An En­dur­ing Part­ner­ship

Master watch­maker Giulio Papi talks about his decades-long col­lab­o­ra­tion with Richard Mille — a con­ge­nial meet­ing of great minds that has shaped the fu­ture of watch­mak­ing

Revolution (Hong Kong) - - FACES - IN­TER­VIEW BY Wei koh

Giulio Papi is a le­gend in the watch world. With Do­minique Re­naud, he founded one of horol­ogy’s great­est lab­o­ra­to­ries for out­side-the-box, larger-thanlife think­ing — the in­com­pa­ra­ble dream­land for high com­pli­ca­tions that is to­day known as Aude­mars Piguet Re­naud & Papi (APRP). In the ’90s, he be­gan work­ing with a man named Richard Mille, who was then head of the high-jew­elry com­pany Mauboussin. To­gether, they cre­ated in­no­va­tive works of high-com­pli­ca­tion magic, such as tour­bil­lon watches with base­plates crafted from semi-pre­cious stones like aven­turine, for emi­nent clients such as the Sul­tan of Brunei.

Shortly af­ter de­part­ing from Mauboussin, Mille re­turned to Papi with a vi­sion for watch­mak­ing that Papi re­calls was, “The sin­gle most provoca­tive con­cept for new-world watch­mak­ing I’d ever heard — Richard wanted to cre­ate a rup­ture from the past and ev­ery­thing that was baroque or back­ward think­ing. He wanted to cre­ate watches that were light­ning rods for the cut­ting-edge, high-per­for­mance uni­verses of auto rac­ing and aero­space. In other words, he wanted to con­nect high-end watch­mak­ing with the fu­ture.” Over the 15-year his­tory of the Richard Mille brand, Papi and his com­pany have fo­cused on re­al­iz­ing Mille’s vi­sion, from the world’s first watches with car­bon-fiber base­plates and ti­ta­nium cases ca­pa­ble of with­stand­ing F1 driver Felipe Massa’s near-bal­lis­tic crash on the track, to the world’s light­est me­chan­i­cal time­piece worn by Rafael Nadal to count­less Grand Slam vic­to­ries.

On the oc­ca­sion of Richard Mille’s 15th an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tion, Papi re­flects on the con­tin­u­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween these two ex­tra­or­di­nary men, which has cul­mi­nated in some of the world’s most ground­break­ing time­pieces.

How did your col­lab­o­ra­tion with Richard Mille be­gin?

It all started in 1996, so it was 20 years ago. He said to us [Re­naud & Papi], “I would like to make a very high- end watch — but to­day, high-end is equated with a baroque style, with en­grav­ing and Côtes de Genève or enamel, and ma­te­ri­als like gold or plat­inum. And that’s won­der­ful, but I am sure we can make a watch with­out any of these codes.” It was funny be­cause we had been think­ing of the same ob­jec­tive to cre­ate the new lan­guage of watch­mak­ing for our time. So, when he came to us, it was a won­der­ful mo­ment. We had pre­vi­ously pro­posed this idea to Ge­orges-Henri Mey­lan [the former CEO of Aude­mars Piguet] but he wasn’t so con­vinced. He told us it was a bit too ex­otic. When Richard ex­pressed the de­sire to make a very con­tem­po­rary watch that broke all the tra­di­tional codes re­lated to high-end watches, it was lib­er­a­tion for us. We said, “Oh wow, Richard, this is amaz­ing!”

We showed him some de­signs and sketches and he loved them. We agreed that we wanted to use light ma­te­ri­als be­cause it would cre­ate a more com­fort­able watch. It was Richard who pointed out that in auto rac­ing, ev­ery­one was fo­cused on light­weight and that we should in­tro­duce this con­cept to high-end watches.

What did you think of his idea to break from the past?

It was re­ally ex­cit­ing be­cause we were con­vinced that we were cre­at­ing a rup­ture in the story of watch­mak­ing! Whereas be­fore, watch­mak­ing had taken all its ref­er­ences from the past, we were try­ing to re­flect and chan­nel all the de­sign codes of the present and the fu­ture. You know to­day, 20 years later, you can see that there are many brands that are mod­ernist, that express a cer­tain de­sign that is re­lated to auto rac­ing or avi­a­tion, but at the time, Richard was the very first! You must un­der­stand, what he was do­ing was very dar­ing! If you look at his very first watch, the RM 001 — I think this will be a time­piece that will be in horo­log­i­cal mu­se­ums one day, as rep­re­sent­ing the mo­ment when ev­ery­thing changed and the fu­ture was born.

