Timing the Swing: Richard Mille’s RM 038

It’s a different kind of driving! Not so much of the racing variety, more hitting the small white ball with all the force you can muster with a controlled swing variety! Mille’s entrance into the world of golf, as with all the lifestyle and sports he engages with, was at the extreme end of the scale. Gerry Lester “Bubba” Watson, when signed to Richard Mille, was the hardest hitting golfer in the game. Self-taught, and completely maverick in approach and style (he is one of the few who play left-handed), he could drive a ball further than other professional golfers. Remarkably, he has finished top of the distance hitting table for five years: 2006, 2007, 2008, 2012, and 2014. His furthest drive on the professional tour was a staggering 442 yards with the ball reaching a speed just shy of 200mph. Hitting a golf ball that hard, with that degree of skill, requires precision, timing, and power through the swing! Richard Mille had found his ideal golf ambassador!

Bubba Watson cliched the green jacket first in 2012 and a second time in 2014, here on his wrist is the Richard Mille Tourbillon RM 038 Bubba Watson (Image: richardmille.com)
Bubba Watson cliched the green jacket first in 2012 and a second time in 2014, here on his wrist is the Richard Mille Tourbillon RM 038 Bubba Watson (Image: richardmille.com)

Mille had already started to experiment with impact on the watch in a number of ways. First there was the arbitrary throwing of the watch across the room when he was initially introducing his watches to the world. Second there was the inadvertent high speed impact of watches strapped to the wrist of Formula 1 drivers. Third, he had partnered up with Rafael Nadal: the hardest hitting player in the game of tennis. This was the first watch specifically designed for a golfer to wear in play, and being a Richard Mille tourbillon, there would be more to the watch than meets the eye.

While some of the forces acting on a watch are the same for a golfer as they are for a tennis player, there is a difference between the two sports in the impact force acting on the watch as part of the wrist.  The connection a tennis racquet has with a ball is essentially soft, with netting as part of the racquet that also has an ability to ‘give’ at the point of impact. This still does not negate the fact that about 400G’s are impacted on the watch mechanism each time a backhand is played on the wrist of Rafael Nadal.

Rafael Nadal wearing the RM 27-03 Tourbillon Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal wearing the RM 27-03 Tourbillon Rafael Nadal

For golf, the forces are less frequent, but arguably more severe. In a drive off the tee, a golf club plus the wrists holding it accelerate to when the club head connects with a solid(ish) ball, then the impact force on the club is transmitted through the club and hands to the wrist and watch. Once the ball is hit, there is the de-acceleration of the club to the top of the swing. The forces become more severe when a golfer is playing out of a bunker (the club has to effectively be used as a “digging tool”) and after the swing where arm and watch come to a sudden and abrupt halt. The watch had to be comfortable on the wrist, light, and most of all, with extreme shock resistance.  If ever there was a need for an impact resistant escapement that could also cope with the changes in forces, then who better to design that than Mille Mille.

Consider the following illustration. The mass of a golf ball is approximately 46 grams and the standard acceleration of a golf club by a professional player is about 100 mph or 44.73 m/s. This speed of the club, when it connects with the ball, produces a speed for the golf ball which on average is about 170 mph or 76.08 m/s (or 200mph in Bubba’s case). The moment of impact lasts for 5 milliseconds (0.005 seconds). With me so far? One way to measure the force of the impact is to express it as a Newton (N). A Newton is equal to the amount of net force required to accelerate a mass of one kilogram at a rate of one meter per second squared; or to put it another way 1 N is the force of Earth’s gravity on a mass of about 100G. Running through the calculations, the force applied to the ball (through the driver) is around 695 Newtons; or the equivalence of approximately 1400x earth’s gravity (G). Although that is not the entire force of the club on the watch, the watch would feel part of the impact through the golf club and wrist. It would represent a significant ‘jolt’ to the mechanism.

For that reason, Mille set out to design a watch that could cope with such forces. The result was the RM038 “Bubba Watson”: a limited series of 38 watches. For the RM038 watch case, Mille returned to what he had learned developing the RM009 and RM027. The cases for the latter two watches were built for different purposes. For the RM009, the objective was a light metal capable of withstanding direct impact if necessary (although hopefully not!). For the RM027, the casing had to be even lighter, although the impact properties were not as severe for the case as required for the RM009. For the RM038, Mille employed another esoteric metal alloy that allowed other properties of case manufacture to be explored.

