There is no single watch brand which has become more a token of exclusivity than Richard Mille. Over the 20 or so years that the brand has been in existence, it has achieved many technical milestones – its tourbillon watches are worn, to take just one recent example, by a modestly successful tennis pro named Rafael Nadal, under circumstances which would not only be hazardous, but actually destructive, to pretty much any other tourbillon I can think of (they are, as a rule, quite delicate contraptions, but it has been the peculiar genius of Richard Mille to overturn expectations, with the tourbillon as with many other things). However, these technical accomplishments can sometimes be hard to see behind the powerful spell cast by the undeniably enormous cost of the watches. A great deal of the narrative around Richard Mille watches has to do with the fact that they are affordable to a vanishingly small percentage of watch lovers – a percentage, in fact, to whom the very term “affordable” is essentially irrelevant. A major function of the watches is, in fact, to signal membership in a socioeconomically highly specific demographic (to deploy a euphemism for “super-rich”) and Richard Mille has been canny enough, over the years, to retain key aspects of his Formula 1 and aerospace-inspired designs, which have made them, and which continue to make them, instantly recognizable (and, it must be said, occasionally slavishly and unimaginatively imitated).
Creation of his watches has, in fact, followed a model similar to that of the Formula 1 cars that have influenced both Richard Mille’s design and materials choices – the idea is to make mechanisms with little to no regard for costs-per-unit, which are highly limited in number. (Despite the deliberate anti-classicism of the designs, this is very much a traditional luxury model: It takes as long as it takes, and it costs whatever it costs.) As with F1, you don’t necessarily have to make every component “in-house” either – just as, historically, F1 teams have sourced power plants from specialist suppliers, so Richard Mille has sourced movements from partners with the manufacturing capacities to meet the required performance and aesthetic standards. Generally, RM’s suppliers have been Manufacture Vaucher and Audemars Piguet Renaud & Papi, and this strategy has been enormously successful for RM – the movements, after all, are generally the centerpiece of its watches, and are an essential aspect of their aesthetics.
As a rule, RM has avoided falling into what can be the trap of thinking that making everything in-house is an essential element of success, but at the same time, there is indisputable prestige associated with having an in-house movement in a brand’s portfolio. This year, RM has produced its first in-house caliber, the CRMC-1. This is a flyback chronograph with a new type of double tilting-pinion clutch system, and it is debuting in the RM 72-01 “Lifestyle” Chronograph.
The RM 72-01 is being billed by RM as a unisex watch (although, I have noticed that actual watch enthusiasts, irrespective of gender, tend to wear whatever the hell they like; an obsession with gender-specific product categories in fine watchmaking seems more and more a dinosaur every day), and it will at launch be available in four different case materials: titanium, 18k red gold, or black and white ceramic. The starting prices are, surprisingly, if not affordable, at least less gasp-inducing than is generally the case for RM: $ 188,000.
In a lot of respects, this is classic Richard Mille in terms of design; there is his signature tonneau-shaped case, with its prominent bezel screws with their five-spline design, which ensures a visual symmetry not possible with slotted screws. The design also distributes torque evenly (more or less) over the entire diameter of the screw, rather than onto the narrow edges of a conventional screwdriver slot. (They, in fact, seem rather bolt-like in this respect, although the basic difference between a bolt and a screw is that the former is used, along with a nut, to connect two unthreaded components, while screws engage with threads in the components themselves). The case is 38.40 x 47.34 x 11.68 mm; the latter figure for thickness at first does not seem to jibe with the visual impression you get from the watch in photographs, but I think the sense of greater thickness may be more in part from the aesthetics of the case, with the prominent overhang of the bezel and caseback, and the very substantial crown and chronograph pushers, than from actual thickness. Certainly, RM does not seem to be indulging in any sort of shenanigans like not including the thickness of the crystal, which lies flush with the curved upper surface of the case.
The elaborate case construction is one of the most distinctive aspects of Richard Mille watches, and although the degree to which the case is successfully integrated with the movement has varied over the years in RM designs, nonetheless, it remains a core element of the appeal of the designs. The integration of case and movement is both aesthetic and mechanical; as each movement is essentially custom-constructed for the case, there’s no need for the spacers and movement rings so common in (much) less expensive watchmaking, and although the RM 72-01 doesn’t have quite the engineering of, say, the new RM 27-04, with its elaborate cable suspension system, it still has its movement mounted on the elastomeric shock blocks, which are the interface between case and movement in so many RM watches (and, of course, it’s about a fifth the cost of the RM 27-04 as well). For a watch that projects such a technical persona, water resistance seems a bit low at 30 meters, but for general use, that figure is more than adequate (and par for the course for many luxury chronographs as well).
In short, case construction, as well as the overall aesthetic, are very much Richard Mille at his, and its, most iconic. Let’s now look at the CRMC-1 movement.
Richard Mille’s movements, especially in watches with a specifically technical orientation (I exclude here, for example, the Bonbon watches, on which I would think there would be universal agreement), are usually a combination of very technical watchmaking, with sometimes very traditional movement finishing techniques; often there is a combination of precious and technical metals as well. Caliber CRMC-1 continues in this long-established vein. The movement is self-winding, and dimensions are 29.10mm x 31.25mm and 6.05 mm, and the power reserve is 50 hours; winding is via a skeletonized platinum rotor. This is, of course, not the first flyback chronograph from Richard Mille – the RM 011, for example, which was introduced in 2007, is a flyback chronograph with annual calendar, with the caliber RMAC1, which is from Vaucher with a Dubois-Depraz module – but CRMC-1 is, according to RM, produced entirely in the RM workshops in Les Breuleux. Traditional aspects of the movement’s finish include hand-polished flanks, bevels, and countersinks; however, the movement plates and bridges are grade 5 titanium.
