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Richard Mille, The Greatest Watchmaker Of Our Time

By Caroline Suganda

Meet Richard Mille, the creator of an unapologetically original, hyper-modern timepiece that understands the demands of the future.
Wee Khim
Meet Richard Mille, the creator of an unapologetically original, hyper-modern timepiece that understands the demands of the future.

On a Thursday afternoon in February, the private dining room at La Brasserie in the Fullerton Bay Hotel, usually quiet in between service hours, was filled with people... yet no conversations were heard, just the occasional sounds of furniture being dragged across or moved in the room, and the sound of camera shutters firing off series of test shots. The interior of this classic French bistro, flooded by light streaming in from its floor-to- ceiling windows that also framed a spectacular view of the Marina Bay waterfront in the distance, was the perfect set-up for today’s cover shoot and interview. The general mood shifted as the morning wore on, and eventually hit a crescendo — the room was abuzz with anticipation as the T Singapore crew was about to meet the greatest watchmaker of our time, Richard Mille.

This would be our first time meeting the man himself, the man whose innovative creations rival — or as some say, outdo — other centenarian brands. Mille was in town to meet a few clients who have “become friends”, he’d shared earlier on. Prior to this meet-up, I had done an e-mail interview discussing his foray into women’s watches and through our correspondence, Mille had already come across as a man who is not afraid to express his insatiable passion for all things horological and mechanical.

Mille was kind of — for the lack of a
better word — a late bloomer. It was only at age 50 that he took a leap of faith and launched his eponymous brand. Born in 1951, in Draguignan, Southeastern France, Mille entered the watchmaking industry at the age of 23. In 1992, Mille, then 41, started the watchmaking division at French jeweller, Mauboussin, where he was in charge of launching tourbillon watches. But soon after, he realised that he wanted more than just to be involved in the business side of things — he wanted to create, to be involved in watchmaking.

Mille walked into the room unannounced, and we were still not entirely ready. No fuss or show of impatience from him. He was wearing
a pair of skinny blue jeans that neatly hid the top of his high-cut Chelsea boots, and a casual navy blazer over a plain white T-shirt. A pair of round, tortoise-shell spectacles framed his eyes that were mirroring the wide smile that had formed on his face as we greeted each other. For a 67-year-old man, Mille sure knows how to dress suavely. But despite all that ensemble, the first thing I directed my attention to was the watch peeking from beneath his blazer sleeve — an iconic Richard Mille’s tonneau shape (four-cornered barrel shape) timepiece with an orange strap.

Wee KhimWith every new timepiece, Mille charts a new record of achievement in the watchmaking industry.
With every new timepiece, Mille charts a new record of achievement in the watchmaking industry.

“How many Richard Mille watches do you own?” I asked, after the introductions were made. It was a question that been gnawing at me.

“Not many, less than 10. I have more cars than watches,” said Mille, in his thick French accent. He is pretty well known in the automotive circuit for his participation and support of events such as the annual Rallye des Princesses Richard Mille (a women-only classic-car rally) and the Le Mans Classic (a bi-annual vintage sports car event). Mille’s office in his 18th century French château in Brittany overlooks a garage where he keeps his fleet of antique cars. Among them is the late racer and inventor, Bruce McLaren’s first Formula One car, the M2B from 1966. “It’s a dream to own this car,” said Mille, having turned down many repeated offers from interested buyers. He also has the Ferrari 312B that won the 1970 Italian Grand Prix, driven by former racing driver Mario Andretti.

Mille’s passion for watchmaking has always been propelled by his obsessions with mechanical devices, such as cars. The synergy between the two has been palpable and evidently, Mille said that he has always created his watches in the same way that an F1 team builds a race car. The chassis (or frame) of racing cars, created as a single unit, was the inspiration for his timepieces that employ unibody construction. He also set out to apply the same precision and cutting-edge technology employed by the best race teams in the world.

The resultant product is clearly an unapologetically original, hyper-modern timepiece that understands the demands of the future. According to an article by The New York Times, Richard Mille is one of the most successful independent watch brands, single-handedly reinventing watchmaking in the 21st century. The company is only 19 years young, a far cry from the other brands with over 100 years of expertise and heritage. But as it turns out, it was not difficult to carve out a brand with zero heritage.
“It was challenging, but not difficult,” Mille said. The market then was “self-contemplating” and “boring”. The watchmakers had a very clear concept of what they want to do, but again and again presented the same speech, the same story dating back to their beginnings in the 18th or 19th century. “But for me, it was inconsistent. Everyone is using modern tools and I thought to myself, instead of perusing them to make traditional watches, let’s do a modern, contemporary watch,” said Mille, who saw this gap in the industry as an avenue of opportunity to introduce his creations.

