Although the obvious theme for a collaboration between watchmaker Richard Mille and American singer/songwriter and record producer Pharrell Williams would be music, the creative and adventurous natures of both partners called for something unexpected. When Mille invited Williams, a long-time fan of the brand, to work on a new watch, he looked upwards instead of inwards for inspiration — the sky and outer space.
“I have always been fascinated by looking up at the sky,” Williams said. “What could be more inspiring than all that ever was and all that ever will be? Space, before your eyes. It is yours to see. It was here before the earth, before this solar system. It will be here after us and nothing is more meaningful than that. When I look up at the sky, I am looking at God. I feel part of so many different parts of a whole. This is the Alpha and the Omega.”
The artistry of the RM 52-05 Tourbillon Pharrell Williams hinges on interpreting an idea, a symbol and a desire. The originality of the manual-winding tourbillon lies in its astonishingly multidisciplinary techniques — the dial of the watch is a meticulously hand-painted vision of the planet Mars, but from a most unusual perspective.
“We need things to pop in this world,” Williams says. “As humans, we spend our time looking out at the cosmos. The pop on the RM 52-05 comes from totally changing our perspective a full 180°. It is the moment we realise, staring at the watch’s face, that what we are peering at, through the vastness of space is … ourselves. Earth as seen from Mars. A distant and beautiful reflection trapped in the helmet of an astronaut.”
Williams’ approach to universality expresses itself first and foremost in the way he moves so effortlessly between the many different worlds he inhabits in his day-to-day life. Apart from a successful career in music, Williams is also involved in contemporary fashion. In 2005, he partnered Japanese fashion icon Nigo to create the streetwear brands Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream footwear, and has also co-designed accessories for brands like Moncler, Adidas and Louis Vuitton.
The partnership with Richard Mille itself has raised few eyebrows but his choice of cosmic being does even more — why the red planet? “I just thought that Mars is such a beautiful and poetic subject and an unheard-of concept for a unique watch,” the Virginia-born Williams says. “We didn’t use to know it was once full of water. It is now thought it may have had conditions similar to those of earth now. There is so much time and space involved — it feels like the right place to be inspired by. Also, mankind put the first probe there when I was a little boy. Mariner 9 was the very first space vessel we made that orbited another planet. And today, we have Elon Musk trying to get humans on or near Mars before even Nasa’s projected timeline. It is the next, most challenging and mind-blowing frontier. That is why I wanted the RM 52-05 to be about this special neighbour we have, right here, in our very own solar system.”
Trades specific to handling high-tech materials are summoned for the brown Cermet case and Carbon TPT caseband of the watch while a range of disciplines in the realm of artistic craftsmanship, such as engraving, enamelling and painting, are applied here in miniature. Jewellery also contributes, via the dial surfaces in blue aventurine glass and the diamonds and black sapphires with settings that are discreetly integrated into the helmet motif.
The lead role in this cosmic interplay is held by red gold, on which Williams’ viewpoint is depicted — a reflection of the heavens and the earth on the helmet visor of an astronaut on Mars, at the edge of the Valles Marineris. The impressive volcanic canyon appeared some 3.7 billion years ago and measures 4,000km long by 700km wide. Master engraver Pierre-Alain Lozeron draws on its sheer cliffs, which are up to 7km high, to convey the Martian landscape. Prior to the enamelling that brings the scene to life, hand-engraving of the red-gold piece required a full 15 hours, and needed special chisels that were designed to purpose.
Then comes the application of flux, or colourless enamel, which accentuates the shine while protecting the metal from oxidation. Finalised by careful polishing of the whole, these meticulous interventions create minute variations that contribute to ensuring each RM 52-05 is a unique piece.
Flanking a white helmet, two white-gold elements containing a black sapphire and two diamonds evoke the floodlights and camera worn by space explorers. The Grade 5 titanium assembly, which rests on a stylised structure representing a spacesuit, ensures a connection between the dial and the underlying movement. Due to its triangular and hexagonal inclusions of metallic copper, the sparkling quality of the blue aventurine glass, commonly known as “goldstone”, enlivens the back of this calibre. The case, in brown Cermet used by Richard Mille for the first time, is highly scratch-resistant, while micro-blasted finishing and polished corners ensure the model’s flawless look.
The technical innovations of the RM 52-05 tourbillon calibre are just as mind-blowing. Equivalent to a space shuttle, the baseplate that carries the movement is machined in Grade 5 titanium, through which it is possible to glimpse the Grade 5 titanium bridges. Other cosmic references include the caseband, which is made of Carbon TPT, well known in the field of aerospace. The hands and bridges on the back have been skeletonised to evoke rocket launch platforms or satellite arms while the crown is based on the design of a rocket capsule. Even the rubber surrounding it sports the distinctive profile of a Martian rover tyre.
Only 30 pieces of the RM 52-05 Tourbillon Pharrell Williams have been made, each one providing a unique journey to planet Mars depending on the wearer — and this is very much the intention of Williams and Mille as they co-designed this watch, which once again demonstrates the watchmaker’s ability to balance the principles of aesthetic freedom to explore with untrammelled technical development.
“In every aspect of my work, I always look for something different, something new. Working with Richard Mille provided an opportunity to go where no one else has ever gone before. Mars, for instance. Creating is about shifting the perspective from which we look at things, that is really the only difference, and with the RM 52-05, we have looked at Mars from a different angle, an unexpected first-person point of view. In doing so, we are breaking the mould. We have the best timekeeper in the world. We have Mars. And we have an African-American man from Virginia, all connected.”
This article first appeared on Dec 16, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.