A visit to the Richard Mille ProArt watch case manufacturing plant is the best way of understanding what it takes to create a top-end luxury brand.
On the face of it, the ultra-modern plant, located in Les Breuleux, a village amidst the beauty and solitude of the Swiss Jura landscape, conforms to Swiss manufacturing standards where everything is excessively clean and well organized. After a plant tour, I understood the rationale for a Richard Mille factory engaged in producing watch cases, bridges and other components in small quantities – a facility unlike any other in Switzerland.
RICHARD MILLE ORGANIZATION
The Richard Mille production organization, which includes the ProArt plant, consists of a hub of suppliers, often held together by co-ownerships. Other companies in this ‘designated supplier’ group are Horometrie SA, Valgine SA and Audemars Piguet Renaud & Papi SA (APR&P). Each of these entities has special skills in a specific area of the production process.
While ProArt crafts all Richard Mille cases, APR&P supplies the complications and Vaucher Manufacture Fleurier supplies automatic movements. However this is in flux at the moment as Richard Mille has introduced a few in-house designed automatic calibers the last two years, and have started producing some parts for these new calibers in-house.
When I first visited the APR&P assembly line ten years ago, I picked up a Richard Mille RM 001 manual winding Tourbillon. For its size, it was extremely light. The concave curving case back fits the anatomy of the wrist perfectly and was visually exciting and extremely comfortable to wear. Ever since then I have been fascinated by the Richard Mille approach in creating holistic relationships that unite the interior and exterior of the watch.
“Casing sounds simple but the reality is that it is a time-consuming and delicate job requiring very complex machining,” explains Theodore Diehl, my guide and the company spokesman at Richard Mille. He showed me samples of watch cases in various stages of completion during my visit.
“Richard has a fabulous sports car collection and is himself an avid amateur racer,” Diehl continued. “He draws his inspiration for exotic and/or lightweight raw materials from the world of Formula 1 racing cars, sailing and aviation as inspiration.” Looking through the case samples, I noticed that they had one thing in common: they were indeed all very light for their sizes.
“Let me take you on a plant tour,” Diehl suggested. I willingly obliged. We walked through the machining section where parts were being processed on state-of-the art CNC machines.
This plant has to cope with a number of challenges. For one thing, Richard Mille watch cases are extremely difficult to produce due to the large number of curves and angles they encompass. For another, a large variety of models are produced in very small batches. Finally, many models use exotic materials, which require special machining techniques.
PARK AT PROART
For efficient control over the processes involved, Richard Mille has invested heavily in cutting-edge technologies. Flexible manufacturing cells process a variety of different parts in the same batch. A multiple-axis CNC grinding center finishes cases to a precision of a few microns. Sometimes an operator supervises two or more automated workstations.
On the other hand, there were many operators engaged in traditional manual brushing and polishing operations. Fortunately, these skills are available locally since the habitants of Les Breuleux have been making watch cases for centuries.
The plant is living proof of Richard Mille’s philosophy of combining the best in technical innovation with the tradition and heritage of skilled hand finishing as practiced in Les Breuleux for more than 150 years
TITANIUM TRIPARTITE CASE
“Technology greatly affects the choices we make,” says Julian Boillat, Technical Director at Richard Mille. “I would even go so far to say that technology is one of the core aspects that shape the decision making aspects of Richard’s aesthetics.”
The iconic Richard Mille ‘tonneau’ or barrel-shaped patterned watch cases are extremely difficult to manufacture. For example, the curved front and back bezel must match the case-band without even the slightest bit of tension to make sure that the sapphire glass will not be affected. In addition, because of the curves in both bezels and the case-band, much more material needs to be milled in order to achieve perfect results.
Apart from design, there is the constant search for new lightweight materials used in many of the sports timepieces as well as innovative concepts for the round and rectangular watch cases. Titanium is a preferred material for watch cases because it is as strong as the high-grade steel alloys, but much less dense. Most Richard Mille cases use titanium grade 5, an alloy with excellent properties combining strength with resistance to extreme temperatures and corrosion.
The Richard Mille RM 032 Automatic Chronograph Diver’s
This watch is a good example of the complexity of case manufacturing. The case, consisting of three curved parts, requires a total of 830 machining operations making it one of the most difficult round cases to manufacture. The turning diver’s bezel is not sprung into place as it is the norm today, but attached to the case with more than thirty miniature and specially manufactured torque screw.
Richard Mille RM 032 Automatic Chronograph Diver’s Watch
After a further 11-hour machining, each case has to pass a full day of quality control, including numerous water resistant tests to guarantee that this fly-back chronograph is water-tight to a depth of 300 meters. I had to admire the finish on a RM 032 back bezel sample. Since each case is hand brushed and polished, one can safely state that each piece is truly unique.