The Richard Mille Tourbillon RM 038 Bubba Watson
The Richard Mille Tourbillon RM 038 Bubba Watson

Magnesium lithium alloy is a “cast alloy” and this made it easier to deal with as the basic tonneau shaped parts that could be cast and then machined into the iconic Mille Mille case shape. Magnesium is the lightest structural metal and magnesium alloys have a hexagonal lattice structure, which affects the fundamental properties of these alloys. Cast magnesium alloys are used for many components of modern cars, and magnesium block engines have been used in some high-performance vehicles. The designation WE54 (the case material for the RM038) means that it is a magnesium alloy where roughly 89 percent Magnesium, 6 percent Yttrium and 5 percent rare earth metals.

The coating given to the watch casing was electro-plasma oxidation treatment named Miarox (R); the white colouring was from the crystalline oxide ceramic with a high ratio of very resistant composites such as MgAl spinels. It all sounds very technical and cutting edge, but the practical applications of this process is that it improved both the hardness and scratch resistance of the alloy: its wear resistance and corrosion resistance. The MgAl spinel is a more technical way of saying that the atomic structure of the coating is a very regular hexagonal pattern. Material bonding that has such a regular hexagonal shape is very tough and the bonds between atoms are very strong in such a lattice structure. What appears hyperbole and marketing speak actually has a very real application: a very tough and durable coating to the metal that becomes part of the metal itself.

For the RM038, the purpose of the coating was two-fold. First, the coating gave the watch a distinctive look. Usually, the cases for Mille Mille watches had been in a finished precious metal, titanium, or some form of alloy or composite that was dark (read black or grey) in colouring. For golf, a decision was taken to produce a sports watch that was different; something that would be distinctive and match the more colorful attire favored by golfers. Second, the coating was highly scratch resistant and bio-compatible: this would make it hypo-allegenic and not feel metallic against the skin. The material eschews moisture making it comfortable on the wrist. It was the ideal coating for a sports watch.

As with most of Mille’s innovations, the original inspiration came from cutting edge auto engineering. Usually such finishing (Miarox) is found on the outside of engine pistons (the coating is almost self lubricating) to reduce friction. However, the Miarox coating is also used on more mundane everyday household goods such as irons (the underside of the iron that is in contact with your clothing) or the coating of the outer shells on mobile phones.

For the baseplate and bridges Mille returned to using titanium. Titanium was chosen over the other esoteric metals Mille had used in the past, as the bridges in particular had to be rigid and strong enough given the sudden pressures that would be applied to the mechanism. In particular, a special lattice bridge was designed and manufactured to not only hold the mechanism in place but to also hold the pin for the hour and minute hands.

Basically, the design of the lattice bridges at the front of the mechanism is a “three-bridges” design. There is the top bridge to hold the winding barrel, the bottom bridge to hold the tourbillon escapement, and the middle bridge holds the hours and minute hand pin in place. But it is the design of the bridges to allay the forces acting on the watch mechanism that makes the RM038 different. On the left hand wrist of the right-handed golfer the dynamics of the bridges form a ‘wedge’ against the forward motion and impact of the golf club. The middle bridge holds the hours and minute hand pin in place (against the forward motion); the top and bottom bridges form the same pattern. All are anchored against the ‘back wall’ of the case.

As seemingly the case with all of Mille’s sports and lifestyle ambassadors, the arrival of a dedicated RM watch on their wrist altered the fates in their sporting competition. Bubba Watson signed with Richard Mille in 2011 and by 2012 had won his first major at the US Masters. Suddenly, the goofy golfer from Baghdad, Florida was ranked inside the top five golfers in the world.

For the RM038 series there has only been two other variants. The first was a very limited edition of only four watches to celebrate that initial victory by Bubba at the US Masters in 2012: the RM038-Victory. Basically the same as the original RM038 but with a green inner bezel (the green matching the green of the jacket for the US Masters victor) and Bubba’s signature on the back of the watch.

Finally, the RM038-01 was brought out in 2015 with g-force meter incorporated in the mechanism to measure the impact on the mechanism from the swing. The case material was now comprised of green TZP ceramic bezels with a rubberized titanium inner case.  A limited series of 50 watches.

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