Richard Mille. The name evokes the adrenaline rush of racing machines made for the wrist. It also strikes fear in the hearts of the budget minded collector, who often berates the megabuck prices asked. But look closer, and the use of innovative materials, the quest for the ultra light, the devotion to racing perfection becomes apparent. Lightness and perfection is never cheap. And neither is a Richard Mille watch. This year, he takes the complications game another step lighter, a little closer to the goal of perfection with the RM50-03 Tourbillon Split Seconds Chronograph Ultralight McLaren F1.
UPDATE: February 7, 2017: The crown, flanges and elastic strap are now in orange. For press pic of the revised RM50-03, see last image below.
“Want to see the watch?”, the presenter at the close of the Richard Mille Press Conference at the recent SIHH 2017 enquired. The room was ripe in anticipation as we have been listening to the new watch’s innovative use of the wonder material which is graphene. And as Richard himself did in the brand’s launch event in 2001 with the RM001, he threw the RM50-03, yes all CHF 1 million of it, across the room. It landed on the floor, bounced once or twice before coming to a halt. Journalists are not great sports people adept at catching flying projectiles. The lady, whose feet it ended up nearly resting on, picked the watch up. “Its working!”, she exclaimed. Applause and grins all round. And with that, we started the hands on session with a proof of concept that the 5000G testing on the watch works. We have already had a private one on one presentation and photoshoot session with the RM50 the day earlier…we didn’t want to have to share.
But neither being ultralight nor able to sustain high Gs are strangers to Richard Mille. The RM50-03 weighs all of 38g, including the strap. Surely apt for the Ultralight moniker. But it is a veritable heavyweight compared to the watch Richard made for Rafael Nadal. The RM 27-02 weighs in at only 17g! And able to also withstand being on the wrist of a heavy hitter like Rafa. All 5000Gs. Its Rafa’s beater, so to speak. He wears it all the time and wore it on the match with Roger Federer in the weekend’s Australian Open.
We carried a story on how Rafa doubled up as tester (full review of the RM27-02) for the watch, destroying several prototypes before Richard achieved the perfect balance of ultralight and toughess. But the RM27-02 is a time only tourbillon equipped watch, no complications. Much simpler than the tourbillon equipped split seconds chronograph of the RM50-03. So at 38g, including the strap, the RM50-03 is still a technical tour de force.
Richard Mille RM50-03 Tourbillon Split Seconds Chronograph Ultralight McLaren F1
The RM50-03 has the characteristics and charisma of all Richard Mille creations. It shouts its presence. Not that it is a loud watch, for we usually associate loud watches with those encrusted in jewels. But the visual design is arresting. The choice of colour is impressive. And the watch, light as it is, has immense presence.
The RM50-03 is a limited edition of 75 pieces and available at RM boutiques at a retail price of CHF 980,000 before taxes.
The relationship between Richard Mille and McLaren is one which began in 2016 when an expression of interest was signed. Though Richard himself claims that his first introduction to McLaren was in 1966. This was when Bruce McLaren made its grand prix debut in Monaco, a race which Richard attended as a child with his father. The partnership was sealed this year with the collaboration on the RM50-03 and an is the first expression of the 10 year collaboration between the two teams.
It seems a match made in heaven. Richard Mille watches have always claimed to be racing machines for the wrist, and the partnership with McLaren-Honda seems apt. And not only because Richard himself is a petrol head, but also their goals seem aligned.
The case, dial and hands
The case is the signature Richard Mille tonneau shaped case. The details are inspired by the racing origins, being modeled after the McLaren F1 racing car. And it goes beyond visual cues. The case is hollowed out where possible without compromising on its strength and rigidity, following principles of F1 racing. For example, the pushers are hollowed out and made to look like the air vents of the McLaren-Honda F1 car. And the shape of the crown takes its visual language from the wheel rims designed by McLaren.
The case is is made in collaboration with North Thin Ply Technology, a materials specialist that Richard Mille have been working with to push the frontiers of new materials for watches. The base is a material called Carbon TPT, which comprises of 600 parallel layers of carbon fibre filaments.These layers are about 30 microns thick each, and are impregnated with a resin and woven in a CNC machine which changes orientation by 45° between layers. The layers are then heated to cure the resin and machined to shape. Carbon TPT was pioneered in the RM35-01 in in 2014 also for Rafael Nadal. In 2016, the RM27-02 for Rafa featured a case of Quartz TPT. Both collaborations between North and RM. And for 2017, RM introduces the newest collaboration effort: the wonder kid on the block: Graph TPT with graphene, in the RM50-03. It starts off with a base of Carbon TPT but uses a supercharged resin containing graphene. Graph TPT is currently exclusively used in watchmaking by Richard Mille.
