Manufacture visit: Richard Mille

Gulf Business visits the Swiss manufacturing facilities of one of horology’s biggest stars whose multi-million dollar watches are rebellious statements of bleeding- edge technology

Richard Mille

Richard Mille creates extreme watches. Rafael Nadal has worn his during every single game-winning performance in the last eight years, Yohan Blake wore one at each
 of his three medal-winning performances at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, and Felipe Massa regularly went flat out in his F1 car with an RM on his wrist – including that time when he suffered a near-fatal high- speed crash at the Hungarian GP in 2009 in which both he and the RM 006 on his wrist survived.

The eponymous independent Swiss watchmaker makes timepieces that aren’t designed to receive the kid-glove treatment. Nor are they cheap – the average price point of a watch from Richard Mille is $150,000. And judging by the typical watch-to-income ratio of $5,000 per $1m, the average RM customer is on a $30m annual package.

This year, Richard Mille manufactured 4,600 pieces, with the aim to bump that figure up to 5,000 next year.

We travelled to its two key manufacturing facilities, ProArt and Horometrie, located a few minutes away from each other in Les Breuleux in Neuchatel, Switzerland to understand just what goes into a Richard Mille timepiece.

Inside ProArt

The expansive 32,000sqft ProArt factory chiefly manufactures cases, but is also tooled to manufacture
a few other components like baseplates and bridges.
All of Richard Mille’s cases, from the impossibly 
curved tonneau to the large round cases and even the lesser-known square ones are produced here. The only exceptions are the sapphire cases, which are sourced from an external supplier. That’s because it takes around 45 days and an extremely complex manufacturing process 
to create a single sapphire case – only five or six are made every year, which might also explain the $2m price tag that a sapphire-cased Richard Mille can command.

richard mille

As we make our way to the top floor of the two-storey structure, we pass scale models
 of Formula 1 cars and an Airbus Corporate Jet – the materials found in F1 cars and aeroplanes are regularly used in RM watches.

We are led into a large room that is filled with the sweet smell of industrial oil and the warmth emitted by the state-of-the-art CNC machines, which operate 24 hours a day. There is no stamping process used to create cases as is the norm with many mass watch manufacturers – here each case is machined, wire cut, finished with high-pressure jets and inspected with microscopically accurate tools and of course, several pairs of expertly trained eyes and hands. Cases like that of the RM 032 require as many as 830 machining processes.

It is the precision with which these components are manufactured that is truly mind-boggling. We’re told that the margin of error on the machines that cut these cases and components is just plus or minus two microns – the average diameter of a blood cell is five microns.

Some 99.5 per cent of components in a Richard Mille watch come from Switzerland, with the exception being the crown and
the pushers on a few of the watches that are sourced from outside.

Mille has been as much an innovator 
in design as it has been a true material innovator. We make our way to a desk with a few prototype cases on it for us to inspect. Richard Mille collaborated with Lausanne- based North Thin Ply Technology, a company that specialises in the creation
of ultralight materials. NTPT carbon is
 a material used in the mast of the Alinghi boat that participated
 in the America’s Cup.

richard mille

The material
 comprises around 600-
800 layers of carbon
 compressed together 
under intense heat 
and pressure to form a 
block that is then cut 
to create the case of 
a watch. The Carbon
TPT and Quartz TPT
layers can be injected 
with coloured epoxy resins to produce cases like the RM 27-03, which are a combination of yellow and red. The carbon cases are so tough that in order to cut them, the diamond tipped tools in the CNC machines have to be changed after every 20 cases due to wear and tear.

A few paces down
and we’re at the 9,000-
kilo milling machine.
 It holds 1,000 litres 
of oil inside it, which 
is directed at the case 
of a watch at 20 bars 
of pressure – the same 
pressure found in the 
Geneva jet, which shoots water up 140 metres from the surface of Lake Geneva.

There are teams nearby that inspect every case manufactured for aesthetic defaults while in another adjacent room a large automated Zeiss machine uses delicate needle-like probes to touch the case of every watch hundreds of times and takes precise measurements to check if the case has been cut to perfection.

A much smaller room downstairs is where we’re led to next and it’s here that they manufacture some of the smaller components like the screws. Next, we headed to the nearby Horometrie facility, but not before lunch.

Who is Richard Mille?

Born in Draguignan in southeastern France, Mille studied marketing and then went on to hold top positions at Seiko and French luxury house Mauboussin where he headed the brand’s watchmaking division, putting him in direct contact with companies like Audemars Piguet Renaud & Papi as well as other Swiss component manufacturers.

One day, he found himself in his hotel room with very little to do. It was one of those remarkable moments of idleness during which he went to the bathroom took the bar of soap and sculpted a tonneau case watch shape that served as the prototype for his very first watch, the RM 001.

Richard Mille
Richard Mille

In 1999, at the age of 50, when most others would have one eye on their retirement pot, Mille quit his job and decided to strike out as an entrepreneur, setting up his eponymous brand that would be headquartered in Paris but manufacture its watches in Switzerland. By 2001, he debuted the RM 001. It featured the world’s first torque indicator, titanium bridges and a distinctive case shape that became a cornerstone of Richard Mille timepieces. It was priced at $135,000, an audaciously high amount for a new entry that was nowhere in the reckoning when it came to the overrated topic pedigree that so many Swiss watchmakers harp on about. Still, the very first of 17 watches he made of that collection was sent to the Chronopassion store in Paris and sold out in 30 minutes after its arrival.

The $150,000 average price tag of an RM today is not merely vain marketing but because Mille gives his R&D team a blank cheque when it comes to researching and using the best materials that no one else in the business has ever used before.

