Time is the greatest luxury, as the saying goes, and perhaps nowhere is that more true than underwater. The moment you descend from the surface, the clock starts ticking. Stay too long at depth and you risk a crippling case of the bends. Misjudge your air consumption rate and you risk running out of air. Every minute is precious when you’re on borrowed time. So it seemed only fitting to try out one of the most luxurious of diving timepieces-the Richard Mille RM 032- underwater. And there is possibly no better place to dive with it than St. Barthlemy.
Dive watches are blunt instruments, built for a singular purpose, and even the earliest ones got it right – rotating bezel, legible dial and hands, and a few fathoms of water resistance. The ones that couldn’t cut it have disappeared, weeded out of the evolutionary chain like any other ill-suited sea creature. Of course, nowadays, digital diving computers do all the underwater math for you.
Hence, relieved of the duty for which they were originally created, dive watches have become more symbols of a certain lifestyle than anything used as a tool. This has given companies a freedom to use the dive watch as more of guiding principle or design inspiration, and gave birth to the luxury dive watch. The RM 032 is one of the best examples of this relatively new species. At $145,000 in its titanium form, this is a watch aimed more for the man who owns the dive boat rather than the diver. But that doesn’t mean it can’t get wet.
Richard Mille rarely lends its watches for hands-on review. The small number the company produces as well as their high prices mean that to send a watch for a hands-on review requires a lot of insurance and precautions, tilting the risk/reward equation heavily towards the former. To lend one for three days of scuba diving seemed out of the question. But the stars aligned when I was invited to St. Barth for the annual sailing regatta series, Les Voiles de St. Barth, an event of which Richard Mille is a primary sponsor. And I was offered the chance to wear the RM 032 for the week, not to sail, but to dive.
St. Barth is a hidden diving gem, seldom mentioned among the islands to which divers beat a well-worn path around the Caribbean. But this tiny island better known for its high luxury lifestyle and celebrity-spotting holds an entirely different set of riches in the depths just off shore. With the regatta in colorful full sail in the distance, I deflated my buoyancy wing and descended into a protected marine reserve that bursts with life. On one dive, eight large stingrays lay sleeping next to each other with only their eyes protruding from the sandy bottom. A school of giant tarpon hovered in the shelter of a cave while huge lobsters, which grow unmolested, battled for supremacy, ironically, on the upturned deck of a sunken fishing trawler. This menagerie, and the spectacular undersea topography, was enough incentive to tear my eyes off of the RM 032 on my wrist for a while.
Let’s get this out of the way first-there are better pure diving watches than the RM 032. In fact, the 30-year old Citizen Aqualand I left in my hotel room would have probably been a better choice for the hard knocks of a day of diving. But the usual rules of dive watches don’t apply with the Richard Mille. This is a watch you wear diving for the sheer thrill and novelty of it, or perhaps because leaving it back on your boat is a bit more disconcerting than risking a leak or broken strap. It’s a watch someone buys for its technical marvels and then appreciates that it needn’t come off the wrist, even 100 feet deep. Richard Mille is a company that prides itself on building very high end watches that can stand up to a lot of abuse. Witness the pieces they’ve made for (and are used by) tennis legend Rafael Nadal, golfer Bubba Watson, and sprinter Yohan Blake, among others. But while diving has its own share of knocks, the biggest danger of the sport to a wristwatch is simply water pressure.
The RM 032 is rated for 30 atmospheres of pressure. Since every 10 meters you descend underwater adds another atmosphere (14.7 pounds per square inch), the watch is thus deemed safe to 300 meters. In my St. Barth diving, I came nowhere close to that depth. My deepest foray, to a shipwreck at 30 meters (100 feet), was no problem for the watch. Still, Richard Mille takes no chances. The RM 032 has an innovative crown and pusher locking mechanism that prevents accidental operation of the chronograph push-pieces and crown. A twist of the ring on the crown barrel locks both mechanisms, the current status indicated by a red or green arrow. The lock ring is similar to the mechanism found on Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Master Compressor dive watches of a few years ago, but on the RM 032, one twist locks pushers and crown.
