By creating the most complex, lightest and— at around $400,000 —most expensive timepieces in the world, Richard Mille is dragging the timeless world of watchmaking into the future.
Author Stephan Talty Photography Steeve Iuncker
Making watches is, on its surface, serious business.
The best practitioners make solid timepieces that are worn by presidents and industrialists and Jay-Z, but share in none of their clients’ fame or glory. Their products don’t glow in the dark, aren’t typically encrusted with diamonds and are not the size of drink coasters. These watches always show the correct time because their makers are painstaking types who hold engineering degrees, collect vintage cuckoo clocks and look as if they run the unsexy parts of large banks. Not Richard Mille, however. At his factory at Les Breuleux, 90 miles northeast of Geneva, the master watchmaker is turning out new pieces with the brio of a deranged Renaissance sculptor. He’s created the most expensive line of timepieces in the world, along with the lightest watch, the RM 009, and the most complex, the RM 008, which has more than 500 moving parts. In July, he shipped his RM 020 pocket watch, a $440,000 throwback to another era. Collectors and global timepiece fetishists are clamoring to see it.
Right now, Mille is to watches what Enzo Ferrari was to racecars—the man who revolutionized the form. And he’s a little bit mad about the whole thing.
“They say to do this job you must have killed your father and mother,” Mille says without cracking a smile, as he strolls across the floor of his factory. What he means is that you have to be dedicated to the work to an unhealthy degree. “Watchmakers are like surgeons,” he says. “Sometimes they collapse; sometimes they cry.”
Perhaps Mille is different from the average watchmaker because he’s an interloper in the world of haute horology. To begin with, he’s French. When he meets you for a tour of his factory, he looks like a Parisian viscount who’s been forcibly ejected from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. Dressed in a crisp white oxford shirt, jeans and handmade brown leather shoes, his appearance is a far cry from what one might expect from the CEO and chief designer of a luxury goods brand.
But Mille’s real secret is that he approaches watchmaking as a certain type of Frenchman would. One like louche crooner Serge Gainsbourg. Or Napoleon. Whereas a brand like Patek Philippe produces heirloom pieces that look as though they could have been made a hundred years ago, Mille is looking to reinvent the game with watches that resemble nothing ever strapped on a wrist.
“Sometimes we shout, we kiss, we celebrate after creating a great watch,” says the designer, gesturing toward the factory floor, where men dressed in blue dust-free suits work on his latest designs. “This you can only find in an object of passion.”
Mille’s factory is sleek as a battleship, with huge windows framed by gray stone. It houses 50 technicians who produce about 2,000 watches a year. (Mille hopes to increase that to between 3,000 and 4,000 in a couple of years, but he has vowed never to become a mass-market house.) Every worker stands in his or her own small, sectioned-off space, where each stamps tiny balance wheels or fashions the struts that make a Mille piece tick. Each has as much freedom as a sculptor working in his atelier. f one has a headache, he simply goes home. Better that than scratch a base plate on a watch that costs half a million dollars.
“I wanted to create a cool space,” Mille says, nodding at a man polishing a titanium watch bezel. “I hate rushing. Sometimes, the assembly of a single piece can take an entire month, so the factory has to reflect that.”
Mille is an admitted perfectionist. He rejects 35 to 40 percent of the finished products because they aren’t up to his standards. Or they just don’t look right, meaning the entire design has to be altered. Often when Mille’s marketing team is ready to announce the delivery of a much-anticipated watch, he will pull it back for a few modifications. He is at perpetual war with his salespeople.
“My life is miserable,” he jokes, his eyes lighting up mischievously, “because they are always pushing me, pressuring me for deliveries.”
That kind of drive is what people want in a super-high-end watch. “My customers are buying a piece of art, not just a timepiece,” Mille says. “If we don’t add that personality, they’ll get fed up.”
His recent diver’s timepiece, the RM 025, is a brawny monster packing 30 jewels; its titanium parts have been “sapphire blasted” to create the perfect finish—the diver’s watch taken to its ridiculous, luxurious extreme.
The engineering of the watches is all done on computers, but when he dreams them up, Mille’s technique more closely resembles a cartoonist’s than a technician’s. “I always begin with a concept and then turn it into a mechanical thing,” he says. “I have little balloons where I draw the components in three dimensions. But the most important thing is not to lose the spirit of the original idea. I’m a bulldog when it comes to keeping the soul of the drawing in the final piece.”
