The rise of Richard Mille

04 May 2016
6 min read
Ariel Adams looks at the rise of Richard Mille and how the innovative watchmaker moved the luxury cogs.
A Steady Race To The Top

It is a common practice in the watch industry for a brand’s founder to also be the name of the company. This is just what Richard Mille did with his eponymous watchmaking company. This practice has origins several hundred years ago in Europe when watchmaking truly became an industry. Today’s luxury watch industry is a mixture of both traditional and modern elements—with a serious leaning toward the traditional. With that said, it is very possible that today’s modern watchmaking industry would not exist if it was not for bold, dare I say audacious, thinkers like Richard Mille. People like Richard have gracefully woven traditional elements of watchmaking with contemporary designs, materials and ways of marketing that has allowed Richard Mille to be the top watchmaker within his arguably small, but important luxury sector.

Richard Mille timepieces are produced in parts of Switzerland were many of the items in neighbouring watch factories look like products from another century. What those watches and the ones produced by Richard Mille have in common is a shared philosophy toward the timelessness of watchmaking practices, as well as the beating heart of a mechanical engine. In some ways that is where Richard Mille and many of his colleagues differ in their approach to producing Swiss watches.

Relaxed and with a cavalier attitude toward life and his work, Richard Mille today—when seen by those outside of his inner circle—is the living embodification of the type of person he designs watches for; an individual, in many cases, who is often a mature and with a load of personal success and wealth, sufficient enough to live a life of relative leisure while travelling, enjoying fine cars and cuisine. That is the Richard Mille of today, and it is also the answer to the often asked, and rarely answered, question of, “who really is buying watches that cost over half a million dollars?”

Understanding Richard Mille himself is key to understanding one of the most interesting modern phenomenons in luxury watches—the popularity and success of the ultra-high-end sports watch. This first requires a look at the philosophy and lifestyle of the brand’s founder.

In 2010 much of the mainstream media finally became aware of Richard Mille thanks to one of the cleverest marketing decisions in the modern history of the watch industry. Richard Mille and champion tennis player Rafael Nadal decided that Nadal would not only become a Richard Mille watch brand ambassador, but that Nadal would also actually wear a Richard Mille timepiece while professionally competing. Nadal went out to win several tournaments with not just a Richard Mille watch on his wrist, but a tourbillon-equipped Richard Mille on his wrist known as the RM 027 (which he later replaced with the updated RM 27-01 model). The watch was produced from a series of exotic lightweight materials and broke several records due to its incredible featherweight for such apiece.

Perhaps what really shocked the watch industry was that Nadal was wearing the type of watch that collectors would traditionally baby as a precious object given the valuable mechanism inside. The RM 27-01 was sold as a limited edition, and what shocked the mainstream was when they learned the price. Nadal, an internationally admired sports star, was competing with a timepiece on his wrist with a price tag of over $500m. Suddenly, the often private and mysterious cost of luxury goods was made public to the world. Most watchmakers would have shunned the attention and worked to steer the focus away from the price of the watch and on to the achievements of Nadal. Richard Mille instead acted in calm acknowledgement of the price of the ‘Nadal watch’, as well as many others in the brand’s collection. Other timepieces by Richard Mille—even some with no precious stones—command prices in the millions of dollars.

The media frenzy around Rafael Nadal and his pricey timepiece (and sponsorship endorsement) happened about nine years after Richard Mille started his company venture, back in 2001. Even then, during relative economic prosperity, the challenge of starting a new luxury watch brand in a sea of entrenched names, histories and relationships was very tough. In fact, the luxury watch industry is so tough today, that even brands with enormous potential like Richard Mille would find it almost impossibly challenging to reproduce their success if they had to start over this year.

One could easily assume that Richard Mille originally entered the watch industry coming from the world of high-tech performance vehicles or material sciences as judged by many of the things that influence new and existing Richard Mille watch models. Born and educated in France (and still a resident of that country today) Richard Mille is actually an almost life-long veteran of the watch industry. Much of that time, until the early 1990s, was spent as a watch industry manager working, which in Richard Mille’s own sentiments, was creatively “frustrating.” Mille describes feeling as though he wanted to be a part of the actual design and development of timepieces, as opposed to just being in the business of making and selling them.

