WRITER: Victoria Townsend & Nour Yasmine
The Richard Mille watch developed for tennis champ, Rafael Nadal, is a test bed of high-tech engineering, built to withstand the most extreme conditions, look like a million bucks and weigh as much as a feather. In essence, it’s a tourbillon timepiece unlike any other.
The Intercontinental Le Grand Hotel is situated just across from the Place de l’Opéra. We’re here to honour Rafael Nadal, who, in a departure from his usual hot, bare-shouldered, sports look, appears as dapper as can be in a prim, pressed and box-fresh tux.
If we could step back in time, Victor Hugo might have been among us, for I’m told he used to regularly hold court, so to speak, at the banquet halls of this hotel. Marcel Proust and Oscar Wilde were also regulars apparently, but at the ground floor’s Café de La Paix. Steeped in history it might be but tonight, celebrities of a different kind have come together – there’s Tommy Hilfiger, the Spanish Ambassador to France, the Presidents of the ATP and French Tennis Federation, former tennis pro and seven-time winner at Roland Garros, Chris Evert, Nadal’s coach (his uncle), as well as the gorgeous Inés Sastre and of course, our host, Monsieur Richard Mille.
As we enter the ballroom, where all the tables are perfectly set, with crystal and silverware glistening under the violet overhead lights, the sound of polite conversation in French and Spanish tapers off as soon as Nadal is ushered to the podium and begins to speak about his foundation, whose mission, since it was established in 2007, has been to use sports to aid and provide hope of a better life to socially disadvantaged children (and whose roster of official partners include Richard Mille). If you don’t already know, you might by now be wondering what makes Richard Mille and Rafael Nadal a good match. The concise answer is: the opportunity to push the boundaries of what’s possible. Or at least, that’s the formula the Swiss luxury watchmaker has been putting to the test on Nadal and other athletes, like golfer Bubba Watson and Formula One driver Felipe Massa.
“The requirements for each of our ambassadors’ watches are never the same,” explains Richard Mille when asked about the watches his company produces for these sportsmen. “Rafa’s requirements are very different from those that golfer Bubba Watson might need, whose watch experiences shock every 10 or 20 minutes. Or polo player Pablo MacDonough, who might receive a mallet to the watch. Or Felipe Massa, whose watch suffers massive vibrations and G-forces in the cockpit of his Formula One racing car. So each time we work with different objectives and we try to adapt. And this is why our products are really well studied for each case.”
Mille’s sought-after mechanical watches speak to a high degree of technical innovation and it’s for this precise reason that, for the past five years, a Richard Mille tourbillon-equipped watch has graced the right hand wrist of Nadal, even as he pounds his opposition into submission on the centre court.
It’s quite a coup, especially when you consider that few, if any, top tennis players actually wear a timepiece while playing. Aside from the obvious fact that something poking the wrist could be bothersome, the G-forces and shock created by such relentless athletes should be enough to send a mechanical watch to the scrap heap. And that’s the point. Richard Mille has risen to the challenge of making a watch, equipped with a (typically sensitive) tourbillon, which a sportsman can take into the shower, sauna, or anywhere else for that matter, and subject to the kind of abuse only a digital Casio G-Shock might be deemed appropriate for, yet one that will keep ticking as though it were merely on a walk in the park.
Of course this isn’t an exact science and they’ve had to break a few eggs to make their omelette. In fact, they are now on the third iteration of their collaborative watch, aptly (yet also intially confusingly) named the RM 27-02, and this latest version has a harder, lighter, more resistant and modishly distressed-looking carbon-quartz case, developed in conjunction with North Thin Ply Technology. In an upgrade to the original, which was certified to withstand forces up to 800G’s, the new RM 27 is certified to withstand a full 5,000G’s.
As Mille himself put it, “Discovering the outer limits of strength for these new materials, testing such ultra-light tourbillon movements to the extreme acceleration conditions of high level tennis matches and subjecting the carbon composite case to aging processes, sweat and heat was a total nightmare for me and my team.” Then again, those efforts have been reflected in the watch’s eye-watering price, which is just over 850,000 USD.
“Given that we do tonnes of development, studies, and tests only to release a few watches, if you then divide all that RND by the number of pieces we produce, you’ll naturally come out with a very high cost,” Mille explains. “This is why we are considered the Formula One of the watch business, because in Formula One you have exactly the same sort of situation: you are developing all the time and you release only a few units. But this is what we love to do.”
After taking time to admire the RM 27-02, we were requested to take our seats for a dinner prepared by Elena Arzak, who was actually flown in from San Sebastian’s Arzak restaurant, famous for its new Basque cuisine. To end the star-studded gala, Spanish singer Luz Casal gave a moving recital that drew all 400 guests to their feet with cries of “Brava!” But to give credit where credit is due, a special bravo must also go to Richard Mille for his proof that mind over matter can really work.