Richard Mille RM055 Bubba Watson
Whether you like Richard Mille or not—and it’s a hotly contested topic—you have to at least acknowledge that the avant-garde brand does things a little differently. Since the release of the 2001 RM001, Richard Mille has chosen to define the watches it makes by going down a different route to traditional Swiss watchmaking—and here are five things that particularly stand out.
Rubber Coated Titanium
To demonstrate Richard Mille’s unusual approach to making a wristwatch, we have a Bubba Watson edition RM055. This isn’t even one of the crazy models; it has a simple time-only mechanism, no date or even automatic winding. How weird can it be?
We’ll start with the outside, specifically the case. Now, exotic materials are no new thing to watchmaking, the industry seeing a surge in strange construction processes and techniques in the last decade as material technology has experienced a bit of a boom. The RM055 is as you’d expect in that respect, shrouded in a ceramic bezel—although that’s not that unusual.
And maybe you’d think the rest of the three-piece case was made of ceramics as well, because why not? But in case you didn’t know, the man this watch was made for, Bubba Watson, is a golfer, and this watch was designed to be worn while taking chunks out of a golf course. And doubly in case you didn’t know, Bubba Watson can hit a ball over 188mph—that’s a big impact.
Ceramic, being so very hard, has a tendency to shatter from a heavy shock—fine for day-to-day wear, but not so great when slugging balls a quarter of a mile downrange. So, Richard Mille fell back onto good old titanium, lightweight, but not that unusual in itself—and then high-pressure coated it in rubber. The theory is that the fine rubber coating acts as the first barrier to absorbing shocks, and that kind of makes sense—doesn’t stop it being weird though.
So, we’ve just established that titanium isn’t that odd a product to use in watchmaking—unless its smothered in rubber—and that’s because the benefits of the material are numerous. It’s light, of course, less than half that of steel, but just as strong. It doesn’t melt until well beyond 1,500 degrees Celsius, is anti-magnetic, anti-allergenic, and forms a protective layer of oxidisation that ‘heals’ when scratched.
It’s also notoriously difficult to work with, its poor conductivity not allowing heat to dissipate quickly, causing premature wear on tooling, and its hardness and springiness generating vibrations—or chatter—through the machine, resulting in an uneven finish.
This didn’t seem to have phased Richard Mille, however, because not only does the case feature titanium components—the movement does too. To put it simply, a movement is a collection of springs and gears that stores, regulates and transports power to the hands, and those springs and gears require a supporting structure. Plates of metal either side sandwiches those springs and gears to keep them in place, the lower half known as the baseplate and the upper the bridges.
Where most watchmakers choose to manufacturer these parts from plated brass because it’s easy to machine, Richard Mille chose titanium—which is exactly the opposite. But the hardness and springiness of titanium, while it proves a challenge to shape, provides a benefit in the RM055: it can be machined perfectly flat for maximum efficiency and precision in the drivetrain, and also does a fantastic job of absorbing the shocks from Watson’s ball-shattering swing.
The biggest opponent to achieving maximum efficiency in a gear train is friction, the power-sapping drag caused by grip between two moving parts. Great for tyres and brakes, not so useful in transferring power to a set of rotating hands. The less friction there is, the less power is wasted as heat instead of movement.
And, just like our tyres and brakes, friction has another nasty side-effect: wear. Two surfaces dragging against each other will rob each other of material, over time eating away the original tolerances and causing all sorts of problems—such as dumping swarf where it’s not supposed to be, increasing friction even more and accelerating the process ad nauseam.
Lubrication is traditionally the friend of achieving minimal friction, a moving surface between the two planes that offers minimal resistance and thus causes minimal wear. But lubrication is only the icing on the cake, because the secret to really low friction is to have a frictionless surface in the first place—or as frictionless as you can get.
For this, a hard material is needed: diamond. Or failing that, a substance only one point down on the Mohs hardness scale from diamond, sapphire. Before you wonder to yourself at what point the rubies you see in movements come in, here’s a quick fact: a ruby is a sapphire with a different impurity that colours it red.
Originally, only natural gemstones were used, but with the 1902 invention of the synthetic sapphire, the watchmaking industry jumped right on board. The synthetic sapphire was still coloured red to uphold tradition, but there’s no need to keep it red, or blue, or even have any colour at all. In fact, the crystal in most watches, including this one, is made of colourless synthetic sapphire.
What Richard Mille has done here, to keep the monochromatic theme of the RMUL2 movement consistent, is use clear sapphire for the jewels as well. There’s no performance gain to be had over the red equivalent—it just looks good.
Take the case back off pretty much any watch and you’ll most likely be greeted by a round movement in a round hole. Even most rectangular watches still squeeze a round movement inside, with a metal blanking plate filling in the gap; it saves the budget of developing a specifically rectangular movement.
And the movement will fit nice and snug, for obvious reasons, clamped in tight with a few tabs. This is perfectly fine for your average watch, encouraged even, giving the movement a full 360 degrees of support to stop it rattling around.
But what if you intended to smack the watch about during a game of golf? That rigid housing offers no yield, transferring the shock right to the heart of the watch. At best, your timing will be off; at worst, your timing will stop completely, permanently.
A watchmaker could easily stick a loop of rubber between the watch and the movement as a bit of a shock absorber. The crown, connected by the crown stem, breaches the case to reach the movement, and is fixed solidly in place. If it can’t move, then the movement can’t move.
But it can pivot, if only slightly, enough to absorb an impact and prevent the escapement from faltering. Think of a wishbone suspension assembly in a car: you’ve got two points mounted to the chassis and one to the hub carrier, the wishbone itself floating in-between. It’s the same in the RM055, with a single point of contact for the crown stem, reinforced either side, and two equidistant points mounting to the chassis of the watch, with the movement floating in-between.
The last weird thing Richard Mille has done, not just in the RM055, but in all of its watches, has to do with one of the smallest pieces inside it: the screws. A screw in a watch isn’t typically used in a high torque situation, and so a standard flat-head profile is used to give the tool purchase to wind it into its thread.
Once again, not so with Richard Mille. For a watch intended to be used in a high stress environment, with impacts, vibrations and all sorts present, torqueing screws correctly becomes more of a concern, and that’s why Richard Mille has developed its own proprietary screws.
You can see them around the case edge, clamping the three-piece sandwich together and holding the strap on. There are at least four lobes per screw, spreading the force more evenly to allow more torque to be applied, and more carefully, preventing the whole thing rattling apart in an F1 cockpit or during a championship-deciding swing.
Thing is, a screw like this doesn’t just need its own development—it needs tools developed for it, too, making it a surprisingly big investment. And while Richard Mille isn’t the only company using proprietary screws on the outside of the case—think Hublot’s ‘H’ screws—the brand has gone one step further and used them inside as well.
You’ll see the mounting points have these unique screws, but Richard Mille hasn’t stopped there; even major structural components within the movement have them as well. Using them on the clasp might be overkill, however …
Like them or loathe them, Richard Mille watches are something else. The styling is not to everyone’s taste, and neither is the price—this RM055 costs almost £150,000 by the way—but you have to admit, the ideas and the execution are pretty unique.
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