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  1. Luxury
April 19, 2024

How Richard Mille became a watch industry juggernaut

In just over two decades, Richard Mille has gone from zero to a billion euros in revenue, becoming the sixth largest Swiss watchmaker by turnover. Can the next generation keep up the momentum?

By Timothy Barber

Among the low-key masterstrokes of the final season of Succession was Kendall Roy’s watch. No sooner had Logan Roy, the billionaire patriarch, checked out, leaving his empire’s future in the balance, than his eldest son’s wrist gear was suddenly inescapable – and meaningful. 

[See also: Succession at the House of Arnault: who will wear the crown?]

Jeremy Strong as Kendall Roy, sporting a Richard Mille

Having hitherto worn largely predictable if unobtrusive watches – a Patek here, a Vacheron Constantin there, should you hit the pause button fast enough to spot them – Kendall rolled up to Logan’s funeral sporting the ultimate baller statement piece: a shining, curving, vertiginously expensive Richard Mille, of the kind flaunted by rap royalty, sports superstars and the sort of high rollers who leave the understatement to their underlings. (At the recent Succession-on-steroids blowout ahead of the wedding of Anant Ambani – scion of India’s richest family – and Radhika Merchant, Mark Zuckerberg was filmed cooing over the groom’s Richard Mille ticker.)

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Actually, as Richard Milles go, Kendall’s slimline example, the RM 67-01, was on the modest side – but it’s all relative. Gleaming like a piece of armour, it advertised the fact that he was on manoeuvres, primed to assume the absolute player status he craved. The masterstroke, though, was in the bathos it seemed to add to his ultimate failure: it emphasised his desperation rather than his swag, becoming one more piece of hip, ultra-luxe gear that Kendall couldn’t quite pull off. 

[See also: It’s time to give carbon fibre watches a second chance]

Some brands might have baulked at the association with cringey Kendall, but Richard Mille – or ‘RM’ as its own people often refer to it – was more than happy to play along. It helped that Jeremy Strong, who played Kendall, made the approach personally, says Alexandre Mille, son of the brand’s eponymous founder and its global commercial director. ‘He’d really thought about this, and we loved his approach,’ he says. ‘He explained that, sure, this guy has got a lot of problems. But for Jeremy, and how he saw the evolution of his character by that point in the show, the only watch he thought Kendall could wear was a Richard Mille.’ 

Statement makers

And how. Once tagged the ‘billionaire’s handshake’, reflecting a more old-school, if-you-know-you-know exclusivity, Richard Mille has become the pinnacle avatar for a certain kind of alpha UHNW. Unabashedly showy, staggeringly over-engineered and loaded with arcane, high-tech materials, Richard Mille watches are nothing if not brazen in their statement making, and equally so in their pricing: the average for a new watch is somewhere approaching £250,000 today, though several models blast upwards easily into seven figures.

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Current options include the RM 40-01 McLaren Speedtail, inspired by the teardrop form of McLaren’s most streamlined car; the RM 35-03 Automatic Winding ‘Rafael Nadal’, an ultra-lightweight dazzler with a case made from ‘Quartz TPT’ (thin ply technology), worn on court by the man himself; or last year’s RM 88, in which a tourbillon movement shares space with the ‘smiley’ symbol and a psychedelic array of kitsch motifs (a rainbow, a cactus etc), each one micro-sculpted and hand-finished. 

[See also: Michael Schumacher’s bespoke watches to be auctioned]

Good luck, though – everything is inevitably sold out. Among a fast-growing client base, the thirst for RM watches means almost every piece is allocated before it even leaves the factory. This engenders the peculiar scenario in which Richard Mille boutiques, such as its sweeping store on Bond Street, have a handful of watches at most. You don’t go in to browse: you go in to stake your claim and burnish your credentials. 

Rafael Nadal has worn Richard Mille watches
during his matches since 2010
Rafael Nadal has worn Richard Mille watches during his matches since 2010

‘We have long back orders for absolutely everything,’ says Peter Harrison, Richard Mille’s CEO for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. ‘It’s become a management issue for the staff of the boutiques: a very large part of the job is about managing expectations of when a watch might be available to a client.’ 

As Harrison puts it, for many clients acquiring Richard Mille watches is addictive anyway. But in recent years the brand’s wider profile has ballooned amid a blizzard of hype, adoption by an ever-growing roster of A-listers and entrepreneurs, and the kind of clout that can see it hold down partnerships with both Ferrari and McLaren at the same time. 