Mille grew up in the south of France, went to business school and ended up at the French accessories company Mauboussin, where he rose to become CEO of the jewelry division. But he always wanted to create something of his own.
“At some point, it’s boring to ask people’s advice,” he admits. “I love to do what I want to do.”
Mille has been fascinated by timepieces since he was nine, when he took one apart to see how it worked (and was unable to reassemble it). But it was the classic Cartier Tank that got him dreaming of designing them. “I was in my 20s when I first noticed it,” he remembers. “I was so impressed with it. Very good volume, very well-balanced—a perfect piece.”
With his space-age materials and radical design, Mille has traveled a long way from that classic. He is known for choosing unusual materials, some of which belong on a Formula One car or an Abrams tank rather than a timepiece. He’s always searching for the next metal that will serve his complex visions. He’s sliced 30 different kinds of stone into razor-thin wheels to power one watch. For his gorgeous Tourbillon RM 012—which, with its visible braces and tubes, resembles the exterior of the John Hancock Center skyscraper in Chicago—Mille employed the aluminum alloy Anticorodal 100, normally used in ships and—no surprise—high-rise buildings. He incorporated electro-plasma techniques typically used in the production of medical instruments for the RM 016, the sleek, gray model he’s wearing at the moment. “The way it catches the light, the softness to the touch, very sexy,” he says, looking at it lovingly. There’s only one material that’s defeated him: barium, which is used on space shuttles. Unfortunately, it proved too dangerous to bring into the factory.
When the Frenchman isn’t sketching out new models, he’s at his English country home or traveling the world promoting the brand. He could afford to slow down. His sales this year are up 17 percent at a time when luxury firms are watching their profits free-fall. But Mille is pushing ahead, sketching new models even as he jets to Las Vegas for the world’s biggest jewelry show.
“Why? Because it’s very interesting,” Mille says. “I love to mix the theater of life and the theater of business.”
Even though his watches cost about the same as a nice townhouse, Mille insists he designs them to be worn. He hates the idea of collectors snapping them up and placing them in vaults to be viewed only on special occasions. The Formula One driver Felipe Massa, his official representative, wears his RM when screaming around tracks at over 200 miles per hour. “Formula One is a killer, and I like that. When they go around the turns, the G forces are very tough on the watch.” That is what Mille likes to imagine his customers doing with his timepieces, testing what he calls their “mechanical limits” by day and then wearing them out on the town at night.
The ideal customer? “John Malkovich,” Mille says instantly. “For me, he would be the ideal man.”
Perhaps not the obvious choice, but the new RM 020 pocket watch would certainly fit the quirky actor. It’s a typically exotic production, with a titanium chain and a baseplate made of carbon nanofiber (used in the U.S. Air Force’s combat jets) created at temperatures of 2,000 degrees Celsius. Close up, the heavy rectangular piece is unlike any watch you’ve ever seen. Its skeletonized construction enables you to see the movement at work and gives the watch a three-dimensional presence. It doesn’t just give you the time, it lets you observe the time being made. And its red gold exterior, also available in white gold or titanium, gives it a touch of conspicuous excess.
The designer plays with a prototype, attaching it to a chain hooked to his jeans, and then holds it up to the light. One of his assistants watches him nervously, perhaps worried Mille will decide to change the finish at the last moment. But the designer only smiles and places the watch on his desk. After months of development and production, he’s happy with it.
“Everyone told me the pocket watch was dead,” Mille says. “I decided to revisit the idea. I find it very unusual. We need to do something new, add an artistic dimension. At this kind of price, people must be buying pieces of art.”
In the coming months, Mille will also be introducing an expanded women’s line and another big diver’s watch that is surprisingly light on the wrist (a Mille hallmark). But if you ask him about the timepiece he dreams about, his Holy Grail piece, he talks about a watch out of a science fiction movie.
“My dream watch would have all the information projected directly into the eye,” he says, leaning forward enthusiastically. “Like the aircraft pilots have with some of their instrument panels. You close your eyes and you have all the information.”
Mille closes his eyes. He is dreaming. He is happy. His assistant quietly takes the pocket watch and sneaks away.
Stephan Talty’s recent book, The Illustrious Dead, is about a typhus epidemic that struck the armies of Napoleon, who wore a Breguet watch.
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