Richard Mille’s First Split Second Chronographs: The RM 004 & RM 008

In the early days of the brand, Richard Mille S.A., basically had just four watches: A time only tourbillon (RM 001 & 002), a tourbillon GMT (RM 003), a chronograph rattrapante (RM 004), and a chronograph tourbillon (RM 008).

That was it! The magnum opus of the lot was the RM 008. A highly intricate tourbillon chronograph. At the time, it should be remembered that a tourbillon chronograph was a rare complication combination. Only a handful of watch firms had the necessary expertise and talent to implement and execute such a complicated watch.

Richard was taking this one step further: implementing a form for the rattrapante chronograph movement that had not been rendered in quite the same way as other manufacturers had before him.

A Pinch in Time!

The important part to any chronograph, if you wish to measure time accurately, is the stop/start part. The more instantaneous the stop and start the more precisely you measure the time elapsed. For the RM 008’s rattrapante mechanism, which it shares with the RM 004.

Richard wanted something new. Rather than the old method of using a column wheel that was stopped and started using a system of levers that would interact with the column wheel, Richard went after an innovation in the way the rattrapante worked.

Richard’s main concern was inertia. Specifically: The jumping of the rattrapante when starting and stopping, due to the mass of the hand and gears, should be eliminated as far as possible. To do this a ‘pincer’ made of titanium, in which both arms work simultaneously, engaged from one point, in order to ‘grab’ the split seconds gear in a single swift movement.

In a standard rattrapante, this is done by two separately activated levers, with the corresponding problem of having to adjust these accurately, such that they reach the gear at the same moment.

When looking at the back of the watch (either the RM 004 or the RM 008) the ‘pincers’ are easy to spot.  However, the secret of the pincer’s perfect functioning lies hidden in the unseen, complicated profiles of just three screws: Two large ones, one for each pincer arm and one in the centre (located directly between the two). The centre screw has a specifically placed head, which allows fine and exact adjustment of the two arms’ arrival on the split seconds gear.

Initial production of both the RM 004 and the RM 008 were slow to start. As with any new technology there was a learning curve and initially that curve was steep. The first versions of the movement required some adjustments. Not only in terms of learning about the timing and the fine tuning of the idiosyncratic screw for the pincers.

Hence, there are two versions that have a PVD titanium baseplate: a V1 and a V2.  The difference between the V1 and the V2 lies in the small changes made to the pincer and rattrapante movement parts. However, this also has implications for production numbers at the start of the series.  As far as it is known, there were only seven RM 004 and less than twenty RM008 V1 watches made.

Some of the earlier V1 models then subsequently had alterations made so that the movement was the same as the V2. The all original V1 watches are therefore rare as they require the original movement to be intact and date from 2006, or before.

A Slow Start!

The movement design was not the only a problem at the start of the RM 004 and RM 008 watches. The movement itself was built up from a titanium PVD coated baseplate. The complexity of the movement and the fragility of the baseplate coating meant that there was a high propensity for error in the construction of the early chronograph watches.

One slip with the PVD coating, one dropped screw or wheel, and the smallest of blemishes will result in the loss of hours and hours of work. The watch will be taken apart, a new baseplate constructed, and back to square one. Extreme care had to be taken with the construction of each movement.

Watchmaking in the early days of Richard Mille was either at a dedicated bench at Audemars Piguet Renaud et Papi S.A. or entrusted to a solitary watchmaker, who was making the RM 008 watches from his workshop, overlooking the River Doubs.

Richard Mille S.A. was essentially a “cottage industry”!  The initial RM 008 series: The V1 was built by a single watchmaker, alone, in his own atelier. Akin to a specialised car engineer, called into deal with difficult problems. This solitary watchmaker, Fernand Simao was such an equivalent.

Only, Fernand Simao had a couple of other “hobbies” that slowed up production of the RM 008 watch in the first year. First, his inclination towards martial arts. Fernand Simao had previously been lightweight kick boxing champion of France! Kickboxing and watchmaking might seem like polar opposites until you consider what it takes to construct the RM 008: Endurance, stamina, concentration, and precision.

One slip, and you are done for!  Kickboxing was more of a help than a hindrance. It was the second hobby: A love for motorbike racing that put Fernand Simao out of watchmaking (and kick-boxing for that matter) for a whole year. Even as late as 2007 (given the RM 006 was introduced in 2004) Fernand was working on the last versions of the RM 008-V1 with the titanium, PVD coated baseplate.

What was apparent in the construction of the RM 008 was how the F1 concept was not simply airplay by Richard Mille: the concept fed through into the construction of the watch from its most basic elements. The RM008’s arrived at Fernand’s door steps in a systemized set of trays. A stack of trays, each of which contained multiple tiny transparent boxes; some with the smallest of components (down to the individual screws).  These were then laid out on the workbench and each of the parts were then mounted onto the base plate in several stages.  It was not simply putting together the pieces; it was the construction of the parts so that they functioned perfectly (and as they were designed to do) as a whole.

Fernand took somewhere between 3 and 4 weeks to assemble an RM 008 before the watch moved on for final testing. Any problems in final testing would see the watch return to Fernand’s workshop for further work.

In total, just at the final part of completion for the RM 008, somewhere between 6 to 8 weeks was required to assemble and fine tune the watch. It takes the watchmaker’s skill to make the parts mesh and synchronize, and work as one. Despite the handful of watchmakers who started working on RM 008s, back in the development stage, only Fernand could stand the pace! He was the last one standing.

The Richard Mille RM 008 Split Second Chronograph Piece Unique DLC Titanium made for Chronopassion (Image © Revolution)
The Richard Mille RM 008 Split Second Chronograph Pièce Unique DLC Titanium made for Chronopassion (Image © Revolution)

A Future Classic Racing Machine!

The RM 004, and its more complicated sibling, the RM 008 were important watches in those early years of Richard Mille. For a company that was embedded in the mind-set and the philosophy of Formula 1 racing machines, a chronograph — and an innovative chronograph at that — were important parts of any racing team’s line up.

The RM 008 stayed in production for about a decade. The carbon fibre baseplates helped production numbers, but the actual number made was low. More importantly, it was the RM 008 that paved the way for the RM 050 watches that currently inhabit the Richard Mille racing stable. The RM 008 is the direct antecedent of RM 50-03 McLaren.  The difference between the two lies in Richard’s ability to push new technology and marry new materials to the mechanical watchmaking universe.

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