RICHARD MILLE - A MAN AHEAD OF HIS TIME

Futuristic, expensive and, divisive, we take a look into the phenomenon that is Richard Mille to find out what makes the brand tick.

RICHARD MILLE - A MAN AHEAD OF HIS TIME

Much is made of the association between cars and watches. This is commonly framed as the watch being a tool for the driver, race timing, or occasionally case design. No watch company has drawn the technology and construction techniques of motor racing so firmly into their brand DNA as Richard Mille, so much so, that their company website describes the watches as ‘A racing machine on the wrist’.

Richard Mille's watches are divisive. Watch collectors either love them or hate them, understand them, or dismiss them; but they are divisive in a more fundamental way – there is the watch industry before, and now after, the launch of the brand. One watch company has changed so much about how a watch should look, how it should be built, what it should be made of and how it should be worn. Even such factors as how much a watch should weigh, how much it should cost and what strap a luxury watch should be worn on, have been upended.

Starting his career in the 1970s with French watchmakers Finhor, Richard Mille worked his way through a number of roles and companies before the launch of his own brand in 2001. While he freely admits he is not a watchmaker, his years in the industry demonstrated the importance of collaboration and so when the Richard Mille brand was revealed, he worked with Dominique Guenat from Guenat SA Montres Valgine for the product development and administration and Audemars Piguet Renaud & Papi for the complicated movement manufacture. Renaud & Papi had already established themselves as masters of cutting-edge horology in their work for Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak concept watch, so much so that AP bought a stake in the firm.

Despite his years surrounded by watches, Richard Mille’s true passion was cars and planes, specifically the mechanical engineering and the materials involved. It is no surprise then that machines operating at the extremes of speed should have influenced his watch design. The mechanisms and their unique architecture were always on show, via the dial-less layout that has become the brand’s signature. The case, while adopting a classic tonneau outline was shockingly futuristic, adopting splined torque screws to hold the front and back of the case in precisely the correct tension.

The materials used in the first watch RM001 evolved through its limited production run changing the baseplate from German silver to PVD coated titanium, and exotic materials have been central to Richard Mille’s development, not simply for novelty value but to add strength, rigidity or reduce weight. While gold, steel and titanium have their place in the model range, previously unseen materials such as carbon nano-tubes, aluminium-lithium alloy, and ALUSIC (a combination of lithium, aluminium, titanium, zirconium, chrome-silicium, zinc and manganese) were used to make cases, baseplates, and movement parts, materials adopted from Formula 1, aerospace, and even space technology. Even the classic baseplate construction was done away with, the movement being held suspended in a lattice of tubes like a car or bike chassis; the illusion of fragility hiding ground-breaking levels of shock resistance.

The price point of Richard Mille watches is often a shock for the uninitiated, even at retail, before secondary market trading in discontinued lines is factored in. While the cost seems outrageous, the explanation is simple; it is expensive to be first or different. So much of the price of an RM watch represents years of R&D and that cost is spread out over relatively few watches produced each year. If materials are hard and resistant, drilling and shaping them becomes costly and new techniques have to be developed to cope, especially as watchmaking involved a different scale of manufacturing to an aircraft or satellite. Everything is proprietary, down to the spline screws for the cases and the tolerances often come down to a matter of microns. If the techniques are new, the failure rates will be high, as each watch becomes, in effect, a research project. The contrast between the retail price and the strap material often seems laughable – a six-figure watch on a Velcro strap? This is a case of matching the fabric to the function, as with the rest of the watch, and these are watches designed to go where no others have been before.

Richard Mille is a watch of extremes, both in looks, technology, complications, and materials used, so it is only fitting that they be associated with wearers who operate at extremes. Watch companies have long partnered with sportsmen for the ambassadorial lift it provides, but an expensive brand collaboration watch is often something strapped on during the walk to the podium. Not so for Richard Mille, the whole design of the watch is focused on surviving extreme shocks or being so lightweight it does not impede the athlete, whether a topflight tennis player or an Olympic sprinter. It may seem jarring to see such expensive watches being dunked in the pool on Instagram, and owners who do it often face criticism, but I am sure Richard Mille himself approves. They may carry a high price tag, but that merely reflects the level of robustness built into them. If the movement can cope with up to 10,000Gs of shock and the case material is used in outer space, then a little chlorine-laced H20 is not going to hurt it.