Twenty years ago, Richard Mille (the man) was virtually unknown outside the ranks of the French jewelry industry. Today, Richard Mille (the brand) is a global juggernaut of ultra-luxurious watchmaking – a company synonymous with success and excess.
Morgan Stanley estimates that the independent company’s turnover puts it next in line behind the half-dozen brands that make up the Billion Dollar Club (Longines is the sixth), and far ahead of such heritage heavyweights as Tissot, TAG Heuer, Breitling, and IWC.
How it got to where it is so fast is one of watchmaking’s greatest stories – and greatest conundrums.
Having just marked the 20th anniversary of his first watch, the RM 001, Mille himself is now in his 70s and has begun handing the reins to his children and his business partner, Dominique Guenat. These days he doesn’t give many interviews. When he speaks, it’s worth listening.
Smart, eloquent, and not one to hold back, below he discusses his first two decades in business – including his brand’s early days back when watchmaking was “boring,” and why he let all 17 of those first RM 001s go.
HODINKEE: Richard, if we may, let’s go back to the very beginning. Why did you start a watch company in the first place – and why this one?
Richard Mille: I’d been working in the watch industry for many years and often experienced being held back from creating timepieces that could break boundaries. The result was that I could never create the watch I truly wanted to produce.
I wanted to work with new possibilities offered by contemporary technology and design, as well as new methods for the realization of movement design, layout, and cases. So, I set out to create a watch that broke all the rules and became a three-dimensional object possessing exemplary technical features.
One day, after some time sketching out my ideas in greater detail and several long discussions with good friends in the watch industry, it was clear to me that it was now or never; the time had come to take the plunge and finally start off on my own.
What are your memories of the start-up phase?
The technique. There was blood and tears. Innovations took a long time to become reliable, resulting in a year’s delay in the launch of the first model. But I expected that. It was also exciting, exhilarating, challenging, fun … and a lot of very hard work.
Of course, it was energizing to experience great interest right from the start. From professional journalists to watch lovers, everyone was stunned by the design of the RM 001. We still had to work very hard to convince the industry and prospective clients that we were here to stay, as well as prove to them the viability of the brand’s long-term philosophy with a continuous line of new watches.
No man is an island. Who did you lean on to get the business off the ground and your first watch, the RM 001, to market?
My friend Dominique Guenat. We’d worked together in the ’90s, and he was the first to join the adventure. I needed him to deal with the case creation and watch assembly. There were others who supported my ideas right from the start and gave us the necessary economic traction to think big.
Within the nitty-gritty of watch development, Giulio Papi and Fabrice Deschanel from APR&P were incredibly helpful in turning my drawings of the RM 001 into reality. They were as excited as I was, and also not the least bit afraid to think in an unconventional manner, even when I pushed.
From the start, your watches were exclusive and expensive, and esoteric to boot – how confident were you in your ability to launch such an exclusive, high-end luxury watch brand?
Launching a new brand requires a lot of creativity, and I think we have proven that we possess a good amount of that. But, all that being said, another part of my nature is that I also love to analyze, make calculations, plan and see long-term management concepts come to full fruition.
Before the first launch I’d spoken with many clients over the years, and they’d shared their deep desire to own something unique and truly exceptional. Twenty years ago, fine watchmaking was boring and self-centered. I wanted a brand open to the world, in particular to the automotive and aviation worlds, my two passions, and also that would mix with the worlds of fashion and art.
At the time, and this is still the case today, I was entering a segment whose limits I didn’t know. The RM 001 was around CHF 200,000, double anything on the market. And tourbillon watches were no longer finding takers. Prices were collapsing.
So were there moments when you wondered if your ambitions were too big – and that the project would fail?
If the business model is consistent with the strategy, everything remains under control. Of course, there were problems and occasional frustrations to overcome; that’s the case for any company, whether young or established.
But I also learned very early in my career that every problem can be overcome, and there’s always a solution. If you cannot solve the problem, then it simply means you’re viewing it from the wrong angle. I thrive on challenges like that. The word “fail” is just not part of my vocabulary.
By contrast, then, was there a moment when you thought: “Yes, this is going to work”?
I believed in the product completely from the beginning. But even then, it didn’t become real and tangible until the first orders came in after launch. The moment those first watches went out the door was an extremely gratifying moment for me, as well as for all the suppliers and people who were part of the journey.
Let’s talk about the design of those first watches. Why go with a tonneau-shaped case, a more esoteric form in watchmaking?
It actually stemmed from the movement – the shape was a natural design evolution once its layout was defined. I was originally thinking of a rectangular design, a bit like the RM 016, but when more parts and functions were added to the movement layout, the design expanded organically.