The vision of the now-iconic tonneau shape watch crossed Mille’s mind in the middle of the night, a vision that led him to spontaneously carve out its shape from a bar of soap. In 1999, he brought with him a prototype of RM 001 to the international watch fair Baselworld to share with other watch enthusiasts.

The RM 001 is a landmark for what’s to come for the brand. The timepiece, single-handedly, surpassed the traditional code of high-end watches: never-before- achieved level of shock resistance; ergonomic comfort, and a record-breaking lightest mechanical watch ever made. With no proper booth or presentation materials, Mille’s RM 001 nevertheless gained a lot of traction and interest. “Also because I was throwing the watch around.

It is very solid, very high resistance,” said Mille. Aesthetically, the watch is an explosion of originality among the sea of very safe, very traditional faces. Its tonneau shape is ergonomic on the wrist; its dial is a window through which you could see every single component of the movement. Yet, such invention was deemed too radical, his friends said that it would be a catastrophe. “They even bet that I will go bankrupt,” said Mille, with a grin.

“At that time, the price for tourbillon watches were falling down, and the price of ours was more or less double of any other competition in the market,” said Mille. However, the astronomical price tag didn’t seem to be the issue. “There is a love for radical object — an object with a strong identity in the world where everybody’s competing with each other,” said Mille. Responses and comments were more centred on the “whys” to justify the approximately S$180,000 purchase. “But the explanation was there. The price is the result of our developments and studies that are evident in its technical characteristics and choices.”

Two years later, the brand delivered its first lot — 17 pieces — of the RM 001 model. It was developed in collaboration with Renaud et Papi, the research and development arm of Audemars Piguet. Mille himself shared how stocks would come into the retailer’s boutique and got sold half an hour later. It was an instant success, but the Richard Mille brand is not a one-hit wonder.

From the economical point of view, the ratio of research and developments invested compared to the number of pieces produced in a year is not viable. But for Mille, it has proven to be a winning formula as his business model is able to sustain itself at a low break-even. “We don’t have to sell a lot of pieces to break even. I am very conservative on that side, but creative on other [design] side,” said Mille.

This year, Richard Mille is targeted to produce 4,600 pieces. While this number pales in comparison to other behemoth luxury watchmaker whose production numbers hover around one million pieces a year, Richard Mille is by far the only watchmaker in this super high luxury segment who is pushing out watches at such volume.

Today, an average Richard Mille watch would cost approximately S$240,000 a pop, while the limited editions can go up to millions — the latter of which makes his business model even more possible. You can’t just walk in and show the boutique staff a picture of the Richard Mille watch you want to purchase. Chances are, they won’t even have it. You would have to either settle on the very limited stock they have in-store, or exercise extreme patience while you hunt down that dream piece.

Wee KhimMille is a man who is not afraid to express his insatiable passion for all things horological and mechanical.
Mille is a man who is not afraid to express his insatiable passion for all things horological and mechanical.

But for the man himself, who could easily own any of these highly sought after timepieces, I had to ask, “What watch are you wearing today?”

“This is a [Rafael] Nadal watch. It has been worn by Rafael himself, and Alexander Zverev,” replied Mille. The two professional tennis players are brand ambassadors of the brand. “They wore it during [their respective] tournaments,” he added.

It’s common for a sportsman to wear his or her sponsored watch during the award ceremony, but to see them wearing it during the game itself is a rare sight. Having a watch on their wrist adds weight that may restrict movements. Furthermore, the watch itself might not even survive the physically demanding ordeals with, in the case of tennis, serves that exceed 200kph or
the intense vibration of an F1 steering wheel.

“Is that why you’re wearing it?” “No. I like it because it’s light, very light,” said Mille of the RM 027-02 on his wrist, the tourbillon watch he created just for Nadal, a third edition of the RM 027. “Light” was an understatement. Weighing in at less than 19 gram, the watch is ridiculously light, almost feather-light. Without its strap, the watch is only 13 gram and yet it is able to withstand 5,000 G’s of force. It’s a watch that Benjamin Clymer, founder of notable horology website Hodinkee, said, “You can’t help but to laugh in amazement,” when you get to hold one. Its case is crafted out of Quartz TPT, while Carbon TPT forms the baseplate of the movement. TPT stands for Thin Ply Technology, a type of carbon composite made by the company, NTPT (North Thin Ply Technology). It is often used for sails and racing yachts for its strength and lightweight properties, but never for a watch — Richard Mille is the first to use it, and the brand has even signed an exclusivity contract for its usage in the watch industry.