Richard Mille’s watches were among the first to show the move­ment with trans­par­ent di­als. How did this come about?

The idea of be­ing able to see the move­ment came from Richard’s fas­ci­na­tion with car en­gines. He gave me pic­tures of Me­cachrome en­gines, and in­stantly, I un­der­stood what he wanted and I ad­justed the de­sign of the move­ment to re­flect this.

Did you ever doubt that Richard would be­come a huge suc­cess?

Of course we were ner­vous be­cause of the dar­ing­ness of the con­cept, and also how much Richard wanted to push the re­search and de­vel­op­ment re­lated to his first watch. We knew be­cause he was not pro­duc­ing many of them — only 17 RM 001 watches were cre­ated — that the watches were go­ing to be ex­pen­sive.

The price of the RM 001 was con­sid­er­ably higher than the tour­bil­lons from the most estab­lished brands at the time. Was this an in­ten­tional provo­ca­tion?

No. You have to un­der­stand that a Richard Mille is ex­pen­sive not as a con­scious choice, but be­cause it is so ex­treme in terms of how it has changed the lan­guage of watch­mak­ing. You have engi­neers and pro­to­typ­ists who have to be paid. We were making things that were to­tally new and amor­tized in tiny quan­ti­ties. The point was that we were not con­strained by any price lim­its. We pushed the tech­nol­ogy as far as we could pos­si­bly go, and then we looked at the price we reached.

What are, to you, some of the most his­tor­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant Richard Mille watches?

Af­ter the RM 001, I would say the RM 006 is a very sig­nif­i­cant watch, be­cause it was the first with a car­bon-fiber base­plate. The idea was to have a base­plate that was dark col­ored but not as a re­sult of a sur­face treat­ment. We thought of car­bon fiber be­cause of how much it has rev­o­lu­tion­ized the avi­a­tion and au­to­mo­tive worlds. It is strong, rigid, light­weight and highly re­sis­tant to con­trac­tion and ex­pan­sion when ex­posed to tem­per­a­ture vari­a­tions. The ma­te­rial was sourced from avi­a­tion tech­nol­ogy, specif­i­cally the brakes for an air­plane. And just to tell you the price, when we re­ceived each piece [of car­bon fiber], the price was USD2,000. And we had to use a spe­cial tool with a diamond bit to cut the car­bon fiber be­cause it was hard. I had to change all the tools ev­ery time I cut one main­plate. One tool cost me CHF500. And we could use up to 100 tools, de­pend­ing on what we were cut­ting.

What other watch do you feel is im­por­tant to watch­mak­ing his­tory?

I would say the next watch that is very im­por­tant is the RM 009, which was an ex­er­cise to con­vince the mar­ket that high-end doesn’t mean heavy. This watch used an ALUSIC case made from a ma­te­rial that was a com­bi­na­tion of alu­minum and silicon bonded at a molec­u­lar level in a cen­trifuge as well as a move­ment made from alu­minum lithium. In many ways, it was the pre­de­ces­sor to the Nadal watch [the RM 027],

which is the world’s light­est me­chan­i­cal watch. It was in­ter­est­ing to see peo­ple put the RM 009 on. It weighed slightly less than 30 grams and you could see their brains strug­gle with the con­cept, be­cause in their minds heavy meant lux­ury, and here was a watch that to­tally in­verted this. It was an ex­pen­sive watch not be­cause it had di­a­monds or gold but be­cause of the tech­nol­ogy that went into achiev­ing its in­cred­i­ble light­weight. It’s ex­pen­sive for us to make this kind of watch be­cause we are re­ally explorers in the jun­gle, cut­ting through the vines and un­der­growth, try­ing to dis­cover a new path.

Give us an ex­am­ple of blaz­ing a new path...

Alu­minum lithium used in the move­ment is an ex­am­ple of this. Be­cause one of them is a metal and an­other is in liq­uid form, they nor­mally are un­able to bond, as the tem­per­a­ture for them to fuse is not the same. They have to be mixed to­gether in pow­dered form and place in a cen­trifuge to bond. It is made in a spe­cial­ized lab­o­ra­tory and we have to pur­chase it from them. The ad­di­tion of lithium to alu­minum cre­ates a ma­te­rial with the prop­er­ties of steel but at much less weight — even lighter than ti­ta­nium.

