At 28 grams, it’s so light that your mind plays tricks on you. Close your eyes and you’ll be hard-pressed to feel it there. You’ll begin to think it was a figment of your imagination, a creation so spectacularly wild, so viscerally stunning, that it must have stepped out of your most uninhibited dreams. Open your eyes and you’ll see Richard Mille’s RM 009 — the world’s lightest mechanical watch — there on your wrist, ticking away inside its special aluminum-silicium skin that was born inside a centrifuge specializing in components for deep space exploration. Look at the organic muscularity and rough-hewn beauty of this case and it will defy any perception of luxury you’ve ever had. It will subvert and crush conventions of opulence because the extensive labor and wildly irresponsible expense involved in manufacturing this rock-hard case makes it the costliest single element ever created in high watchmaking.
Suddenly the robotic eroticism of the movement catches your eye. You’re sucked inside the architecture of the skeleton plate; a futuristic framework crafted from the seemingly impossible merger of metal and lithium. Your perceptions of luxury are forever shattered. Your mind relents as you willingly, no, happily discard any association with old-world, heavyweight case materials like gold, platinum or tantalum. Now you can see the future of luxury unfolding: a world of speed and vision where performance reigns supreme. “Richard Mille”: the name lights up the sky like a supernova and you realize you are witnessing the dawn of the new world of luxury, a world where lightness is everything, a world where a tourbillon watch is worn by an F1 driver piloting his Ferrari at nosebleed g-forces, a world where luxury endures, where a case that can be flung against the wall without scratching, or a tourbillon escapement can survive repeated falls to the ground because of a bridge crafted like the suspension triangle in a racecar! Welcome to the world of the RM 009.
The Search for New Case Materials
Why create the world’s lightest mechanical wristwatch? “Because in the worlds of auto-racing or professional sport, light weight is equivalent to high performance,” says Richard Mille. Mille’s point is that in any race vehicle, be it an F1 car or a power boat or even a race bicycle, optimum performance is created by maximizing power while minimizing the weight of the body and chassis. F1 engineers spend millions each year trying to shave grams off each component in their cars. Mille wanted to translate this sense of high performance into an incredibly light, yet totally shock-resistant tourbillon that F1 driver Felipe Massa could wear in his new season racing for Ferrari. Practically speaking, at 28 grams, the RM 009 is truly a watch that its owners could wear during any activity — running, bicycling, rock-climbing, anything.
Much of a watch’s mass has to do with the material of the watch case. The first step for Richard Mille in creating the world’s lightest wristwatch was to search for an all-new case material. One of the lightest yet most resilient materials in the world is aluminum, boasting a much higher strength-to-weight ratio than even titanium. Moreover, aluminum is corrosion-resistant, relatively easy to work and can be polished. The current generation of aircraft-grade aluminums has innumerable high-performance applications. It is used in everything from bicycle frames raced in the Tour de France to the skeletal structure of Aston Martin’s V8 Vantage.
However, aluminum has problems that make it unsuitable for use in a watch case. The first is that aluminum has a fatigue life. Aluminum slowly loses mass over the course of its life as molecules turn into gas. Over time, aluminum weakens. In the automotive industry, engineers get around this by over-engineering the strength of components, but you then lose the critical weight advantage of aluminum. Further, a car’s frame is suspended from direct impact with the road using shock absorbers, while in a watch, daily direct impact can occur. Professional racing bicycles are only used for one or two seasons at the most, then discarded before fatigue life becomes a factor, but a watch is meant to endure indefinitely. A watch is meant to be passed down from one generation to the next.
As he extended his research, Mille found more shortcomings to aluminum. Although aluminum is strong, its surface is soft. Surface-hardening it using anodizing (a heat treatment) creates only a hard outer skin that can still scratch during hard impact. There was no way normal aluminum would satisfy Mille’s needs. It was through his contacts in the aerospace industry that Mille had sourced the special high-density carbon fiber used in Airbus brake discs that he eventually used for the carbon baseplates in his movements, and it was through these same contacts that he first heard of ALUSIC, a material used for space technology. ALUSIC was created in Les Bronzes d’Industrie (LBI) in Amneville, France. Luc Lajoye, co-owner and general manager of LBI, completed his metallurgical studies at the Génie Physique et Mécanique des Matériaux in Grenoble. It was there during his doctoral studies that the ideas leading to the invention of ALUSIC were developed. “ALUSIC is a mixture of aluminum and silicium, of metal and mineral, that results in an extremely lightweight material that is highly shock-resistant, very hard and indefinitely stable,” Mille explains.
ALUSIC — The Alchemic Fusion of Mineral and Metal
ALUSIC had one drawback: because of the complex manufacturing process involved, it was inordinately expensive. Yet there was simply no other option for Mille. He admits: “Each time I reach a point where I can choose from different paths, I will always go with the best in terms of performance regardless of the expense. This is my philosophy of never compromising.” The ALUSIC needed to create the RM 009’s watch case would cost many times more than platinum. Indeed, Mille’s ALUSIC body ended up becoming the world’s most expensive watch case to fabricate. The main challenge is to fuse the seemingly incompatible elements of metal and mineral. ALUSIC has to be centrifugally cast to ensure that aluminum and silicium bond on a molecular level.
