it for watch cases (that required three separate, but precisely machined parts).

Miracle Material: Carbon

Given Mille’s objectives, carbon fibre was a natural choice to incorporate into a performance watch. He admired the material’s isomorphic properties: carbon is resistant to heat, cold and does not warp. As such, it was ideal – if the process could be found to manufacture a carbon baseplate to the necessary standard.

The process of creating carbon nanofibre was a known one: it involved taking carbon strands and compressing the carbon at temperature into a solid form. The material had been used in transport for some time (not only cars, but airplanes and trains). Carbon nanofibre had been in use previously for brake pads for the space shuttle (among other applications) and a young aeronautical engineer, who subsequently trained as a watchmaker, Frederic Garinaud, found the company that could manufacture the carbon nanofibre baseplates. Even today, ten years on, there is only one firm (located in California, USA) that produces the carbon nanofibre to the required standard. Garinaud’s knowledge of esoteric space age materials (not just on the RM006, but later for the RM021) helped Mille realise the watch from computer-projected images into an actual working entity.

Carbon Nanofiber baseplate of the RM 006
Carbon Nanofiber baseplate of the RM 006

Even from the time when Richard Mille, Dominique Guernat and Fabrice Deschanel were developing the first RM001, Mille wanted to use carbon as a baseplate material and perhaps in other components within the watch. The first problem that Mille, Deschanel, and Giulio Papi had to solve was the issue of dust! Drilling and machining a non-metallic hardened material has unknown effects when used in a new environment such as watchmaking. If the carbon nanofibre produces dust when helping the space shuttle slow down as part of its brake system, it is not a problem. But dust on the inside of a watch case has disastrous effects. The chief concern was would the resulting compressed carbon, when machined to the required state, still be liable to produce dust in the same way as say, concrete? Carbon fibre, as its name suggests, is a fibrous material in its raw state, and fibrous materials such as asbestos cloth produce dust (in the case of asbestos, toxic). The second problem that had to be overcome was duration: what were the long-term properties of the material?

For the first problem, it turned out after extensive trials that dust was not an issue. Indeed, the compressed carbon fibre was so dense and resistant that the CNC machine tools for drilling and machining the ‘blank’ of carbon nanofibre into the required shape were not up to the task. A 1998 report on NASA applications of molecular nanotechnology noted that carbon nanofibre was one of the “… lightweight materials … that are 100 times stronger than steel.” Hence, when it came to drilling and machining, the usual drilling and machining bits were not robust enough and became worn down even before the task was complete. The problem was not dust; it was extreme structural strength and rigidity, the very properties that Mille wanted for his watch.

Which left the second issue: the durability of the material over a long period of time. What if, a decade down the road, the material deteriorated and was no longer holding the movement inside the watch? While the longevity of brass (which is the usual material for watch baseplates) was well known, no one knew how carbon nanofibre would last over time. What would the material be like in a hundred or two hundred years’ time? It was the need to ensure that the material would not deteriorate over time that ultimately led to the choice of manufacturer for the carbon nanofibre. The requirements for, and the forces acting upon, space shuttle brakes are formidable: extreme temperature variations and frictional force. But carbon nanofibre brake pads only need to last a relatively short period of time before being worn down, whereas a watch baseplate needs to last and remain stable for a protracted period of years. Giulio Papi told me that they solved the problem using a firm in the US that could simulate the passage of time and decay using ultrasound.

Giulio Papi
Giulio Papi

The ultrasound had the effect of turning months into seconds, years into a minute. Ultrasound is generally used in industrial processes to find flaws in materials as it heats and stresses at the points of weakness. If the nanofibre carbon was not structurally whole, then the ultrasound would soon find that out. In the tests, the ultrasound waves turned all but one of the various carbon nanofibre plates from various manufacturing firms into a black puddle. Only one supplier could manufacture carbon nanofibre to the required standard then; and that same manufacturer continues to supply Richard Mille S.A. to this day.

Movement Design

To minimise weight further, the construction of the tourbillon movement was redesigned. Gone was the reliance on plates that would hold the drive train of the movement. Instead, the movement was constructed onto the carbon nanofibre baseplate using various ‘struts’ that held the winding barrel, the drive train, and the tourbillon escapement. The parts of the movement that held it to the baseplate were screwed into special sleeves that had been glued into the carbon nanofibre baseplate. Gluing became a necessity because of the way carbon acts with the metal. Despite the hardness of the carbon nanofibre, when screws were applied to the material, it acted as sand: the screws could not hold in the baseplate. Glue was therefore applied to sleeves and fitted into the baseplate. The screws could be attached to the sleeves within the carbon nanofibre. Once again, technology was borrowed from the space shuttle. The same glue that held the heat resistant tiles to the space shuttle also holds the metal sleeves to the RM006 baseplate. The same glue is also used within the construction of modern Formula 1 cars. The watch weighed in at just 42 grams.

RM 006 Carbon Nanofibre baseplate
RM 006 Carbon Nanofibre baseplate

A future classic

The RM006 has become something of a rarity and might yet prove to be the rarest of the Richard Mille tourbillions on the secondhand market. What is now accepted as (almost) common materials in the higher end watches from other manufacturers was then, when the RM006 debuted, a rarity. Not one of the 25 RM006’s have come up for sale on the auction market and they are rarely seen on the wrist of a collector. There is something very original about the idea, and the concept and execution of the idea, in a watch designed for sports ambassadors. While the RM006 would be developed further into the RM009, the concept was put into form with the earlier watch. As with any experimental race car, where new technology or materials were introduced, the future tends to see them as the avant-garde. In that vein, the RM006 is without doubt a future classic.

Richard Mille RM 006 (Image Source: Antiquorum)
Richard Mille RM 006 (Image Source: Antiquorum)