Whose idea was this?

It was Richard’s — he is al­ways push­ing us to in­te­grate these new per­for­mance ma­te­ri­als. He is in con­tact with many spe­cial­ists re­lated to ma­te­ri­als.

The sur­face of the RM 009 has an al­most bru­tal­ist fin­ish, which is in to­tal op­po­si­tion to tra­di­tional lux­ury. Was this in­ten­tional?

This was Richard’s idea — he said that in auto rac­ing, high-per­for­mance parts are of­ten sand-casted and when they are fin­ished, they have this kind of rough tex­ture.

What did you think when Richard de­cided to make a watch Rafael Nadal would wear dur­ing com­pe­ti­tion?

Richard came to us and said, “So, we have to make this watch. It has to weigh around 13 grams, it has to have a tour­bil­lon and it can­not break even when Rafael Nadal is wear­ing it in com­pe­ti­tion.”

"The most in­cred­i­ble thing to me about Richard’s watches is that they are worn by the most elite ath­letes dur­ing com­pe­ti­tion, such as Rafael Nadal and Bubba Wat­son, and even re­cently at the Rio Olympics by Wayde van Niek­erk and Yo­han Blake. This is the biggest chal­lenge to watch­mak­ers."

I said, “Oh wow, now that is a chal­lenge. It’s a good chal­lenge be­cause it pushes [us] to the very limit.” The light­ness of the watch was first of all be­cause it would be more com­fort­able for Nadal to wear. It was also be­cause we had made some cal­cu­la­tions re­lated to the shock-re­sis­tance of the watch and de­ter­mined that if it was lighter, it was less af­fected by shock. We spent a lot of time with the en­gi­neer to un­der­stand how much more shock-re­sis­tant the watch would be at vary­ing lev­els of light­ness.

Why so?

How it works is that be­cause the whole mech­a­nism has less in­er­tia, it is af­fected less when it re­ceives a shock. Fur­ther, the move­ment was de­signed in such a way that all the en­ergy from a shock can move through the watch.

Re­ally? How does that work?

The bridges of the move­ment are de­signed so as to di­rect the en­ergy into the strap.

Tell me about the su­per-cool way the move­ment is suspended by a ca­ble in the Nadal Tour­bil­lon, the RM 27-01…

Each new ver­sion of the Nadal watch uses a new so­lu­tion to dis­si­pate shock. The ver­sion RM 27-01 fea­tured the move­ment suspended us­ing a ca­ble. The idea for this came about in 2011 when I broke a cru­ci­ate lig­a­ment in my leg play­ing foot­ball. This lig­a­ment is es­sen­tially like two ca­bles. And I got the idea to use ca­bles to sus­pend the move­ment in­side the case. An en­gi­neer here looked for a sup­plier to make a very tiny wire. But ac­tu­ally the chal­leng­ing part was find­ing a way to fix the wires to­gether un­der ten­sion. So, we came up with a sys­tem with a screw and when you turned it, it cre­ated ten­sion on the wire.

What is the anti-shock sys­tem used in the lat­est ver­sion of the Nadal Tour­bil­lon, the awe­some RM 27-02?

In the RM 27- 02, the bridges of the move­ment are in car­bon fiber and cre­ated as a monobloc struc­ture to­gether with the case­band. There are two ad­di­tional bridges, one for the bar­rel and one for the tour­bil­lon in grade 5 ti­ta­nium. The case is also in car­bon fiber, and as a re­sult, the watch is also ex­tremely light.

What did you think when Richard ex­pressed the de­sire to cre­ate a to­tally trans­par­ent watch, the RM 056?

When Richard pro­posed the idea to have a com­pletely trans­par­ent watch in sap­phire crys­tal, I thought it was pos­si­ble but it would be very, very ex­pen­sive to cre­ate. It is very costly to ma­chine sap­phire crys­tal into shapes. You ma­chine any­thing round rel­a­tively eas­ily. Even domed shapes are rel­a­tively easy to achieve. But if you need to make a ton­neau with an ex­treme ra­dius, it takes a huge amount of time. We can only ma­chine five cases per year.

i own an RM 021. Please ex­plain to me a bit about the base­plate for this watch…

The eight-sided honeycomb ma­te­rial used as the base­plate for the RM 021 and RM 022 came from aero­space. It is used for the fuse­lage of the air­plane. What’s used in the watch is ex­actly the same ma­te­rial crafted in the same way for an aero­space ap­pli­ca­tion, just in minia­ture. So it is not stamped or cut out us­ing elec­tro-ero­sion, but real metal that has been bent and sol­dered. The tour­bil­lon bridges in these watches were in­spired by a jet tur­bine.