The movement technically is a combination of existing and, indeed, classic mechanical solutions with some new ones. Chronograph switching is via a column-wheel mechanism; as with most flyback chronographs, pressing the lower pusher when the chronograph is running will reset the chronograph, but not stop it, and the chronograph resumes running instantly when the lower pusher is released. Stopping the chronograph with the upper pusher and then pressing the lower, will reset the chronograph to zero, in a non-running state. The most unusual feature of the movement, however, is the clutch system. The three most common chronograph clutch mechanisms are the lateral clutch (as seen in the Vacheron Historiques Cornes de Vaches, for instance), the vertical clutch (as seen in the Rolex Daytona), and the tilting pinion system, which is most commonly found in the ETA/Valjoux 7750 and its myriad variants.
Each has its particular characteristics and advantages; the lateral clutch system has history and, certainly, old-school mechanical beauty on its side; the vertical clutch reduces the amount of load added to the going train when the chronograph is activated, and also reduces or even eliminates the slight jump of the chronograph seconds hand that can occur when using a lateral clutch; the tilting pinion system is compact, simple, and reliable. Whichever system is used, there is generally only a single clutch system, but the RM caliber CRMC-1 uses what is, as far as I know, a unique double tilting pinion system.
In a traditional lateral clutch system, power for the chronograph comes from the fourth wheel of the movement; this wheel typically rotates once per minute, and so, from a gearing perspective, using it to drive the chronograph seconds hand is straightforward. The disadvantage in using it to drive the chronograph train is that the fourth wheel is the train wheel furthest from the mainspring barrel (the next wheel is the escape wheel), and therefore, it’s the train wheel with the lowest amount of available spare energy. This means that switching on the chronograph will necessarily cause a drop in balance wheel amplitude, which may adversely affect rate stability; although, in a well-made and adjusted lateral clutch chronograph, this drop in amplitude is generally minimized to such a degree that the problem is more abstract than practical. Still, watchmakers have been experimenting with alternate clutch mechanisms for many decades – which is how we ended up with both the lateral clutch and the tilting pinion systems – and Richard Mille’s new movement uses two separate driving systems, in the form of two separate tilting pinions, for the chronograph seconds and minutes, which in the new caliber draw energy from different parts of the movement.
The CRMC-1 uses the double tilting pinion system to divide the load. The chronograph seconds hand is still driven by the going train’s fourth wheel; however, the chronograph minute hand is driven by a wheel in the motion works. The motion works drive the hour and minute hands of the watch and are geared to the mainspring barrel and are therefore out of the power flow to the fourth wheel, escape wheel, lever, and balance. Of course, a second clutch system adds another frictional load, however, as the motion works are driven directly by the rotation of the mainspring barrel, the amount of actual power loss is probably negligible.
Simply because the prices asked are so stratospheric, it’s difficult to talk about and evaluate Richard Mille watches without engaging somewhat with the question, “Is it worth it?” although, in this context, I am always reminded of the old saw that if you want a Lamborghini and you can really afford one, the question is not “Is it worth it?” but rather, “What color?” So it is with Richard Mille. At a starting price of $ 188,000 for the titanium model, its target audience is clearly one for whom ordinary price and value reckonings are unimportant, and what you do get with RM (and this has been true for many years) is indisputably a unique combination of technical watchmaking, case technology, and movement suspension technology (there is no denying that RM has class-leading antishock technology at its disposal; few brand owners would be comfortable demonstrating the shock resistance of one of its tourbillon watches by throwing it on the floor, as Richard Mille has done, to say nothing of strapping one to the wrist of one of the most powerful tennis players ever to come down the pike) in combination with an undeniably unique design and a very powerful throw-weight of socioeconomic prestige.
I’ve been following the brand ever since its very beginnings, and something funny has happened over the last couple of decades – Richard Mille’s design language has started to increasingly seem to have defined its own form of post-modern classicism. It is an inevitable feature of successful revolutions, I suppose, that they tend to become institutions, but this new movement seems to show that the company enjoys the game for its own sake as much as ever, and adds an interesting and thoughtful new dimension to watchmaking at Richard Mille.
The Richard Mille RM 72-01 Lifestyle Flyback Chronograph: case, available in black or white ceramic, titanium, or 5N red gold with matching crown and pushers; dimensions, 38.40mm x 47.34mm x 11.68mm, 30-meter water resistance. Three-part case construction secured by five-spline RM screws; sapphire crystals front and back. Movement, RM caliber CRMC-1, flyback chronograph with seconds, minutes, and 24-hour totalizers, with column-wheel control system and double tilting pinion clutch system. Function indicator to show the position of the crown, and semi-instantaneous date. Frequency, 28,800 vph, running in 39 jewels with cupro-beryllium freesprung adjustable mass balance and fast-rotating mainspring barrel; power reserve 50 hours. Automatic winding system with platinum rotor running in ceramic bearings. Starting price, $ 188,000; for more, visit RichardMille.com.