Richard Mille’s ultra-high-end watches blend state-of-the-art technology with old school craftsmanship.
Tennis great Rafael Nadal wears a limited edition Richard Mille tourbillon watch worth half a million Swiss Francs. You think he leaves it in the locker when he’s on court? Think again.
‘They told me you couldn’t play tennis with a tourbillon,’ says Richard Mille, a Frenchman who runs the Swiss watchmaking firm that bears his name. He defied those who said the delicate mechanism couldn’t be made to withstand that much vibration. Then he went one better by using a titanium and lithium alloy to bring the weight down to just 18 grams – so light that Nadal wears his RM027- 01 tourbillon while playing professional matches.
This is what makes Mille’s watches so interesting, and what makes watchmaking interesting to Mille. As he puts it, to make a watch like that you have to have one foot in the 18th century and another in the 21st, alluding to the blending of state-of-the-art technology with traditional tools and practises.
Mille always admired airplanes and cars—high performance driven by design and precision—and that inspiration carries through to his timepieces, as with the lightweight alloys borrowed from aerospace and F1 designs. In fact, a desire to push the performance envelope was his primary reason for taking the great risk of starting his own company in 1999.
Mille decided to found his company while working for Mauboussin, the upmarket Paris jeweller, where he oversaw the development of a watch line. He says he was fed up with marketing compromises. He just wanted to do what he wanted, how he wanted. And having spent much of his career on the financial, rather than the productive, side of watchmaking, he wanted to have input on the designs.
‘I was very frustrated that I wasn’t able to take care of specific developments,’ he says. ‘I wanted to create and the only way I could think of doing what I loved was to launch my own brand.’
Mille’s creative concepts were somewhat revolutionary, and focused as much on ergonomics as aesthetics or value. ‘When I started, the high-end watch business was more tuned towards watches that you put in the safe. For me it is very important that a watch can be worn on any occasion,’ he says. ‘It should be a companion for life.’
By all accounts, Mille’s gamble has been a roaring success. Last year the brand sold 2,500 pieces, which can range in value from CHF140,000 to CHF1.6 million. This year Mille expects to sell about 3,000 watches. Turnover for the company has likewise increased from CHF112 million in 2012 to CHF132 million in 2013. He expects revenues will reach beyond CHF155 million in 2014.
At this point in a brand’s lifecycle it is tempting to seek rapid expansion, but Mille prefers not to chase new markets in such a politically and economically chaotic time. That is not to say that Russia, Asia and Africa are not important markets for Richard Mille watches. They are; and Mille believes the brand’s unique designs will continue to do well in those markets. He points out a 2009 ladies’ Richard Mille tourbillon with a diamond-set dial in the shape of a celtic knot. The symbolism—longevity and the endless cycle of life—is extremely meaningful in Asian cultures. With self-assurance Mille says, ‘Sophisticated women seem drawn to watches with complex movements, and we’re confident that this piece will fetch upwards of $180,000.’
Mille has done signature pieces for many celebrities and racing teams, including Lotus F1, Natalie Portman and Sebastien Loeb. The watch bearing Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh’s name is spectacular in its miniature depiction of Asian tiger and dragon figures hand carved from red gold with specially designed miniature tools. The white gold case is encrusted with ersatz diamonds.
Demonstrating Mille’s affinity for things automotive, the Le Mans Classic 2014 commemorates the race his brand has sponsored and served as official timekeeper for since its inception in 2002. The watch features a 24-hour display and references the traditional start time of 16:00 in a clever homage to the race.
The company takes great pride in the high level of engineering and artistry that go into its products, as well as its innovative use of materials. Richard Mille watches employ metallic and non-metal alloys, ceramics, carbon nanofibre, silicium and others more common on race tracks and runways. The cases and parts are finished and polished, often using time consuming traditional tools and methods, such as black polishing with a cheville de bois, which Mille says perfects the reflection of light beyond what modern methods can accomplish. Each piece is further made unique through the craft of anglage employing a craftsman’s rare talent and patience to turn edges into luminous lines. Miniscule parts are inspected for microscopic scratches; holes are drilled by hand under magnification; and everything gets polished to an ultra-high sheen—even the parts that cannot be seen. Impractical perhaps, but it is what distinguishes a Richard Mille product from a mid-range product, he says.
Finally, quality control takes at least three weeks and might include 50 or 60 different processes depending on the watch. If they pass those screens then they are, according to company literature, ‘as near to perfect as humanly possible.’
This is the essence of what Mille wanted to achieve when he opened up his shop in the historic Swiss watchmaking centre of Jura, following on the path of the craftsmen that came before him in that place: to push the limit of human achievement ever closer to perfection. Richard Mille’s literature puts it well when it states: ‘Within high-end watchmaking, the quest for technical and aesthetic perfection is a matter of principle.’
Article by Peter Carson