Buyer's Guide

Richard Mille: A Persistence for Material Science Innovation

The unique brand has had an outsized impact on the industry through its experimentation with new materials in all watchmaking aspects.
By Joshua Munchow
Jan 04, 2023
Buyer's Guide Richard Mille: A Persistence for Material Science Innovation

Material science has been a cornerstone of horology since the beginning of clock and watchmaking. Early in clockmaking history, material science was focused on developments in metal alloys for more consistent springs and in later years horologists tested various bearing materials before landing on rubies as the ideal, low-friction bearing surface. More recent developments led to the discovery that silicon could create essentially frictionless surfaces for oil free operation.

In the 20th century, experiments using modern rubbers and polymers to make watches dustproof, waterproof, and shockproof changed the industry once again before the quartz crisis saw a massive reduction in material science research for mechanical watches. Luckily for us, a handful of companies and aspiring individuals wouldn’t let their passion die and so the modern era of high-end watchmaking was born around the year 2001.

The 2001 release of the Ulysse Nardin Freak, a category breaking watch, launched a thousand ideas over the following two decades. But Ulysse Nardin wasn’t alone in upending the watch industry in 2001 – that year the very first Richard Mille piece debuted at Baselworld, dubbed the RM 001. The shape, styling, and construction were all a jolt to the sleepy industry and thanks to their  passion for precision engineering, Formula 1 racing, and aviation, founders Richard Mille and Dominique Guenat began an ongoing journey to create some of the most iconic and innovative watches in the industry.

Richard Mille RM001

A core part of the Richard Mille brand was and is research and development into materials, applying both materials new to watchmaking and newly invented materials never before seen. It began slowly but picked up pace as the brand found its stride. Within its first two years the brand had launched a handful of models that set standards for the use of titanium in movement architecture. Starting with movement baseplates in the last six pieces of the inaugural RM 001, it expanded to titanium bridges, tourbillon bridges, screws, and later case structures as a supporting element.

Richard Mille’s first titanium chronograph movement launched in 2003 and was followed in 2004 with the next development, carbon nanofiber baseplates for extreme lightness and rigidity. This made its way into the RM 004 Chronograph in 2005 and extended to a carbon fiber case. In the length of one US presidency, Richard Mille went from PVD-coated German silver to titanium and carbon fiber for movements, all because of a deep appreciation for the innovation seen in auto racing.

Richard Mille RM 004 Carbon TPT

The Era of Alloys

The next eight years saw a proliferation of titanium and carbon across the Richard Mille collection, but I call this the Era of the Alloys. While there were many interesting mechanical innovations, it seemed that nearly every new piece featured a new alloy never before used in watchmaking. In less than a decade we saw an aluminum-silicon alloy called ALUSIC, a new aluminum-lithium alloy, an austenitic stainless steel alloy named PHYNOX (used in a tubular movement architecture), a honeycombed orthorhombic titanium-aluminide, another aluminum-lithium alloy named LITAL, a titanium treated with Titalyt (for improved resistance against wear and corrosion), magnesium WE54 with an electro-plasma oxidation treatment called Miarox (similar to Titalyt), and even a case made from titanium carbide for the RM 053 Pablo Mac Donough.

Richard Mille RM 053 Tourbillon Pablo Mac Donough 44344

It was clear that Richard Mille was using every excuse to try out new materials, formulations, and architecture to find ways to make the watches lighter, more durable, and to elevate the idea of non-precious materials in luxury watches. The period also saw the first sapphire cases, the use of sapphire in the movement, and the inclusion of semi-precious stones as functional components. The RM 018 used sapphire for the movement plates and onyx, tiger-eye, jade, coral, malachite, and jasper as wheels with metal gear teeth pressed around the circumference. The RM 019 saw the first use of pure black onyx as a baseplate, though it wouldn’t be the last model to feature this stunning inclusion.