However, I found the classical, two-dimensional tonneau shape a bit old-fashioned, and felt the need to completely redefine it with better ergonomics, which I strongly felt should be an integral part of a true high-end luxury experience.
With that in mind, I took the basic tonneau form and expanded it outwards in three dimensions, curving in all directions. I was happy to witness how it immediately became a visual trademark for the brand.
How difficult was it to convince some of the world’s top drivers and sportspeople to back the brand with their image?
Felipe Massa was the first partner to join the Richard Mille family in 2004. Everything went smoothly and he understood the brand philosophy perfectly. At the time, there weren’t athletes wearing timepieces in real-life competition.
Back then, we didn’t rush to sign with other partners; instead, we took our time to build and learn from Felipe’s experiences wearing the watch. We didn’t add partner Rafael Nadal until 2010.
We had to convince some of them, which meant explaining our concepts – materials, design, shock- and stress-resistance, and more. The partnerships we make are based not just on choosing a sport. It also depends on the person and their personality. I have to be inspired by them, too.
I don’t just try to collect a batch of sports personalities in order to be involved in the world of sports. Without interaction with a sports personality, we can’t create something spectacular for and with them. So it’s a delicate area, combined with a lot of personal interaction.
Did you ever imagine the company would enjoy the status it now enjoys, just 20 years later?
I was convinced from the start that this was going to be an extraordinary adventure. Having said that, no, I had not imagined the exceptional position we would be in 20 years later, as industry leaders with worldwide recognition and an uninterrupted demand for timepieces.
Given the chance, is there anything you’d do differently?
Honestly? Everything has gone perfectly and incredibly successfully. So I can’t see how changing anything would be a sensible thing to do!
Famously, you don’t have an RM 001 in your archive. Why didn’t you hold on to one?
Quite simply, at the start, owning an example of your own timepiece wasn’t a viable option. My personal philosophy was always that clients came first.
In addition, every watch we sold represented income for our young, growing company. At that start-up stage, we simply couldn’t afford the luxury of holding any of our own watches back as examples.
Even today, many of our employees don’t see every model we produce, because keeping a few examples of a particular piece in-house can mean that somewhere in the world a client might be waiting longer for their own timepiece to arrive.
What would you say is the legacy of that first watch?
The RM 001 encapsulates the brand’s philosophy in every manner, in every detail and every decision, down to the smallest screws. Although many of the most recently produced models look quite different from the RM 001 at first glance, all the guiding principles embodied in that watch are found in every watch we’ve produced over the last 20 years.
Around 80 references later, the RM 001 still represents the crystal-clear embodiment of a uniquely coherent design philosophy that can be changed, altered, and reimagined in myriad ways and in many different materials, and with many different movements and functions – yet still be instantly recognizable in a second. Its visual and technical design concepts now have iconic status in the world of watchmaking
Some may not know that you’re French, rather than Swiss. How do you think coming from that side of the border has shaped your vision for a watch company and your experience of building it?
I’ve always believed in the power of cross-cultural exchanges; this is something we see evidenced throughout history in the worlds of art, music, fashion, literature, and more.
The French have a particular, deep-seated way of viewing things shaped by culture and language, and the Swiss have yet another viewpoint. Where one culture is perhaps more free-wheeling and reliant on savoir faire and intuition, the other is well-known for a focus on the hermetic arts of precision and technique and is therefore, by nature, more conservative.
When these opposites are put side by side, working together, they can initiate powerful synergies that would never have happened were it not for the exposure to each other’s strengths and abilities. I really feel that this cultural exchange of strengths has been exemplary for the brand’s identity from its inception, forming an indisputable part of its success.
How do you think the brand is perceived today?
Industry analysts, clients, collectors, and historians of watchmaking all agree that we occupy a unique position at the top of the Swiss watch hierarchy. Yet, as major players in the industry, we operate totally outside the normal rules of how watch companies function in virtually everything we do. This is a key to our strength and a source of fascination in the way in which people view us.
And finally, what next for Richard Mille – the man?
I’ve worked hard all my life, yet with tremendous pleasure, but now I’m really ready to enjoy devoting myself fully to my passion for historic car and endurance racing, slowly pulling back from my main role at the brand, with my children taking over the reins.
As a company owned by two families, the younger generations have been training in various positions within the brand for several years, and now the time has come for them to step into larger roles. I’m confident and looking forward to seeing the next two decades unfold under their leadership.
Robin Swithinbank is an independent journalist, who has written for HODINKEE about Dubai Watch Week and his life in Swatches, among other topics. He is a regular contributor to The New York Times International, Financial Times, GQ, and Robb Report. He is also Harrods’ Contributing Watch Editor.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
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To learn more, visit the Richard Mille website.