Lajoye explains: “The greatest problem working with these kinds of alloys is the inherent mix of the metal, which by its very nature is bound to contain impurities. These impurities are detrimental to the structure. During centrifugation, however, the unwanted material remains at the core of the distribution process and the perfect matrix is thrown to the outside area. Particles added to the metal mixture are also evenly spaced out in this way.” Essentially, ALUSIC is spun inside a high-speed centrifuge resulting in a massive cylinder. The inner part of the cylinder remains pure aircraft-grade aluminum while only the outer layer of the cylinder is ALUSIC. This outer layer is carefully cut out and, from it, the RM 009 case is crafted.
When Lajoye is done, there is only a lump of metal — metal that cannot be bent or rolled or punched into shape, as it is rock-hard. “In the case design of the Richard Mille watch, everything is curved. Everything. Each piece, each section, top, middle and back of the case, must be cut to shape. This means that the curved front and back of the case, each only a few millimeters thick, must be cut just like a slice of salami, but cut in a curve! Then they must, of course, fit together afterwards!
More malleable metals allow for some correction, but ALUSIC is totally unforgiving,” he tells us. When he discusses drilling ALUSIC, Lajoye moans and rolls his eyes: “Really, it is a nightmare to drill this material. It is so hard that it cannot be cut by normal dies. We had to use a special diamond tool with a single tooth. One bit would usually work for 10 to 15 holes before giving out, but it often broke after only two holes were drilled.”
Richard mille gives us luxury That Endures
The visual and tactile quality of the RM 009’s case takes your breath away. It is neither like metal or mineral, but looks and feels as if it was hewn out of a solid piece of space rock. Pick it up and you’ll be shocked that such a large muscular case is almost totally weightless. How robust is it? Scientifically speaking, the mechanical properties of ALUSIC are as follows: very high stiffness, exceptional wear-resistance and continual flawless performance even in temperatures up to 300°C, or 572°F.
We can report that attempts to scratch cases using a corkscrew or by flinging them against a concrete floor left absolutely zero signs of stress or wear. To us, the RM 009 represents a revolution in luxury in that it is the first haute de gamme tourbillon that can be worn daily yet never age or show any appreciable sign of wear. With the RM 009, Richard Mille, the master of never compromising, has given us luxury that endures forever and this is his true stroke of genius.
Light and Shock-Resistant — Inside the Movement Architecture of the RM 009
The Search for Materials
Logic dictates the world’s lightest watch would have the world’s lightest movement ticking inside it. Therefore, Mille decided to take the movement found in his already featherweight RM 006 and bring it to a new extreme by skeletonizing it to the bare, minimal architectural framework needed to maintain his high level of shock-resistance. At the same time, Mille was searching for a new material with unheard-of lightness that he could use to craft this movement. Mille posed this challenge to one of the greatest watchmaking minds in the world, Giulio Papi.
At first Papi naturally gravitated to titanium, but he wasn’t satisfied. He explains: “We asked a metallurgical laboratory for the lightest and most resistant materials in the world and they sent us a list. We were surprised that this list consisted exclusively of different kinds of aluminum. At first we were delighted.” However, there was one problem. Papi explains that as it ages, aluminum becomes less resistant because its mass slowly turns into gas. Fortunately, Papi came across a compound called aluminum-lithium that loses very little gas, which translates into an indefinite fatigue life with excellent stability, and it could be worked into a baseplate (unlike ALUSIC).
Aluminum lithium became the material of choice for the movement’s plate. Papi also used a type of proprietary aluminum fabricated by a brand called Anti-Corodal for the wheels of the movement. “This material is also light, resistant and has the added advantage of creating very little friction,” he points out. Each of these special aluminum wheels must be electro eroded rather than profile-turned.
Like ALUSIC, aluminum-lithium had never been used for any watch component before because of the enormous cost involved in creating it. Giulio Papi tells us why: “At a certain temperature, both aluminum and lithium change from liquid to solid, but these temperatures are vastly different. If you try to melt the two materials together at normal temperatures, the aluminum will become solid while the lithium will remain liquid and this doesn’t work at all.”
He adds: “The system for creating a solid from aluminum and lithium involves putting them in a centrifuge so that the materials merge at a molecular level.” The compression also creates a material that is extremely hard and difficult to machine. Giulio Papi likens the hardness of aluminum-lithium to “folded stainless steel”. As such, the skeletonized plate has to be created using CNC machining and not electro-erosion.
Optimizing Stiffness Through Plate Design
In crafting most skeletonized movements, the focus is on creating visual flourish, to open the movement to the eye of the owner, but in the movement of the RM 009, the objective was a great deal more functional. Giulio Papi’s goal was to remove as much material as possible to optimize the lightness of the movement while still retaining a high level of strength and shock-resistance. This could only be achieved by rethinking the skeleton process. Rather than simply remove material, Papi created individual bridges for the skeletal architecture, each of which incorporated an architectural strengthening technique of using boxed sections. To strengthen the plate against flexing on the horizontal plane, Papi added additional “ribs” to buttress its ethereal framework against shocks.