Consequentially, its outlandish, streamlined designs and space-age concepts have become, in some spheres, as recognisable as a set of Air Jordans: flexed on Instagram, brandished on YouTube, dissected on Reddit and traded like billy-o on a surging secondary market. Indeed, the brand is now managing its own certified pre-owned business, Ninety, with a shop on Mount Street and a newly opened one in Geneva, to offer a best-in-class service to its choice clientele.

The rise and rise of Richard Mille

The brand’s first watch, the RM 001, was a ‘racing machine on the wrist’

All that is background noise behind a fundamental fact: as a business, and indeed as a watchmaker, Richard Mille is a juggernaut, and one that’s accelerating. Founded in 2001, it is today Switzerland’s sixth biggest watch brand by turnover, with revenues in 2022 of more than CHF1.3 billion, according to research by Morgan Stanley – only the hallowed names of Rolex, Patek Philippe, Cartier, Omega and Audemars Piguet are in front of it. That’s despite the fact that last year Richard Mille made around 5,600 watches, and has only made 62,000 since it started. By contrast, Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet made around 70,000 and 50,000 watches respectively in 2023.

[See also: It’s time to give carbon fibre watches a second chance]

‘It is the great success story of the modern watch industry. From zero to over a billion in just over 20 years – nothing comes close,’ says Oliver Müller, a watch industry executive and analyst whose firm LuxeConsult partners with Morgan Stanley on its research. ‘The product is very strong, but the sexiness of the brand is that they have a pricing power which is beyond anything normal or comparable.’

It was at the 2001 Basel Fair, then the watch industry’s primary showcase, that Richard Mille showed up with a wristwatch that appeared to turn the haute horlogerie game on its head. 

Mille, a 50-year-old Frenchman who’d spent three decades in leadership roles in the watch industry, had a boyish fascination for the advanced engineering of racing cars and jet planes, and reckoned this could inspire a rip-snorting alternative to the classicism of the great watchmaking houses. So in 1998 he left his job with Mauboussin, the French jeweller, to pursue a mad idea.

The watch he unveiled in 2001, the RM 001, was his proof of concept: a spellbindingly modern ‘racing machine on the wrist’. It had a barrel-shaped, ergonomically curved case; a tourbillon (the rotating pocket watch mechanism totemic of the highest, most complex horology) enmeshed in a distinctively high-tech, open-worked movement; and a baseplate made from aeronautical titanium. There was even a wonderfully recondite mainspring ‘torque indicator’ – an extra hat-tip to Mille’s beloved automotive world. He priced it at CHF170,000, far more than an equivalent tourbillon watch from Patek Philippe at the time. In the cosy, placid world of the luxury watch industry, it went off like a thunderclap.

[See also: Partners in time: the luxury watch collaborations worth knowing]

‘It was totally, ballistically bonkers,’ Max Büsser, founder of avant-garde watchmaker MB&F, told me. Mille, he said, was opening the door for a new kind of fine watchmaking: modern, adventurous and fun. ‘People were thinking of watches just as delicate objects, but he was bringing this craziness and creativity to it. He had balls this big to do what no one else would do.’

Not half. Ever the showman, Mille would demonstrate the watch’s innovative shock-proofing by hurling it at the floor in front of clients. 

‘People would fall off their chairs,’ says Harrison. ‘Back then, watches of that level were always presented with white gloves, as though actually wearing them was incredibly brave.’ Mille’s point, that his creation could (and should) take on anything, was audacious. ‘To this day, nothing gives us greater joy than to see a really battered Richard Mille watch.’

Time moves on

Amanda and Alexandre Mille

Twenty-three years on, Kendall Roy’s watchmaker is experiencing a Succession moment of its own, albeit one that’s smoothly harmonious by comparison. Early last year Mille, who resides in an 18th-century château in Brittany stuffed to the gills with vintage racing cars, quietly stepped back, handing the reins to Alexandre and his sister Amanda, along with the two children of his business partner, Dominique Guenat. According to Alexandre, the need to kick back and do other things was partly a by-product of the lockdown era. ‘I think he thought that he’d worked like a devil since he was 20, and he felt it was time to do something else. He’s very at ease with that.’

[See also: What makes them tick? Watches worn by the world’s richest men]

The handover might never have happened. A decade ago, Mille came close to selling a controlling stake to Kering, the Gucci-owning group, with a mooted deal that reportedly valued the brand at around $340-400 million, from which the group walked away. More fool Kering: according to Müller’s estimate, Kering would have made 10 times its investment by now. 