In 1992 Richard Mille made an interesting move to not only head the watch making division of Mauboussin Jewelry, but to also invest in that arm of the business. Mille immediately began to set forth his own dreams about producing modern mechanical watches and that was to marry tradition with the science of today. At Mauboussin he forged a relationship with the Swiss National Centres of Competence in Research (NCCRs) and embarked on numerous research and design tangents in search of new materials, as well as production techniques that would produce luxury watches even more desirable for luxury consumers.

Toward the end of the 1990s, Mille felt that the results of his material and technology research in watchmaking were not necessarily a perfect kit for the watchmaking arm of a jewellery company. And so in 1999 Richard Mille left Mauboussin to form his own company, with the intention of taking his own dreams about the art of watchmaking to the next level.

When it comes to watchmaking, nothing in Switzerland is possible if you act alone. Mechanical watches (especially those as complicated as Richard Mille’s) are produced from hundreds, if not thousands of pieces when taking into consideration the movement (where most parts are used), dial and case. Each of these parts needs to be designed, produced, checked for quality, assembled, tested and stocked for future repair needs. Before starting his own brand, Mille knew that he either needed to work with a host of different suppliers at an arm’s length or partner with an existing and strong watchmaker. What Richard Mille did in this instance was also very clever; he partnered with the major historic watchmaker, Audemars Piguet, for the production of his watches, while maintaining a totally unique brand name and image. In 2001 with the help of Audemars Piguet and its movement development company APRP, Richard Mille launched their first watches.

Richard Mille recounts tales of those early years when business wasn’t as much about selling watches to consumers, but about selling the idea of selling his watches to consumers to important watch retailers around the world. If Richard Mille’s relationship with Audemars Piguet was the brand’s first major clever move, their second was choosing some of the most important luxury watch distribution partners around the world.

As the head of Richard Mille North America and founder of the Westime chain of timepiece retailers, John Simonian is a key member of Richard Mille’s inner circle. In his Beverly Hills office Simonian warmly recalls the first time he met Mille, who he today counts as one of his closest friends. According to Simonian, Mille was travelling in Los Angeles and heard that the “man to meet to sell watches in town was John Simonian.” Busy with meetings, Simonian almost didn’t meet with Richard, save but for a coincidental accident. What was supposed to be a short conversation before Richard left town turned into several hours of discussions, where the two quickly bonded over ideas regarding both watch design and management strategy. John Simonian—along with a short list of other distributors who manage large parts of the globe—are regularly praised by Richard Mille; a man who is not slow to give credit where credit is due.

Since the beginning, Mille has always professed his disdain for “gimmicks.” No matter how outrageous or exotic a material or technology might be, for it to be part of a Richard Mille timepiece it must have purpose and demonstrate an authentic improvement over the norm. This guiding philosophy, along with Mille’s intense passion for high-performance race cars, such as those that compete in Formula One, are the two most important motivations behind each Richard Mille watch.

For Richard Mille there is no apology for being the most expensive or avant garde, just so long as each decision, complication, movement, design, material, or brand ambassador has an understandable reason. Excess is completely appropriate, so long as the fruits of such efforts are better than the rest—even if it takes a specialist to determine that.

It’s rumoured that various larger luxury groups seeking to buy out his brand have approached Richard Mille, but Richard Mille remains an independent company, despite their historical close connection with Audemars Piguet.

Richard Mille never comes across as an impatient or eager man, and if he wanted to sell his company he probably could for a handsome profit. When asked if he wants to sell Richard Mille watches he merely asks “why,” especially when he is having so much fun. Mille is often quoted that he no longer gets stressed and that he has never enjoyed working as much as he does now. Mille does have a rather enviable lifestyle; travelling the world and helping the elite dress their wrists with some of the most modern and sophisticated mechanical watches produced today. Part of what makes Mille unique is how easy he makes it all appear. A natural success, who has successfully adapted to the lifestyle of success; a fitting description of the man behind the timepieces and their wearers.