“The only thing I request from our sportsmen
is that they must wear the watch in whatever they do,” Mille explained. “At first, Nadal was very reluctant to wear the watch [during a tournament] because he hates to have anything on his wrist, but now he said my watch is like a second skin. He cannot play [tennis] without the watch,” Mille said of Nadal, who recently won the French Open for the 11th time while wearing the RM 027-03. “As I always say, we go to the battlefield. We don’t put the watch just for the picture, we are not afraid to go to the front line.” Like any Richard Mille timepiece, every new edition of a watch challenges the technical perimeters of the last.

The latest RM 027-03 can now withstand 10,000 G’s of force (double that of the RM 027-02) and it costs approximately S$1 million dollar a piece.

Unlike other brand ambassadorship that entails commitments, appearances and contracts, Mille’s relationship with his ambassadors is different, or in his own words, “relaxed”. In fact, he doesn’t even call them ambassadors — they’re his friends. Friends who aren’t pestered with the latest watch to wear, but whom Mille creates watches with in mind.

Aside from athletes, Mille’s friends include Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh, best known internationally for starring in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and most recently in “Crazy Rich Asians” where she was seen wearing the RM 051 Phoenix — a watch that was conceived in collaboration between Mille and Yeoh. Australian actress Margot Robbie has also recently joined the family last year, and reportedly will collaborate on a range of women’s watches, the proceeds of which will be donated to Youngcare, a foundation committed to helping young Australians with high-care needs. This collection will join the many women’s timepieces that Mille has produced.

What is remarkable is that something so mechanical-driven, could be so well received by women, I mentioned to Mille. “I was very lucky that exactly after we launched, there was a new impulse in the women’s market for complicated, mechanical timepieces,” said Mille. A ladies’ model, the RM 007 was brought out early in the brand’s development and it has remained very popular throughout the years. A Richard Mille women’s timepiece, while very technical in spirit (and on the inside) possesses very feminine lines. In the same vein, its case would be snow-set with diamonds or fabricated out of pink sapphire. The RM 19-02 Tourbillon Fleur boasts a hand-painted gold magnolia flower, and with a press of the pusher, the flower “blooms” to reveal a tourbillon. “As you know, women want choices and options, and I do my best to provide them in every way imaginable,” said Mille, who has brilliantly paired a handsome, technical watch with feminine accents. With every new timepiece, Mille charts a new record of achievement in the watchmaking industry. But, do costumers really care that his or her watch is made of armoured glass, or that it is extremely shock resistance? “In every field that we cover, we must be the leader,” said Mille. “It’s true that many clients don’t give much importance to that. But, as far as we’re concerned, it’s important. It’s my duty to show that we are a brand of high performance. We love to challenge anything that we do,” he added.

These high-performing functions may not have an opportunity to prove their performance in every day life, but they certainly have sparked high interest in the new generation of watch enthusiasts. Before our shoot, Mille had lunch with one of his clients, who owns six Richard Mille watches. “He’s totally mad about the brand, and I love that. We’ve created passion,” said Mille. “Sometimes they know more than the people in the boutique, they’re extremely sophisticated.”

As for Mille himself, it is apparent that
he is the initiator who set this passion in motion. But his eponymous brand is anything but himself. “[Richard Mille] belongs to all [the] people that work with us, it doesn’t belong to me. I never really think that my name is the brand, my only concern was for the name to be a brand — which is the case today,” said Mille.

How about the man himself? Do a search of “Richard Mille” on the internet and chances are you’ll never find anything on his personal life, except for his antique cars collection and that he’s married with three children. I wanted to find out more about Richard Mille, the person, but to no luck.

“Nothing exceptional,” Mille replied, when I asked him to tell me more about himself. “We enjoy what we do because we can express our passion and make a living out of it. When people tell me ‘Oh you are a genius’, I think there are people who are real genius because they save lives. We are not saving lives; we are just doing watches,” said Mille.

At the end of the interview, Mille asked me a question, “Did I do well? Was that good enough?” And here, I realised, I have not just met the greatest watchmaker of our time, but also a very humble man.


Photographs by Wee Khim
Styling by Tok Wei Lun