Innovation, radical technologies and unprecedented materials: how Richard Mille pushes watch performance ‘to the very extreme’

Richard Mille’s ceaseless quest to redefine watch technology has resulted in some extraordinary creations, from the featherlight models used by Felipe Massa and Rafael Nadal to the RM56-01 with its transparent case and workings carved from sapphire

‘I am a victim of my own inability to compromise,’ the watchmaker Richard Mille once said. ‘Every time I get to a point where I need to decide [whether] to save cost or to push performance to the very extreme, I always choose the latter course.’

Richard Mille has only been creating watches for two decades, yet during that time he has gained a reputation for pioneering the use of unconventional — and often unprecedented — materials in his constant quest for technical evolution.

In 2013, however, when Mille unveiled the RM56-01 model, the Swiss watchmaker made what was arguably its biggest leap forward.

Carved from a single block of sapphire crystal, the RM56-01 (below) is almost entirely transparent, its vital organs appearing to float in mid-air on the wearer’s wrist. Paradoxically, the watch’s brilliance is completely invisible.

Sapphire has been prized in the watch industry for almost a century. It was first used as a stronger alternative to glass for protective dial lenses in 1929. But it’s only in the past few decades that watchmakers have begun to adopt it as an alternative for components traditionally hewn from metal.

Following years of research and testing, Richard Mille first deployed sapphire mechanics in 2008, when the company joined forces with Boucheron to create a watch that celebrated the Parisian jeweller’s 150th anniversary. Called the RM018 and limited to 30 pieces, it contained a mechanism in which some of the metal plates had been replaced with cut-sapphire equivalents — an incredible achievement.

Five years later, however, when Richard Mille released the RM56-01, the boundaries of sapphire’s horological application shifted massively.

Using diamond-tipped tools, a solid block of sapphire was cut to form the RM56-01 case’s front bezel, back bezel and caseband. The milling of these three components is so precise, with minuscule screw holes and an elegant, ergonomic curve custom-shaped to the human wrist bone, that it required a brand-new piece of computerised machinery capable of achieving accuracy to a fraction of a millimetre.

This machine was employed for 24 hours a day over the course of 40 days to create the body of each RM56-01. Another 350 hours was then spent polishing the crystal to make it perfectly clear.

Not only is the case of the RM56-01 carved from a single block of sapphire, the base plate, central bridge and third wheel of its inner workings are also made of the precious stone

Richard Mille’s quest for extreme transparency didn’t stop there. In order to allow light to pass right through the watch’s inner workings, its base plate, central bridge and third wheel were all delicately machined from sapphire as well.

The RM56-01’s use of sapphire isn’t entirely cosmetic. The laboratory-grown material scores nine on the Mohs scale of mineral hardness (only diamond ranks 10), making the watch incredibly stable and virtually indestructible. Sapphire’s high boiling point also makes it immune to extreme temperature variations, which could otherwise cause components to contract and expand, while its smoothness reduces friction and energy consumption.

Twenty-four aerospace-grade titanium screws and two clear rubber O-ring seals ensure that the case of the RM56-01 is watertight to a depth of 30 metres

The application of sapphire doesn’t come at the expense of the RM56-01’s functionality either. The watch is fitted with a skeletonised tourbillon for precision timekeeping during rapid and extreme movements, as well as a power-reserve indicator, which acts like a race car’s fuel gauge, and a torque indicator that helps the wearer wind the watch’s mainspring to optimum precision.

Finally, 24 aerospace-grade titanium screws and two clear rubber O-ring seals make the sapphire watertight to a depth of 30 metres.

The overall result is, in Richard Mille’s own words, ‘exemplary chronometric performance’.

When Richard Mille launched his watchmaking business, at Basel World in 2001, extreme technologies and an obsession with precision performance were the two pillars of his mission. His first watch, the RM001 (above), included a revolutionary silver base plate bonded with a layer of PVD (physical vapour deposition) particles that reduced the need for lubrication.

Typifying Mille’s insatiable appetite for innovation, before the RM001’s initial run of 17 watches had even been finished, the silver base plate was switched for a titanium counterpart that reduced weight and increased durability.

By the time Mille introduced the RM003 in 2004, the base plate had been switched again, this time to carbon nanofibre. Created under 740 bars of pressure and temperatures surpassing 2,000 degrees Celsius, the material becomes thermally insensitive and shock-resistant.

This was followed in 2005 by the introduction of a case made from an aeronautical-grade silicon-aluminium alloy and a base plate created with lithium, which meant that the RM009 — developed for racing driver Felipe Massa — weighed just 28 grammes, excluding the strap.

Five years later, the RM027, developed for tennis star Rafa Nadal, added copper, magnesium and zirconium to the alloy mix, pushing the watch’s weight down to just 20 grammes — strap included.

Not long after, the RM027 was upgraded to the RM027-02. It featured a new case material called TPT, which consists of hundreds of layers of quartz interspersed with carbon, making the watch resistant to 5,000 g-force of shock, electromagnetic waves and UV light damage.

By the time Richard Mille came to unveil the sapphire RM56-01 to the public in 2013, many thought the limits of a watch’s materiality couldn’t be pushed any further.

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The watch’s radical innovation, however, came with a cost — reportedly around $1.8 million, if you were fortunate enough to be invited to buy one of just five ever made.

This example, which came direct from its original owner, who has close ties to the worlds of Ferrari and Formula 1, sold for CHF 3,654,000 on 6 November 2022 at Christie’s in Geneva.

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