Similarly clever is the massive engraved bezel, which is made up of three layers held together with no less than 22 tiny splined screws and then held to the case by additional screws. This thing isn’t going anywhere without your wrist attached to it. Rather than a spring-tensioned ratcheting bezel, the RM 032’s timing ring can only be manipulated by simultaneously pressing the two opposing buttons (at zero and 30) and then only counterclockwise for true belt and suspenders security. I found this easy to do both topside and underwater though depending on the position of the bezel, it did sometimes require some contorted hand angles to press the buttons. Dried salt remnants from seawater immersion are the bane of dive bezels and the RM 032 is no exception. I had to be vigilant in my freshwater rinsing of the watch after each day of diving, lest the bezel become seized in place.
As a bottom timer, the RM 032 works as well as pretty much any other dive watch, albeit slightly less legibly, thanks to its open-worked dial and handset. Still, up close underwater, I had no issues reading off my elapsed time. This watch happens to be a flyback chronograph with a central sweep minutes hand, a feature I’ve long loved. Reading off elapsed minutes with a sweep hand instead of a tiny subdial is so intuitive, especially on a dive watch. However, given that I locked the push-pieces for diving use, I would have had to start timing the dive at the surface and remember to lock the pushers. Then I could have used the bezel to time underwater swims, safety stops, and so on. But I never used the watch in this way, simply because it was so much easier to just twist the bezel as I descended. I remember reading once a while ago that the dive chronograph was not so much created for timing dives but for the diver who likes to wear a chronograph, and that’s the RM 032.
In addition to its flyback chronograph complication, the watch also features a big date display, right at the top of the dial, welcome to my aging eyes. But it wasn’t until my second day with the watch that I realized there is another, less legible, aperture on the dial. It’s the month. This is an annual calendar, a feature almost overlooked amidst all of this watch’s other impressive tech. Set it once and you’ll only have to adjust it once per year (at the end of February), assuming you keep it wound. The month display is deliberately tiny. It’s there for setting purposes, but it’s not really needed day to day. If you can’t remember the current month, you’ve got bigger problems than bad eyesight.
Instead of a running seconds subdial, the RM 032 has a running indicator or, Indicteur de Marche, at 3:00. This function lets the wearer know his watch is operating, a feature demanded by ISO 6425, the international dive watch standard (with which this watch complies). It consists of a segmented aperture on the dial under which a rotating black and white disc spins. While some might argue this is a gimmick, it is mesmerizing to watch even when not suffering from nitrogen narcosis (the rapture of the deep), especially at night when the lumed disc appears to pulse on and off in the dark.
Around back, the movement has all the visual cues for which Richard Mille is known. Bridges and plates are made from titanium, alternately black and silver, matte finished, and held together with more splined screws for an entirely industrial, technical aesthetic. The oscillating weight that winds the two barrels is actually adjustable to provide adequate torque depending on how the watch is worn. The 18-karat white gold ribs can be set in or out to optimize winding, depending on how active your lifestyle is. Needless to say, this is best left to a watchmaker.
Dive watches are traditionally bigger than their terrestrial counterparts but the RM 032 is an absolute leviathan. At 50mm in diameter and close to 18mm tall, this is not a watch that pretends it will fit under a shirtsleeve. The titanium case of the one I wore mitigated the weight of such a sea monster, but surely the rose gold version would have allowed me to shed a few pounds of lead from my weight belt. Worn on my left wrist, the large crown tended to dig into the back of my hand a bit, a problem that went away when I transferred it to my right arm, making the watch quite comfortable to wear. The strap is an extremely high quality rubber as one might expect, along the lines of that fitted to the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore Divers, and fitted to the case with, you guessed it, more splined screws. This was reassuring, since had I snapped a spring bar and lost the watch to the abyss, I’m not sure I’d have surfaced to write this article.
I’ve reviewed a lot of dive watches, from Seikos to APs, but the Richard Mille RM 032 was an entirely unique experience. It requires a different mindset to consider a watch like this, not really critiquing it from a purely practical point of view or judging its value but rather viewing it almost as one would a supercar or a work of art or architecture. It’s a watch that begs one to look more closely, its details revealing themselves more with each examination. And while it would have been easy (and lazy) to fall back on clichs about rich dudes wearing this on their yachts, the RM 032 is an extreme example of why I think we like mechanical watches (and luxury dive watches!) in the first place.
In a way, since the RM 032 isn’t a watch I would ever remotely be able to own myself, it also freed me to consider it as a window into a different world than the one in which I live-not unlike scuba diving, really. And just as my time with the sharks, turtles and rays had to come to an end, so too did my days in St. Barthlemy with the Richard Mille RM 032.
For more, visit Richard Mille online.
Photos: Gishani Ratnayake