Take for example the RM 009 that debuted in 2005 and kicked off the brand’s quest for the ultra-lightweight watches.
 It was made from a compound called Alusic, which is used in satellites. Alusic is 
a material formed by spinning aluminium and silicon in a centrifuge until the particles are bonded in a molecular way. It was used to make the indestructible case that at the time was the world’s most expensive. An aluminium-lithium movement developed by Giulio Papi was added to
 the watch in order to make it ultralight. The finished piece was less than 30 grams without the strap. Limited to only 25 pieces, the King of Spain wears one.

richard mille
Rafael Nadal has worn his during every single game-winning performance in the last eight years

The RM 027 Tourbillon Rafael Nadal that followed in 2010 became the world’s lightest mechanical watch and one that packed a tourbillon as well. The entire movement, including the barrel, train and the aluminium-lithium tourbillon weighed just 3.8 grams – an average peanut weighs
 3grams. The carbon nanofiber used to construct the case was the same material used in the US Air Force’s F-117 Stealth Fighter that allowed radar waves to pass through thereby evading radar detection. The finished watch with the strap came in at just 20 grams.

richard mille
Richard Mille RM 50-03 Tourbillon Split Seconds Chronograph Ultralight McLaren F1

The material innovation and quest for lighter and more durable sportswatches didn’t stop there but continued with the last year’s RM 50-03 Tourbillon Split Seconds Chronograph Ultralight McLaren F1, which used a carbon-based material called Graphene discovered by two scientists at the University of Manchester in 2004, who later went on to win the Nobel Prize for Physics. The 50-03 weighed just 40 grams including the strap making it the world’s lightest split-seconds chronograph.

A visit to Horometrie

Horometrie is a joint venture between Richard Mille and his friend Dominique Guenat’s 118-year-old watchmaking company Montres Valgine. In the reception area, a board displays the names of both companies.
Richard Mille primarily depends on Audemars Piguet Renaud et Papi and Vaucher to manufacture their movements. APRP supplies all of Richard Mille’s tourbillons movements, while most of RM’s automatic chronograph movements are supplied by Vaucher.

On the first floor of the Horometrie,
 we wear lab coats and shoe mitts before entering a sterile environment where the movements supplied by APRP and Vaucher are assembled and fitted into the RM cases. Our guide explains that there are four stages that occur on this floor named T0, T1, T2 and T3.

richard mille

T0 is the premounting of the case, T1 is the assembly of the movement, T2 is the encasing of the movement, and T3 is the fixing of the bracelet onto the watch.

On that floor, each watchmaker is given 10 movements at a time and expected to assemble the batch in two weeks. After this, it is sent to the quality control department where it spends another two weeks and is rigorously tested for accuracy, before being forwarded to another person who encases the set of 10 watches in four or five days.

The most hallowed desk to be at on this floor, though, is the tourbillon desk – located at one corner of the room.

It is the high table of the facility where only tourbillons are assembled, and there are three permanent tourbillon watch specialists seated here.

The tourbillon is 
one of the brand’s most technical and complex movements, and just like an AMG machine, it’s one person per tourbillon watch, going right through all the steps from T0 to T3.

It takes six weeks
 to assemble a single tourbillon movement, followed by a period of three weeks during which it is tested and allowed to run to see if it is working as it should, disassembled and then reassembled (to ensure that it wasn’t damaged during the testing phase) and then finally encased.

A typical tourbillon watch takes three months from start to finish, and a watch like the RM 039 Tourbillon Aviation E6-B Flyback Chronograph has a total of 1,000 components. Imagine having to reassemble that twice over and you begin to see why watches like the RM 039 can cost $1.1m.

Through a series of corridors, we make our way to the technical office of Richard Mille where an 11-member team is working on the design of the in-house movements. Over the last few years, Richard Mille has been increasingly designing movements in-house rather than relying on APRP and Vaucher alone to design and manufacture movements for them. They now have eight in-house calibres.

Richard Mille
Richard Mille RM 25-01 Tourbillon Adventure Sylvester Stallone

The Calibre 3266, which was Richard Mille’s first-in house designed movement, took three years of development before it made its debut seven years ago. Since then, RM has released around one in-house designed movement each year, the most recent being the Calibre CRMT1 – the brand’s first in-house designed automatic tourbillon movement, found in the RM 71-01 which was released earlier this year.

Out through a few more corridors and we’re led to a room where RM watches from around the world are sent in to
be serviced – especially when the local watchmakers at the regional boutiques cannot fix the watch.

The head of this department explains that the first thing they do when they receive a watch is to test for water resistance, followed by a checklist of steps to clean the movement, replace the oil, fix the crystal, polish the case, and leave the watch in a condition far better than they received it.

Finally, we head next directly beneath this room, where a few of the brand’s sports watches are put through brutal physical stress tests. There’s a metre-high pendulum testing device here that features a hammer-like pendulum manually swung and directed towards a fully-encased watch, which is placed at the base of the contraption. A watch like the RM 27-03 Rafael Nadal can be subjected to up to 10,000g by way of this test. Just how much is that? That’s 10kg of force exerted on every gram of the timepiece.

The hammer comes down on the case
 of the watch; the watch is then retrieved from a net in which it flies into and it is positioned such that the hammer comes down on the crown next and then the crystal. It needs to survive each of these tests before it is officially certified to be able to withstand 10,000g. As we wince
 at the prospect of a $760,000 watch being knocked around with a hammer, it’s time to head back upstairs to conclude our tour.

If there’s one key takeaway from the manufacture visit, it is this: Richard Mille doesn’t look at what the competition is doing – it’s the other way around. He is his own competition.

With the outlandish creations that 
use futuristic materials and cutting-edge manufacturing technologies, he isn’t proving a point to anyone but himself. To paraphrase Jay-Z, Richard Mille isn’t a businessman – he’s a business, man.