The layering shows up as striations and patterns on the case, making each unique. The case measures 31.1mm x 32.15mm and is 9.92mm thick.
The dial is heavily skeletonised, like all RM dials, and provides a view into the movement. The markers are on plates where non-essential parts are removed to save weight while not compromising rigidity. The hands and the indicators are clear and legible, despite the skeletonising as the colours selected are bright and have good contrast. The dial also shows the torque of the mainspring, the power reserve as well as the function indicator for the crown in addition to displaying the time and the split seconds chronograph displays. A split of up to 59 seconds can be recorded and the base chronograph has a totaliser of up to 30 minutes.
Also of interest is the case design which eliminates the use of a case ring. This is inspired by the wishbone suspension structure of the McLaren-Honda F1 car. The movement is attached to a special transverse cage in TPT Carbon. This acts as a suspension system and enables the watch to sustain shocks of 5000G. Particularly impressive for a movement containing a movement with sensitive components like the tourbillon and split seconds chronograph works.
The supplied strap also uses a special graphene impregnated rubber made by RM’s strap supplier BIWI S.A., and improves the elasticity and resistance to wear.
Graphene: the wonder material
The bezel and caseback feature Graph TPT, a trademark Carbon material whose properties have been improved by the injection of graphene. Graphene is a revolutionary new material that is six times lighter, but up to 200 times stronger than steel. The material is the result of research done by the National Graphene Institute of the University of Manchaster, where the wonder material was first isolated in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov. For their work they were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2010.
What is it? Part of the beauty is that graphene is not some Science Fiction material, but is made of the same stuff as graphite. The very same stuff in your pencil lead. Graphene is made of carbon. And carbon has only two naturally occuring crystaline structures: graphite, which is stacks and stacks of graphene piled on top each other and diamond, which is a network of carbon arranged in a tetrahedron and each attached to the other. Though being composed from the same material graphite and diamond have totally different properties due to the cyrstaline structure. Diamond is clear, and graphite is black. Diamond is a near perfect electrical insulator, and graphite conducts both electricity and heat. These different properties come down to the arrangements of their atoms.
Carbon has four outer electrons. In diamond, all four of those electrons bond to the other carbon atoms around it to form tetrahedrons. The bonds are covalent bonds, and are very strong. This makes an extremely rigid and strong crystal. Its an insulator because there are no left over electrons to carry a current and its clear because light cannot excite the electrons tied up in these strong covalent bonds.
Graphite on the other hand, is a layer of carbon atoms in which one is only bound to three other atoms, also with covalent bonds. Those atoms form a sheet of hexagonal structure. Sheets of this hexagonal structure is bonded together with weak van der Waal forces to form a matrix of graphite. As each of the carbon atoms is only bonded to three others, each atom has one unpaired electron left. Those electrons will go flying around the material when an electric potential is applied allowing it to conduct electricity. They also absorb any photons which is coming their way, which is why graphite is black. And why graphite is so soft. Graphene is just a single layer of graphite. The covalent bond forces holding the sheet together are very strong forces, and as it is only one atom thick, graphene is completely transparent and totally flexible. The method used by Geim and Novoselov to isolate graphene from graphite is by using Scotch Tape to peel off thinner and thinner layers from a slab of graphite. Eventually they got to a layer of just one atom thick. This is graphene.
Of course, industrial isolation of graphene is not quite so simple. It involves multiple processes from sonification to centrifugation in environments of very high temperatures. And while the raw material (graphite) is inexpensive, the process to isolate graphene is quite expensive.
So why is graphene so special? Graphene is the first material which is two dimensional instead of three. It is only one atom thick. This gives it some unique properties. As the first two dimensional material ever known to man, it is the thinnest object ever obtained, and thus transparent. It is bendable, and can take any form. And also the lightest. Its harder than diamond and stronger than steel. Graphene conducts electricity better than copper or silver. Graphene can be also used to make a new class of crystals which are also one atom thick. These can then be shuffled with each other to engineer new materials on demand. As it can take any shape, it can be formed into nanoballs, nanotubes and other structures.
