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Review: Richard Mille Tourbillon Bubba Watson RM 038

This is a seminal moment for me. I’ve been around watches for over a decade, some costing many tens if not hundreds of thousands. But not like this. This watch, the limited-edition Richard Mille Tourbillon Bubba Watson RM 038, is worth over $1,000,000, probably closer to $1.3m. What the actual f—

Sport

There’s an unwritten rule in life that goes something like this: when you sell your business, make a mint and kick back to enjoy to the high life, the first thing you must do is join a country club and choose one of two sports to play until the end of your days: tennis or golf. You don’t particularly have to enjoy playing either of those sports—in fact you can downright hate them—but them’s the rules.

Entrepreneur and founder of the Richard Mille watch company Richard Mille had reached that fork in the road in 1999, was faced with the choice of racket or club—but he found a loophole. Instead, he decided to make watches for people who play tennis and golf. Doesn’t sound like much of a big deal, but even your average 60-year-old plastic surgeon can drive a mean swing into a little white ball, and that’s no good for a mechanical watch.

Such tiny, delicate parts do not like being smashed about, not one bit. At best you’ll get a jolt in the timing, which will require a service; at worst you’ll be left with a snow globe, which no amount of servicing will ever fix. So, Richard Mille took it upon himself to right this universal wrong and rid his fellow country club members of the heinous inconvenience of having to remember to take their watches off in the changing room. The watch, he decided, had to be both resilient and supremely comfortable, so as not to chafe any aging wrists.

The solution found its inspiration in places like motorsport and aviation, combining modern, lightweight materials with strong but flexible design. Fast-forward to 2010 and the announcement of the RM 027, a watch limited to just fifty pieces that weighed a mere 20g—including the strap. To up the ante, Richard Mille forewent a basic movement, seeking to prove the concept to the extreme by including one of watchmaking’s most delicate complications: the tourbillon.

And just to make doubly sure that Tarquin Wilfred Bottomly Cutherington the Third’s backhand wouldn’t do the watch a mischief, they got Rafael Nadal to give the RM 027 a good working over. On the court. During his greatest ever season. During the greatest ever season in the history of tennis.

Bubba Watson

Incredibly impressive, withstanding shock forces of several hundred g’s on the court … that is until other players started wearing more ordinary watches with no problems at all and the whole thing lost its momentum. So, Richard Mille turned his attention to the other sport, the one where no one dared wear a watch—golf.

A golf ball accelerates to 150mph in just 0.0005 seconds, with a peak force some hundred times greater than a tennis swing. It’s no wonder watches hate it so much. In fact, watchmaker TAG Heuer directly requested owners to take their watches off before taking to the course.

Here was a real challenge for Richard Mille, and who better to help them on that journey than multiple-time champion Gerry Lester Watson Jr.—better known as “Bubba” Watson. With one of the longest drives in the sport, able to clonk a ball 330m at nearly 200mph—and as one of the few players who actually wanted to wear a watch as he played—there was no better choice to torture test Richard Mille’s golf-proof watch, the RM 038.

And so, in 2011, Richard Mille’s technical knowhow and Bubba Watson’s legendary swing collided. The rules were the same: strength, comfort and light weight. Think how mopey golfers get when someone breathes too loudly—this watch needed to wear like it wasn’t even there, and survive like it very much was.

The RM 038

For Nadal’s RM 027, titanium was used to reduce the weight to almost nothing, but to endure the force of Bubba’s swing, that existing case just wasn’t strong enough. If had to be beefed up, but that meant adding weight—so a different material was chosen to bring that number back down again.

Magnesium, the material used in the wheels of a Formula 1 racing car—another sport targeted by Richard Mille, in case you were wondering—was chosen for its 50% reduction in mass over already featherweight titanium. It was then treated with an electro-plasma coating process to give it a white ceramic finish, protecting the otherwise soft metal with a hard outer layer.

The movement itself makes do with titanium, which, by this point is almost boring by Richard Mille standards—but the structure wielded with the stuff is anything but. Suspended by isolated points around the case, the movement is more of an architectural endeavour than a watchmaking one, employing design techniques more often seen on suspension bridges than watches.

The bridge-like nature of this three-dimensional latticework is entirely deliberate, affording the movement both strength and flexibility in combatting the extreme forces it was built to endure. The crossmembers reaching into the movement provide rigidity where the delicate moving parts need it, keeping them spaced exactly as they need to be, whereas the beefy outriggers let the case flex and shift without transmitting those forces dangerously into the mechanism. And yes, Richard Mille didn’t chicken out and leave the tourbillon on the watchmaker’s bench; it’s right here, pride of place, beating serenely regardless of its treatment.

But did it all work? Of the limited run of 38 watches, one found its way onto the Masters where Bubba Watson went on to win for the first time—without either watch or golfer missing a beat. To celebrate, Richard Mille produced a second RM 038, the RM 038-01, which threw in a G-sensor for good measure.

This utterly insane watch, even at its original price of $525,000, sold out in 2011 immediately. The sheer audacity of what it does and the challenge it set itself lit the collectorsphere ablaze, to the tune of a price today of around $1.3m. Its scarcity, ideology and of course its fantastic price have made it legend, and experiencing it is … well, bizarre. This is a moment that will probably happen only once in my life, and I’m glad it did. But given that it would take a century for me to pay for it, I’m also quite relieved to be handing it back again.

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