The official opening of our components unit in 2013 was undeniably a big step for the brand. Suddenly, in addition to our technical and design expertise, we also possessed the ultimate tool to bring our calibres to life, machining them internally and testing them to our own standards.
Our first in-house calibre was the CRMA1 that lies at the heart of the RM 037. This mechanical beauty was the fruit of powerful brand innovations such as the function selector, the variable-geometry rotor and the intensive use of titanium parts in its construction.
Much like a Formula 1 team such as McLaren, we rely on our suppliers and partners. We secure the best professionals in the industry to provide us with the best of each aspect of watchmaking.
An in-house construction rate of 80% is already an achievement, and no one would expect to exceed this, though neither the huge investments nor the premises required are limiting factors. We, like Formula 1 teams and other car racing brands, rely on the expertise of many different specialists, as the minute size of the materials produced require a precision and savoir-faire which are only acquired and honed to perfection by years of experience. Our suppliers are chosen according to their production capacity given our quantitative and qualitative needs. The Swiss watch industry has the ability to produce parts of exceptional quality according to industrial methods, and employ staff who love their craft.
Our goal is to work with companies that share this philosophy while guaranteeing good lead times.
It is only once every imaginable detail of a model has been fully worked out that the manufacturing phase begins. But before any part or piece can be produced, it needs to be codified to precisely replicate every single one of its dimensions. This information can be transferred to the machines that produce each one. It’s a dry, technical and mind-bogglingly challenging process.
For instance, the minimum of two hours of machining time required to achieve the extreme skeletonisation of the RM 67-02 baseplate are themselves made possible by hundreds of hours devoted to programming and adjusting specialised machinery.
Every single element of the watch, right down to the screws, needs to be codified in a similar fashion. The entire process takes on even more significance when you realise that a Richard Mille timepiece contains very few standardised parts, so ready-made solutions offer no solace. The technical drawings, whether they concern a screw, a case, a pinion or any other part, can be downloaded to the cutting, milling and other types of machines; however, this is never simply a turnkey operation.
During all phases of the machining process, people remain at the heart of production. The machines must be set up by hand and calibrated for each phase. The cutters used in these machines, with their unusual shapes and forms, are mostly made by hand to tolerances of a few microns. All of these constraints mean that it takes weeks before the production of a single bridge can begin.
FINISHING: THE SEEN AND THE UNSEEN
The unique character and essence of a Richard Mille watch lies not only in its high mechanical complexity, aesthetic design and ergonomic fit, but also the handcrafted finishing and polishing by specialists who imbue each part with perfection through the application of remarkable patience, a keen eye, and deft handiwork.
Based on a watchmaking tradition that goes back centuries, hand finishing makes each watch a unique piece with personal and individual care devoted to the slightest details. These myriad finishing operations are the very essence of a little-known art, hidden within the heart and the case of the watch and representing the excellence and quality of high-end watchmaking.
A large number of Richard Mille parts such as screws, bridges, tourbillon cages, winding barrel covers, springs, hands and numerous other parts including the watch case, are finished and decorated by hand. This is exactly the type of finishing that determines the essential qualities that distinguish high-end watchmaking from the rest, with details instantly recognisable to the expert eye, which can to identify each technique used in a single glance.
There is a clear parallel with the levels of finishing to be found in fine sports cars, where some parts rely on laborious craftsmanship, while others more on perfect machining for their visual, haptic or technical features. A combination of these different approaches can be found in every watch. Some parts, like Carbon TPT® components or carbon nanofibre baseplates come out of their industrial treatment in perfect form, flawlessly finished in a manner that far surpasses even the most skilled human intervention. Another part, such as a bridge made of ARCAP®, will benefit visually from the contrast conferred by brushing and polishing, laboriously executed by hand.
Other aspects of finishing can affect time-keeping properties. For example, the teeth of all the wheels require careful hand-finishing to minimise friction and wear. Work executed during this stage, after a part has been produced, is one of the most time-consuming parts of the production whether it entails a special and separate machining phase or a variety of hand tools meticulously employed by trained experts.
AN EXTREME CASE
Beyond the technical challenge our calibres represent, the cases protecting them meet some of the strictest standards in existence. Whatever material it may be crafted of—titanium, gold, carbon composite, Carbon TPT®, sapphire or more—the Richard Mille case carries inherent production difficulties due to its shape and form.
The curved profile of each Richard Mille timepiece makes these watches exceptionally ergonomic and comfortable on all wrist sizes. However, this intentional curvature is very time-consuming at every stage of creation: pre-production, production and finishing, in addition to placing exceptionally high demands on final quality control. The process of machining a case may take as much as several months and require hundreds of operations.
Because of this complexity and stringency, Richard Mille watchcases are considered by Swiss case making experts to be the most complicated watchcases in the industry, the sapphire material beating all records.
The production of a sapphire case structure took us years of research and testing in order to ensure its adequate response to the demands of strength and comfort. Only Richard Mille has to date achieved such a complex case design in sapphire. The bezel, caseband and caseback are 100% crafted from a single block of sapphire crystal. No polymers are used to machine its complex, difficult lines or angles.
With a staggering growth time of more than 12 weeks in Switzerland, each block of sapphire then requires more than 1,000 hours of machining to emerge as a Richard Mille case. The difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that our case design curves in all directions, which requires that we use a multi-axis machine throughout the production process.
The hardness and lack of flexibility sapphire exhibits call for extreme accuracy down to microns in the fit between the two bezels and the caseband, as well as for the pushers. Indeed, anything connected to and part of the case must be flawless to function as it should. Anti-glare treated and water resistant to 30 metres, it is the most difficult case to perfectly produce amongst all the offerings in the entire Swiss casemaking industry, bar none.