Richard Mille RM 35-03 Automatic Rafael Nadal

Richard Mille watches have often featured technical advances which sometimes get obscured in the larger narrative about the brand and by the sheer enormity of the price points they occupy, but they are, nonetheless, bona fide technical achievements. A tourbillon watch that’s literally light enough to float and robust enough to tolerate being on the wrist of Rafael Nadal doesn’t come along every day.
The new Richard Mille RM 35-03 Automatic Rafael Nadal is a line extension of the original RM 035 watches, which have an ultra-light movement weighing just 4.3 grams. The watch at launch will come in two versions, in blue Quartz TPT with a white Quartz TPT caseband and white Quartz TPT and Carbon TPT with a Carbon TPT caseband. TPT stands for Thin Ply Technology, which is a manufacturing technology for making ultra-thin (the word “ultra” comes up a lot when you talk about Richard Mille) sheets of laminate, made up of unidirectional fibers. You can use carbon fiber, but you can also use quartz fibers, which are obtained by softening high-purity quartz rods over high heat and spinning off filaments. The filaments are unbelievably strong – a single fiber can have a tensile strength of 800 kilopounds per square inch. It’s expensive to produce and while carbon fiber for watch cases has become pretty common, I’m not aware of any other company using Quartz TPT for watch cases.
While the case is pretty interesting from a technical and materials science standpoint (the composite also looks pretty cool; the different layers of laminate make for a very eye-catching visual effect) the biggest update is to the adjustable geometry rotor. The idea behind the adjustable geometry rotor is that you can vary the effective inertia of the rotor by changing the position of two wing-like elements attached to it, which lets you adjust the watch for more active or more sedentary lifestyles.
This Richard Mille RM 35-03 Automatic Rafael Nadal was introduced by Richard Mille in 2016 in the RM 35-02 but the only snag was that the rotor wasn’t user-adjustable – you had to take it to an RM service center. In the RM 35-03 the rotor geometry can be adjusted with a pusher at 7:00. Press the pusher and the watch goes into Sport Mode, during which movement of the rotor is blocked during “strenuous activity.” There’s an on-off indicator to let you know whether Sport Mode is active or not. When you hit the pusher, the two adjustable wings move to a position 180º opposite the main winding mass. This shifts the center of mass of the rotor to its center, neutralizing winding. The function indicator shows “Off” at the same time, indicating that winding is temporarily neutralized for as long as you’re mountain biking or playing a brisk round of tennis or golf, or flying a wingsuit (my current favorite form of sport to read about but absolutely never do).
Leaving aside the question of price – with every passing day Richard Mille retail prices in any event seem less and less extraordinary and more and more business as usual, for better or worse – you are certainly not going to see anything even remotely like his watches from anyone else. Without their instantly recognizable design features, they would certainly not succeed at functioning as what the kids these days call a flex but you could say that about any other instantly recognizable luxury watch design.
From a technical perspective, his Richard Mille RM 35-03 Automatic Rafael Nadal watches often still remain at one of several cutting edges – the RM combination of high tech case materials, unabashed celebration of the machine-ness of watches, and refinement in execution, plus things like the incredible durability and lightness found in many RM timepieces, gives you a unique value proposition. When I first saw Richard Mille watches two decades ago, I was pretty floored – there had been nothing quite like them before – but in subsequent years, I did wonder whether or not the basic design language would age well. This is a matter of taste to some extent, but I feel as if they have, and apparently so do the not small number of brands over the years who’ve tried to knock off his design language (usually with little actual success). You can’t say that about a lot of other watches that came out of the early- to mid-2000s Dawn Of The Superwatch, and during my time with it, it was really brought home to me again just how inventive Richard Mille’s watches continue to feel, even two decades after they first came out.
Interestingly enough, there are very few modern watches that allow the wearer to directly influence basic elements of watch performance and this seems more odd the longer you think about it – after all, if you’re in love with the watch partly thanks to its mechanical nature, you’d think that luxury watch brands at least would do more in this regard. Instead, fine watchmaking has largely focused on designing to compromise values and/or coming up with mechanical solutions that leave the user outside the loop as much as possible. For most Richard Mille RM 35-03 Automatic Rafael Nadal watches, irrespective of their complications and complexity, pretty much all you can do in terms of directly influencing the movement is set the watch. This may be mostly all to the good – after all, the single biggest danger to any mechanical watch is its owner (or worse, an incompetent watchmaker). But being able to adjust something as fundamental as winding rotor performance is a satisfying additional feature and one that, while perhaps not strictly necessary, does let you get out of a watch what you should get out of a watch, which is having fun.