I’m al­ways im­pressed by the level of fin­ish in a Richard Mille watch…

Even though the watches are very mod­ern, the fin­ish­ing in ev­ery Richard Mille is to the most el­e­vated stan­dard; it is the plea­sure of cre­at­ing some­thing in­cred­i­bly ar­ti­sanal.

Is the idea be­hind the RM 19-02 Tour­bil­lon Fleur to cre­ate a women-spe­cific com­pli­ca­tion?

This is a re­ally po­etic watch as the flower opens and closes ev­ery five min­utes, but you can also ac­ti­vate it on com­mand. The idea was to cre­ate a watch that a man could of­fer to his wife with the state­ment, “You are the flower of my life.” In the world of Richard Mille, be­hind ev­ery watch, there is al­ways a man. It is meant to be a gift to the woman in his life.

What are the flower pe­tals made of?

The pe­tals of the flower are in gold, en­graved, and then painted with grand feu enamel.

Tell me about the in­spi­ra­tion for the RM 69, the Erotic Tour­bil­lon…

The orig­i­nal idea was ac­tu­ally not for an erotic watch. In Italy, there is a small book for chil­dren that is full of an­swers. What you do is you ask a ques­tion and you ran­domly stop in the mid­dle of the book — you will re­ceive an an­swer like, “don’t do that,” or “you can do it”. So I pro­posed to Richard a watch that would an­swer any ques­tion you had. You asked the ques­tion, pressed a but­ton and an an­swer would be ran­domly dis­played. We started the study, and then we com­mis­sioned the com­po­nents. But when we re­ceived the parts, we saw that there were sexy words on them. When I asked Richard, he laughed and said, “It’s been a long time that I wanted to cre­ate an erotic watch. But in all the erotic watches on the mar­ket, they fea­ture a man and a woman on the dial or the back, and they move to em­u­late sex.” Richard felt this was not so re­fined. He felt that the RM 69 was a great way to pro­pose an erotic watch that uses only words. If the watch hands cover the sen­tence, there is a but­ton you can press that moves the hands.

Where did the idea for a watch with a move­ment painted with graf­fiti come from?

The idea for a graf­fiti watch came from Richard. He met [street artist] Cyril Kongo and he thought it would be re­ally cool to mix street art with the world of haut de gamme. We had to adapt the tools for Kongo to cre­ate a mi­cro­scopic air­brush so he could paint on the move­ment and even the gear wheels.

What is the most re­mark­able qual­ity of Richard Mille watches?

The most in­cred­i­ble thing to me about Richard’s watches is that they are worn by the most elite ath­letes dur­ing com­pe­ti­tion, such as Rafael Nadal and Bubba Wat­son, and even re­cently at the Rio Olympics by Wayde van Niek­erk and, of course, Yo­han Blake. This is the biggest chal­lenge to watch­mak­ers. Ev­ery watch is made af­ter cal­cu­la­tions by physi­cists and engi­neers to en­sure that it per­forms in even the most chal­leng­ing cir­cum­stances. This is very dif­fer­ent from the watches that em­u­late Richard Mille but are just an aes­thetic ex­er­cise. This is Richard’s ge­nius: the cre­ation of true per­for­mance ma­chines for the wrist.

CloCK­WiSE FRoM ToP lEFT The RM 006 en­trenched Richard Mille’s rep­u­ta­tion as a maker of high-end watches that of­fer ex­treme er­gonomic com­fort; the watch that started it all for Richard Mille, the RM 001; the RM 009 en­cased in ground­break­ing aluSiC; the RM 27-01 im­proved on the light­ness and rigid­ity of its pre­de­ces­sor

The struc­ture of a Richard Mille watch

CLO CKWISE FROM TOP LEFT While the RM 27-02 sees Richard Mille ce­ment­ing his cred­i­bil­ity in cre­at­ing al­most-feath­erlight yet in­cred­i­bly shock-re­sis­tant watches, Richard Mille has also been ex­plor­ing other facets of watch­mak­ing, as evinced by the sen­sual RM 69 Erotic Tour­bil­lon and the artful RM 68-01 Kongo

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