A Shift to Composites

After the Era of the Alloys, 2012 signaled a shift to what I call the Era of Composites and Ceramics. During this time a lot more emphasis was placed on mechanical innovations, and models saw a flurry of mechanism development while new materials became slightly less numerous, but no less incredible. Carbon nanotubes were experimented with for a few cases followed by extensive use of Carbon TPT. “Thin Ply Technology” was developed by a company named North Thin Ply Technology and consists of extremely thin layers of carbon fiber sheets, typically around 30 microns, which provided extreme strength and consistency through the composite material.

Richard Mille RM 006 Tourbillon Felipe Massa carbonfiber baseplate

Over the years, we were given variations from the OG formulation, Carbon TPT, with quartz -infused configurations: Red, Orange, White, Green, Pink, Crimson, Blue, and Yellow Quartz TPT, plus a 24K Gold (leaf) TPT, each requiring extensive validation to ensure the same physical properties had been achieved. The original Carbon TPT was also used in movements when Richard Mille developed the “unibody” construction where the main plate was integrated into the central case ring, allowing for an astonishing 10,000 G’s of impact resistance. Later developments saw the addition of Graph TPT, a TPT that incorporated graphene, the next step up in advanced carbon-based composites, as well as Carbon TPT being used elsewhere in the movements.

Richard Mille RM 59 01 Tourbillon Yohan Blake carbon nanotubes

The Era Of Composites and Ceramics saw the wide use of various ceramic bezels and cases, and the introduction of more advanced ceramic composites. 2013 started this path with silicon nitride used for a case and bezel, followed by tetragonal zirconia polycrystal known as TZP ceramic for a case in 2015. We later saw an alumina-zirconia ceramic composite called ATZ in addition to a Cermet bezel consisting of zirconium metal and ceramic matrix. These composites were often combined with titanium or TPT composites for a variety of material configurations depending on the model.

Always Be Innovative

Richard Mille never tired of trying out materials, as can be seen in the RM 21-01 which saw a different version of a metallic honeycomb, this time a nickel-chromium-aluminum-iron alloy called Haynes 214 which was combined with Carbon TPT. There was also an experiment with TitaCarb, a polyamide composite material reinforced with 38.5% carbon fibers that was exclusive to Richard Mille. The brand even pushed the use of sapphire beyond just cases. Sapphire found its way into movements as the baseplate, bridges, and third wheel on the RM 56-02, and the brand introduced laminated sapphire crystals in the RM 53-01.

Richard Mille RM 021 Haynes 214 Honeycomb

Two sheets of sapphire laminated together with a sheet of polyvinyl in the center, it was the first instance of anti-shatter technology coming to crystals that I have heard of. In case you weren’t blown away enough, Richard Mille didn’t stop at solid materials. One model, the RM 031 High Performance that was first released in 2012, took a page from the chemist’s notebook and filled the watch case with pure Argon (an inert, non-reactive gas) to prevent oxidation and degradation of both components and oils for maximum movement life and precision.

The effects that Richard Mille has had on the industry as a whole can be seen in the extreme proliferation of “exotic” materials other brands have adopted. The decision for luxury brands to use anything other than precious metals and steel can almost surely be attributed directly to two decades of broad success (and healthy profits) utilizing engineering materials over materials more suited to jewelry. Sapphire, carbon, composites, and advanced ceramics have all become mainstays across the industry, as well as the creation of new precious metal alloys and composites to supplement the old guard of gold and platinum.

Richard Mille RM 67 02 automatic extra flat quartz TPT

Titanium wasn’t even widely used in the early days of Richard Mille, usually being found in tool watches or timepieces that lacked any high horology aspect. This is where the biggest change can be seen, the acceptance of these materials being used not only for the sporty or utilitarian pieces from luxury brands but in grand complications and true haute horlogerie. No longer is any material off-limits for a grande sonnerie, perpetual calendar, and especially the tourbillon. Richard Mille put a stop to that with the RM 001, charting a course to change the watch industry all the way back at the turn of the century.

Aesthetics aside, the passion and drive of Richard Mille and Dominique Guenat has had an outsized impact on the industry in a way that can never be understated. And if recent releases are any indication, the brand isn’t finished yet.

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