Richard Mille is a watch brand like no other, that goes without saying. Before Richard Mille – the founder of the brand – no one had managed to offer such idiosyncratic creations at a five-, often six- or sometimes even seven-figure prices and with such resounding success. There’s a reason Richard Mille watches are dubbed “the secret billionaire’s handshake.”
Through a clever mix of innovation and perfect ambassador marketing, the brand has given a new face to the label “super high-end luxury watch” and has somewhat become the go-to watch brand for the world’s well-heeled (and extravagant) clientele in less than two decades. However, the extroverted designs are not equally well received by everyone as a result of their controversial design language.
We therefore decided to take a look at the Richard Mille DNA, attempting to understand what makes these watches so expensive and whether they are really worth their price.
The Frenchman Mille studied marketing in Besançon before he held a number of remunerated positions in the watch industry, most notably at Seiko and a leading French luxury maison called Mauboussin. In the latter, he was in charge of the watch department, which brought him into direct contact with companies such as Renaud & Papi and other renowned Swiss component manufacturers.
At the age of 50, so with a good three decades of experience under his belt, Mille decided to prove himself again as an entrepreneur. In 1999, he therefore went on to found his eponymous watch brand in Les Breuleux, a small town in the Jura mountains of Switzerland, together with his friend and business partner Dominique Guenat.
Whether it was marketing genius, logical calculus, or just plain luck, but already his very first watch in 2001 came like a bombshell and brought the brand fame and recognition almost overnight. Wei Koh simply called it “the watch that changed the world.”
The watch was called RM 001 and featured a tourbillon and the world’s first watch torque indicator. Despite an exorbitantly high price of €159,000 and a hitherto virtually non-existent company history, the 17 examples of the RM 001 sold out within a day. That takes some doing!
By the way, the design language of today’s Richard Mille watches, which was certainly disruptive at the time, is not something that has only emerged over the years. Quite the contrary.
The now unmistakable case shape, which has become a cornerstone of the brand, was evidently already on display at the RM 001 launch. First and foremost is the dominant tonneau-shaped case, consisting of three elements: the bezel, the main case body, and the case back. These are assembled into a whole with the help of eight Torx titanium screws.
Mille had been an absolute automobile nut since his youth. So much so, in fact, that his first love was actually motor racing and watchmaking would have to be described more as love at second sight. After all, there is a reason why the company’s motto in the early days was: A racing machine on the wrist. An example of this can be found in his very first watch, the RM 001. Mille tried to arrange the bridge of the tourbillon cage in such a way that it replicates the front suspension rods of a Formula 1 car both visually and functionally.
But Mille’s affinity for sports is not limited to the design of his watches, but also to the way they function. Many of the advanced materials used for Richard Mille’s timepieces come from the world of automobiles, aviation, sailing and tennis – so the very sports where every gram of weight saved counts.
Interesting here is for instance the model RM 27-04, which was introduced in September last year. A special cable suspension mechanism was developed for this watch, into whose fine-mesh steel cable mesh the caliber is inserted. What looks bizarre has the advantage of being able to withstand accelerations of over 12,000g. The source of inspiration for this is said to have been a tennis racket. (For more info, also check out our article Richard Mille RM 27-04: A New Lightweight Tourbillon For Rafael Nadal).
As with a Formula 1 sports car, Mille tries to save weight wherever possible. However, conventional high-tech materials from the watch industry, such as titanium or ceramics, quickly reach their limits – at least in the world of Richard Mille. In its quest for lightness, the brand has therefore transferred knowledge of materials from other industries to the watch industry, thus introducing materials that other watchmakers would not even consider.
There is for instance the ultra-light NTPT carbon, which is a result from the collaboration with the Swiss company North Thin Ply Technology (NTPT) and which is used in the mast of sailing yachts or F1 car chassis. Together, Richard Mille and NTPT also developed the colored Quartz TPT, consisting of 45-micrometer-thin quartz fibers applied in successive layers.
The advantage of these proprietary developments is their structural nature, characterized by enormous strength, lightness as well as resistance. A cool side effect is also the look reminiscent of damask steel, which is just a result of the superimposed layers.
The average price of a Richard Mille is around 150,000€, which is right in the middle of Patek Philippe and A. Lange & Söhne territory. But what exactly makes these watches so expensive?
Well, if you’ve made it this far, you can almost answer that question yourself. The two main cost drivers are certainly research & development and the haute horlogerie aspect. At Richard Mille, nothing is off the shelf, quite literally. Every aspect, no matter how small, is given maximum attention and nothing is rationalized away.
According to Theodore Diehl, the brand’s press officer and one of its first employees, 1 kilogram of the special titanium Torx screws that adorn the bezel of the watches alone cost around 2 million Swiss francs. Ultimately, it is exactly this “extra mile mentality” that runs like a thread through all watches and all components, naturally resulting in immense additional costs.
Then there is the aspect of high watchmaking art, which is often overlooked. In addition to colorful rubber straps and extravagant dials, the brand also operates at the absolute top level of watchmaking, which is due to the aforementioned collaboration with Audemars Piguet Renaud et Papi (amongst others). The complications cover almost everything that is technically possible nowadays: vibration alarms, acceleration sensors, tourbillons, rattrapante chronographs, you name it.
The third aspect, which has not been addressed yet, is perfected marketing. In addition to high-profile brand ambassadors, the brand can be found wherever top athletes and well-affluent buyers meet on this world: F1, superyacht regattas, Grand Slams, Rally des Princesses, etc.
But the watches can now also be seen on more and more wrists of musicians, NBA players and professional footballers. Celebrities such as Ed Sheeran, Post Malone, Jay-Z, Drake and Michelle Yeoh are avowed fans of the brand, which has certainly helped Richard Mille’s image as the “watch brand of the rich & famous”.
Richard Mille watches simply always stand out, which is why for many watch fans the watches are merely a chavvy display of wealth, rather than genuine fascination and passion for a time-honored craft.
Nonetheless, we must acknowledge here in all fairness that the brand regularly pushes the limits of what is physically possible, developing many unprecedented complications on its own and thus decisively advancing the watch industry as a whole. Since standing still means going backwards, one must at least respect the brand’s R&D merits at this point.
Regardless of the fact that the watches are likely to be affordable only for the upper ten thousand anyway, Richard Mille timepieces are at the end of the day not only conversation pieces, but above all high-priced innovation drivers.