Cécile and Maxime Guenat

Such ideas are long in the past, says Alexandre, 38. Now he and his sister look after commercial and marketing activities respectively, while Guenat’s daughter Cécile oversees the creative department and his son Maxime runs operations. 

‘Everything has to be dealt with by us, the four children, together,’ he says. ‘But behind the four of us, there are so many people who have been working for the brand for 15 or 20 years. They’ve grown up with the brand.’

[See also: Partners in time: the luxury watch collaborations worth knowing]

Alexandre, formerly based in Paris at the company’s marketing headquarters, now spends most of his time in the sleepy farming village of Les Breuleux in the Jura mountains, where Richard Mille’s manufacturing operation has grown and multiplied in the past decade. Some things there are pleasingly low-tech: the chuck-it-on-the-floor method is still one of the key testing procedures, via a device that drops a watch on its face from a metre’s height. Another one, like a weighted golf club, boshes it hard into a net, while a third simulates the whiplike  G-forces of a Rafael Nadal smash. Since 2010, the tennis champ has played every match wearing signature RM watches. So have a roll-call of F1 drivers and athletes, bringing not just star power but also real-world, high-profile demonstration of their watches’ robustness. 

The making of a timeless masterpiece

For all the razzmatazz, Richard Mille watches are formidable – and formidably weird – horological artefacts. Since the first one in 2001, the design approach has seemed more akin to conceiving supercars than timepieces: set an extreme objective, find a way to meet it by any means possible – the more exotic the better – and, afterwards, worry about the cost (or rather, don’t). 

While partnerships with Audemars Piguet (which owns a 10 per cent stake in Richard Mille) and the fêted movement supplier Vaucher take care of the most complex high horology, much of the movement production, along with case-making and assembly, is now done in-house. Tourbillons are assembled, stripped down, fine-tuned and assembled again. Parts are inspected, re-inspected and frequently rejected for imperfections other brands would ignore. 

[See also: The five most expensive watches ever sold]

The brand has incorporated a litany of out-there materials, of a kind more associated with the automotive or aerospace sectors than watchmaking: things like carbon nanofibres, graphene, phynox (a cobalt/nickel alloy), orthorhombic titanium aluminide and Quartz TPT. The latter is made by a Lausanne-based company in which the brand is a major shareholder – when not making Richard Mille watch cases, it makes parts for America’s Cup boats. 

It has pulled off plenty of weird horological tricks, too. A movement suspended in cables, tubular bridge structures for lightness, adjustable winding rotors – things that are functionally purposeful but technically and conceptionally… well, a bit nuts. Oh, and there’s the world’s thinnest ever mechanical watch, the 1.75mm-thick RM UP-01, revealed last year under the brand’s partnership with Ferrari. It more resembles a credit card than a watch, its case milled from slithers of titanium in a process so complex it took many months of lockdowns just to work out the machine programming.

Alexandre says the months and often years of development, research, prototyping and experimenting – often for watches of which only a handful will be made – are, for anyone who ends up owning one, part of the charm.

‘It’s traditional horology, but bringing new techniques and ideas and pushing that as much as we can,’ he says. ‘Even a new colour isn’t just picking a pantone or a treatment: because of the materials we use, it represents a lot of technical effort and refinement over a long time. The final product is one thing, but every component has its own story and its own challenges behind it.’

A new design language

The design language, gradually, is shifting away from the high-octane obsessions of Richard Mille himself. Under creative director Cécile Guenat, a more cosmopolitan take on the RM blueprint has been taking shape – playful, colourful, no less provocative. The Smiley watch is one example, while watches inspired by architecture, art, pop culture, even candy shapes have moved the dial onwards, along with a richer women’s offering and, noticeably, a more unisex bent running across the collection.

According to Alexandre, there’s already a product strategy in place for the next decade, with a plethora of new developments on the horizon. He readily admits that the petrolhead gene is not one he’s inherited, but says his father is at ease with the trajectory. 

‘It comes down to who we are, who my dad is – we want to be challenging, and to surprise ourselves also. We don’t want to be bored. Everything we do, and the demands we put on ourselves, we do it very seriously. But we want to have fun too.’ 

This feature first appeared in Spear’s Magazine: Issue 91. Click here to subscribe

Spear's Issue 91: cover image
Introducing Spear’s Magazine Issue 91 / Artwork: Diego Abreu

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