Richard Mille: We ex­plore the Swiss horol­ogy star's man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­i­ties

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

Gulf Business - - STYLE AND SUBSTANCE: - By Varun Godinho

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 high­speed 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.

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-theart 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 Lau­san­nebased North Thin Ply Tech­nol­ogy, a com­pany that spe­cialises in the cre­ation of ul­tra light ma­te­ri­als. NTPT car­bon is a ma­te­rial used in the mast of the Alinghi boat that par­tic­i­pated in the Amer­ica’s Cup.

The ma­te­rial com­prises around 600800 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 9,000kilo 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 on to the nearby Horome­trie fa­cil­ity next, 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.

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 a 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 ul­tra light. The fin­ished piece was less than 30 grams with­out the strap. Lim­ited to only 25 pieces, the King of Spain is known to wear one. 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 3 grams. 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.

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.

Over t h e l a st f ew years, Richard Mille has been in­creas­ingly de­sign­ing move­ments in- house. They now have eight in- house cal­i­bres

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 an11-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 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.

RIGHT: RM 25-01 Tour­bil­lon Ad­ven­ture Sylvester Stal­lone BOT­TOM: Case­mak­ing at ProArt and watch as­sem­bly at Horome­trie

LEFT: World No. 1 ranked Rafael Nadal. BOT­TOM: RM 27-03 Rafael Nadal

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