The Beckertime Brand Series: Richard Mille
In an industry where some of the most important players can trace their roots back two centuries or more, the disruptive brand of Richard Mille is positively embryonic.
Specializing in ultra high end, aesthetically bold timepieces with unique technological flair, the manufacture has drawn its visual inspiration not from horological history, but rather from high-tech sectors such as Formula 1 racing or futuristic aircraft design.
But underlying all the eccentric creations which emerge from the marque’s Les Breuleux base is an obvious reverence for the great Swiss tradition of watchmaking, with all their extremely complicated, haute horlogerie movements assembled and finished by hand.
Below we take a closer look at one of the most maverick and unorthodox watchmakers at work today.
Richard Mille: History
Born in 1951 in Draguignan, located in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region of France, Richard Mille studied marketing at IUT Besançon before beginning his career as an export manager with local watchmaking business, Finhor.
After working his way up through several watch and jewelry houses (export director for Matra, the company which bought out Finhor, then general manager of the watchmaking division of French firm Mauboussin), Mille left in 1999 to create his own brand.
In a collaboration with longtime friend, Dominique Guenat, the pair launched their first watch, the RM001 Tourbillon, in 2001.
The RM001 Tourbillon has been called the watch that changed the world. Mille had come up with the revolutionary shape after being plagued by the idea of a watch that perfectly complied with the contours of the wrist. According to legend, unable to sleep one night in a hotel, he had gone to the bathroom, unwrapped a bar of soap and carved it into his ideal structure with a knife. Mille carried the bar with him for weeks until it broke and then made a full prototype out of cardboard.
But the ultramodern tonneau shape, at once all soft sweeping curves and sharp aggressive angles, was not going to be an easy one to make real. In fact, Donzé Baume, the famed case maker from Switzerland’s Vallée de Joux region enlisted by Mille to bring his vision to life, called it the most complex project they had ever attempted.
Known as a Tripartite case, it was comprised of three sections held together with grade 5 titanium spline screws. But the back of the case was a different shape to the front and had its own unique contours to ensure the best wrist hugging fit. Donzé Baume was forced to experiment for more than three years in order to create the very first RM001, with even the special type of screws (used because they could be tightened to a predetermined torque to avoid the danger of stripping the heads) requiring literally hundreds of trials before getting them right.
Inside the RM001
Of course, once the case was perfected, the search was on for a movement worthy of the housing.
For this, Mille turned to a supplier with whom he had previous experience. He had worked with the high complication specialists known as Renaud et Papi during the 1990s, the company started by two former employees of Audemars Piguet, Giulio Papi and Dominique Renaud. (The company is now called APRP, or Audemars Piguet (Renaud et Papi) after AP bought a controlling interest in the manufacture).
And, as with the state-of-the-art shell, the caliber Renaud et Papi devised was similarly revolutionary. The RM001 was the first watch to allow wearers to see every single component at work, with a sapphire case back and a sapphire dial, through which the entire movement could be observed. Because of that openwork view, each part had to be finished to the highest standard, and Mille also demanded that the engine be as light and shock resistant as possible, creating the first ever baseplate made from titanium. That plate was PVD coated in order to contrast against the other components, and the manually-wound mechanism also included a tourbillon and a power reserve indicator.
The Early Years
When Richard Mille launched the RM001 at Baselworld 2001, it was a sensation. One of the most talked about topics, other than the groundbreaking form, was the incredible shock resistance, especially for a tourbillon watch. Renaud et Papi had designed the tourbillon bridge to resemble a Formula 1 car’s suspension arm; with massive rigidity along the horizontal axis, but with a certain amount of flexibility in the vertical in order to soak up jolts. Notoriously fragile by nature, this was the first time a tourbillon model could take any form of punishment.
Buoyed by the early success, Mille went onto release other radical creations in the following years.
The RM002 was unveiled in 2002, an updated version of the debut piece which also included a torque indicator to give a reading of the quality of the power in the mainspring. That was followed by the RM003, a dual time zone tourbillon and, in 2003, the RM004 emerged, with a flyback chronograph.
In 2004, we got the RM005, the brand’s first ever automatic model, with a semi-instantaneous date change. It also included a variable geometry rotor which could be adjusted in accordance with the wearer’s lifestyle. The inertia of the rotor could be increased (if the owner typically had minimal arm movement) or slowed down, if they happened to be playing some high activity sport, for example.
After that was the special edition RM006, limited to just 20 units, which had the world’s first carbon nanofiber baseplate. The RM008 followed, based very much on the RM004 but with the addition of another tourbillon.
A Turning Point
If you were wondering what happened to the RM007, that was launched in 2005 and was the manufacture’s first ladies watch. The same year also saw the release of the RM009, still perhaps their most important issue to this day.
For starters, it was created for the brand’s first ambassador, Brazilian F1 driver Felipe Massa. And secondly, it opened up the book on a characteristic which has since become a Mille signature; ultra-lightness. The RM009 was made from ALUSiC, a silicon-aluminum alloy containing silicon carbide particles for strength, in a material falling under the MMC banner, or ‘metal matrix composite’. More commonly found in the construction of satellites and even space stations, what it meant for the RM009 was a weight (without the strap) of just 28 grams.
It was a massive departure from the status quo in 2005, an era when other watchmakers were busy making their models bigger and heavier to denote quality and value. Mille turned that on its head by producing one of the lightest mechanical watches ever made, and charging an absolute fortune for it! The RM009 retailed at $350,000.
In 2007, Mille joined the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie and continued to expand its production. Over the subsequent years they would go on to unveil some very special creations, including a tourbillon pocket watch (the RM018), the RM025 (a tourbillon divers watch) and the RM027, the world’s lightest tourbillon wristwatch, made for, and worn by, Rafael Nadal in 2010, when he won the French and U.S. Open and Wimbledon—the first player to win Grand Slam tournaments on three different surfaces in the same year.
By 2011, Mille had progressed enough to offer their debut in-house calibre, the CRMA1 inside the RM037. The RM031 followed in 2012 and held the record for most accurate watch in the world, with a chronometric variation of 0-30 seconds a month.
Richard Mille has continued to dominate the industry, recognized as arguably the pinnacle of high complication, forward-thinking manufactures, with a dedication to pushing the business in new and unheard of directions.
While their watches may not be for everyone, with some put off by the unorthodox eccentricities of the range (and still more put off by the price tags) there is no doubting the incredible skill, imagination and drive to produce the best of the best.
One to consider if money is no object, the brand is among the most elite and exclusive in the business.