Needless to say, graphene’s strength and light weight properties make it a suitable material for F1 Racing. And McLaren has become an industry leader in its research and industrial application. And in partnership with Richard Mille and NTPT the new material Graph TPT is developed.
The movement within the RM50-03 is not plebian. No split seconds chronograph is. The view from the sapphire case back is imposing. The multi layered look evokes a sense of ordered complexity, much like staring into the engine of an F1 racing car. The bridges and chronograph works take on linear shapes, instead of the traditional sensual curves of the classical rattrapante chronograph.
Complex, but with an elegant poise and sense around it.
Working in collaboration with Audemars Piguet Renaud et Papi (APRP), the mechanism weighs a scant 7 grams, and is created using titanium and TPT Carbon for its base plate and bridges. It also uses effective skeletonisation to remove excess material to achieve this incredible weight. Titanium has low density, high stiffness and low thermal conductivity, and is also the choice material for the McLaren-Honda racing car.
If the entire movement’s claim to fame is the use of innovative materials (Titanium and Carbon TPT movements are not common at all), then the RM50-03 would have already been a feat. But the movement also incorporates some of the interesting thinking in split seconds chronographs.
Instead of the traditional 8 column wheel used in almost all rattrapante chronographs including other RM split seconds chronographs, the RM50-03 uses one which features only 6 columns. The column wheel is the control centre of the chronograph, split seconds chronographs utilise two column wheels to perform and coordinate the functions of start, split, stop, catch-up, and reset. APRP claims the 6 column wheel is more optimal and stable. This is an interesting claim as almost all other high end chronographs feature 8 column wheels. But theoretically, the number of columns are not relevant to the operations of the chronograph, as it needs two states to do its work. And in theory, any number of pillars on the column wheel can be made to work. And during our hands-on with the RM50-03, we found the pushers to be consistent, light to the touch with a good positive feel. Good qualities for a split seconds chronograph.
Another improvement claimed by RM is the use of a blade spring instead of the traditionally helicoidally wound spring for the split seconds wheel. This is claimed to minimise variations in torque when the split-seconds is actuated.
Finishing is interesting on the movement, as the traditional treatments on rhodium plated brass or maillechort is not a consideration. The titanium parts are subjected to similar haute horogerie finishing like hand polished anglage but various parts of the titanium plates are sapphire microblasted. Pivots are burnished, and polished. The steel parts for the chronograph works are wire drawn and microblasted, then the anglage on these are hand bevelled. The wheels are classically finished with chamfering using a diamond tool, having first been rhodium plated before the teeth are cut. A circular, perlage like decoration is applied to the front surfaces. The Carbon TPT parts are left in their natural finish stage, probably with a layer of clear coat to protect the resin and fibres.
What is the price of progress? How do we value innovation. The Richard Mille RM50-03 is certainly a watch like no other. That’s why we don’t even bother to include a competitive landscape section in this detailed review. No other split seconds tourbillon watch is made with such a high tech carbon case, let alone one impregnated with the super-material graphene. None which feature titanium and carbon plates and bridges. None which has quite the graphic appeal. And none which weigh all of 38g. The bragging rights are out of this world.
But also none with such a huge price tag. (even more bravado for bragging rights!)
It could be argued that graphene need not be expensive. As we mentioned in the Chief Editor’s capsule report on his Top 10 picks from SIHH, the material has many applications from the exotic to the more mundane. Like its use in bicycle tyres. Since 2015, the Italian company Vittoria has a line of bicycle racing tyres with graphene, to improve the rolling resistance while making gains on grip – two properties whose metrics usually reciprocate each other. These tyres are no more expensive than its non-graphene brethen, with a recommended retail price of US$66 each, and often much cheaper, being discounted at online stores.
But the use of graphene in a wristwatch is a first in the RM50-03. And its properties so innately suited to the Richard Mille concept of watchmaking, that its use seems mandated. The collaboration with McLaren-Honda, as we mentioned is a match made in heaven. Would we be proud to sport one on our wrist? Hell yes! Can we justify the price? Perhaps not. But as journalists, we are not the target market. So for the well heeled, where money is no object, what better to impress your friends than a RM50-03 on your wrist, and see them turn green in envy. So perhaps yes, we can justify the price. Somewhat. Also an interesting observation is that the higher end Richard Mille watches seem to do better commercially than the entry level models. They come no higher end than this Tourbillon Split Seconds Chronograph Ultralight McLaren F1. So who are we to say otherwise.
Well played Richard. Well played by both Richard Mille and McLaren-Honda. Chapeau!