When Rafael Nadal plays one of his tennis matches, he wears a watch from the ultra-lightweight 27 series like the Richard Mille RM 027, 27-01 or 27-02 on his right wrist. Each is specially designed for him.
Nadal’s matches can sometimes last for hours. The idea here was to bring a tourbillon watch into the arena that can withstand shocks while remaining comfortable and ridiculously lightweight. For instance, the RM 27-01, released a few years ago, weighed in at a truly featherweight 14 grams without the bracelet - and that’s with the movement installed of course.
To ensure extreme lightness and rigidity, the RM 27-01 back bezel and case band are an integrated construction.
There is an anecdote related to how Richard Mille found his first lightweight material for the RM 006 case, made in 2005, that marked the start of the ‘lightweight theme’ at RM.
In 2005, Richard Mille and his research team needed an extremely lightweight baseplate and a material called carbon nanofiber met their requirement. They were only able to obtain it from a military supplier to the U. S. Air Force. This material was used in parts for the F-117 Stealth Fighter because it allows radar waves to pass through, therefore aiding the plane’s stealth functions.
Carbon nanofiber is created by molding carbon nanotubes in a black polymer matrix at 2,000°C under 750 bars of pressure. The resulting carbon nanofiber is extremely durable (two hundred times stronger than steel) and very light. This material is capable of absorbing far stronger impacts than traditional carbon fiber due to their structure with its excellent surface-volume ratio.
For the RM 27-02 Tourbillon Rafael Nadal, the Richard Mille team crossed new boundaries in terms of case design and materials.
In their quest for a lightweight material of extremely high rigidity, the Richard Mille team chanced upon a scrap piece of the mast of the Alinghi, the boat that won the America’s Cup. “We had this piece that we tried to saw manually but it was impossible to cut as it was blunting our tools,” says Alain Varrin, plant manager.
North Thin Ply Technology had developed this material, known as NTPT carbon. Its surface displays extremely regular wood-like undulations when milled, since it is composed of multiple layers of parallel filaments obtained by dividing carbon fibers. These layers, with a maximum thickness of 30 microns, are impregnated with resin then woven on a special machine that modifies the direction of the weft by 45° between layers.
“We use 800 layers to make up the thickness of the case, which allows incredible rigidity,” says Boillat. Heated to 120°C at a pressure of 6 bars, the NTPT is then ready to be processed on on CNC machines at the ProArt case factory.
The central case band for the RM 27-02 Rafael Nadal shows how form and function can be combined to create a sculpture where the relief of the internal space draws us into a maze of geometries and planes.
“The material is diabolically rigid,” says Boillat. When compared to other composite materials, NTPT carbon improves the rate of occurrence of breaking stresses by 25% and of micro-cracks by 200%. “We did 5,000 G-force shock and other tests. It passed all on the first try,” adds Boillat. “Mr. Mille even threw a case on the marble floor several times and it had no effect.”
It is fitting that Richard Mille selected one of the lightest and toughest ceramic composites for his contemporary talisman – the RM 26-02 Evil Eye. Every culture from early history has sought some form of mascot to protect against the Evil Eye. Richard Mille has seized this imagery as inspiration for an extraordinary design with a hi-tech case.
RM 26-02 Evil Eye
The case for the Richard Mille 26-2 Evil Eye is made from TZP-N, composed of Zirconium compound (95%) stabilized with Yttrium.
This ultra-tough black ceramic material combines low density (6g per cm3) with a very low coefficient of thermal conductivity. TZP-N allows for a perfect finish with micro-blasting and hand polishing. It is extremely resistant to scratches. A long and difficult machining and grinding process using diamond tools is necessary to create the complex forms of the bezel and caseback, which are given a matte surface finish. This black case provides an ideal frame for the Evil Eye. Of course, then there’s the painstaking micro-lacquer work carried out by hand on the flames.
EXTREME CASE MAKING
The case for the RM 26-2 shows how far the Richard Mille team will go in the search for ever lighter materials. While a Richard Mille watch case’s signature lies in its mechanical complexity, visual design and ergonomic fit, the connoisseur can also appreciate the lightweight materials and handcrafted finishing.
Considering that Richard Mille introduced 14 new models in 2014 alone, the fact is that the development of such complex cases made from high-tech materials and in small volumes is only possible through in-house production.
No less than sixty employees – CNC programmers, machine operators, polishers, inspectors – work in this facility adopting innovative technologies, a requirement for working on innovative materials such as grade 5 titanium, NTPT carbon, carbon nanotubes, ceramic TZP-N.
It is clear that ProArt’s team, inspired by Richard Mille, has already and will continue to innovate in new concepts and develop new materials that will help push the limit of what is possible in making high-end watch cases.