Richard Mille: Why You Love To Hate Them
Simon Schneider30 June 2021 | 8 min read
Every good story needs at least one bad guy. Everyone knows Star Wars, Harry Potter, and the Avengers. It is questionable if they would do so, without Dath Vader, Lord Voldemort, and Thanos. Villains are essential in storytelling to serve as the contrast that makes the hero’s actions shine. Without Sauron the Lord of the Rings trilogy would have been a rather dull movie about a group of friends frolicking through foreign fields rather than an epic adventure that would shape the future of their world.
Villains of the watch world
The watch world had its own fair share of villains over the course of time. In the 1970s there were the Japanese quartz watches that threatened to wipe out the entire Swiss watch industry and the amazing craftsmanship it had acquired. Then in the 2000s came Hublot who challenged what should be an appropriate design and sizing for a luxury watch. Now in the 2020s there is a new villain, one who has grown strong enough in the last decade to make us completely rethink pricing and desirability of luxury watches: Richard Mille.
Enter: Richard Mille
No brand has a more polarizing effect on watch fans than the eponymous company from Les Breuleux in Switzerland. As a company specializing in the six-figure segment of the market it is not only impressive that Richard Mille has become a known name even among non-watch enthusiasts but also that everybody seems to have an opinion on them. Rather than having universal appeal like Rolex they instead trigger intense emotions that swing in both directions.
RM entered the watch world with a statement piece. Their first watch, the RM001, was by contrast to what we know of the brand today a tame piece that wouldn’t stand out particularly. For its time it was revolutionary not only because it set the scene and key ingredients for one of the most influential brands to come but also because it shook up core principles of watchmaking.
The tonneau shape of the case was a head scratcher to say the least. The story behind the genesis of this peculiar case shape was that in a sleepless night Mille carved what he conceived to be the most comfortable case for the human wrist out of a bar of soap. The result was a case that, while being incredibly complex to machine, managed to strike a perfect balance between swooping lines and aggressive angles.
The movement inside was created to be equally impressive if not more so. Finishing and execution aside the focus lay on the tourbillon which was perfectly presented by the use of a sapphire dial. While the tourbillon complication was nothing special it was, and to this day still is, regarded as a rather fragile complication.
That is to say that a tourbillon fits into a sports watch about as elegantly as a fat man into a Ferrari.
The RM 001 was a technically impressive watch on par with what other brands had to offer. It was, however, distinctly different in styling and execution from all the other watchmakers. That could be because Richard Mille himself is not a watchmaker but has a degree in business and is a marketeer first and foremost. The technical know-how is provided by his 50/50 partnership with Dominique Guenat whom he met during his time as CEO of the horological division at the jeweler Mauboussin.
Priced to shock the industry
The distinct difference of this watch to everything else in the market was also reflected in its price. With a retail price back in the day of around a quarter million dollars it was priced far and beyond what all the other brands had to offer and more expensive than some Grand Complications. This pricing was arguably the most genius piece of this entire watch. Not only did it shock the industry and created buzz around this new company, but it gave birth to a new segment of the industry. Since Richard Mille was the first company to be daring enough to enter a new market they also had the monopoly on an untapped clientele who were already bored by all their Pateks, Langes, and Vacherons in their drawer.
Creating their own market segment
Every year since the introduction of the RM 001 was one of growth of Richard Mille and each watch seemed to supersede the scale of the prior one. Each timepiece of them followed the brands mantra of creating “a racing machine for the wrist”. We will get back to the parallels between certain car brands and RM, but what does Mille even mean with his racing machine slogan?
To explain this, and reiterate RM‘s desire to not compete with other brands but create a new market segment just for themselves, I would like to refer to RM‘s CEO of Japan Keita Kawasaki. He explained it like this:
“Our aim is to take Richard Mille creations and elevate them to a different category that surpasses the rest (…) We want to develop a watch that would make the exercise of comparing Richard Mille creations with other so-called high-class watches meaningless” (…) When you go to the showroom to purchase a car, you cannot base your comparison on the difference between a BMW or a Mercedes Benz, and an F1 racing car”.Keia Kawasaki
In other words, while all the other luxury brands are producing sports cars there is no comparison even between a Porsche 911 and a real F1 race car.
To understand the extremes of what an F1 car on the wrist looks like we will take a brief look at three further watches that helped establish the brand.
RM 006 was launched in 2004 and became the prototype piece for how RM would come to approach their sports partnerships. It was made together with Formula one driver Felipe Massa who was the first, though certainly not last, high profile athlete to team up with RM. Before their collaboration it was deemed impossible for a watch, let alone a tourbillon, to withstand the intense vibrations and G-forces in an F1 race. Suffice to say that the RM006 survived a whole season without any wear or damage. Richard Mille watches were to accompany Massa through his entire racing career and can now be spotted on the wrists of most drivers on the paddock.
RM 027 was released in 2013 and took everything that the brand had previously learned to new lengths. It was made in partnership with legendary tennis player Rafael Nadal and was seen on his wrist as he won one game after another on the clay court. Nadal was skeptical at first not wanting to wear something that would burden or distract him during his game. The mission was to create a “second skin” and RM succeeded. At 18.83 grams (strap included) it is the lightest tourbillon ever created. Using alloys usually only found in the aerospace industry it had the necessary stiffness and torsional rigidity to withstand a tennis match which would usually massacre most other mechanical watches. Most significantly it put the brand on the map and showed just how determined and serious they were.
The last watch I want to highlight is RM 67-002. I have included it because it is my favorite watch from the brand and one I could actually see myself wearing. Beyond that it is also one of the watches that gets people aggravated the most. The reason for that is that this simple time-only automatic watch weighing around 30 gram is traded for around 300,000 $ and is sold on an elastic strap. You heard that right, a watch worth more than a nice apartment is sold on an elastic strap which costs maybe a dollar or two. This watch is simultaneously one of the hardest to justify its worth and yet inexplicably and undeniably cool. It is this dilemma of watches that hold a fascination, or hatred, with people that you simply cannot explain on a rational level.
All of the watches Richard Mille produced are sports watches but remain distinctly unlike all other watches of this category. Take Rafael Nadal’s Richard Mille and Roger Federer’s Rolex sponsorship for example. Going purely on a guess here, I would wager to state that RM paid less for what ultimately is significantly more exposure. After all, the picture people will remember is not the one on the podium surrounded by sponsors but the very moment that a game is won. It is at this moment that you will only ever see a Richard Mille and no other watch.
Watches for a specific individual
Why is that though? While Rolex, Omega, or Tag Heuer produce watches for sports in general, Richard Mille creates watches suited for a specific individual. While one watch may represent your dreamy vision of what someone should wear during a given activity, the other shows what you would want to wear it.
The result is a timepiece which fits your activity and joins you on an historic event. Kind of reminds you of Mercedes Gleitze and the original Rolex Oyster doesn’t it?
All of that is fantastic and I think goes to explain the effort and level of detail that makes people love this brand so much. Why then is the public perception of them so bad? Wherever there is a comment section on the internet there also seems to be an overwhelming majority of people shitting on their watches and everyone who likes them. The usual argument goes along the lines of that there are candy machines down the road offering the same watch (please show me one) and that a Seiko SKX is a better piece of craftsmanship.
This phenomenon seems to be a special one with watches. We seem to need a bad guy that through means of contrast validates our own purchases. If a Richard Mille is the exact opposite of my Steinhart then I surely have to dislike it or else my watch would look bad. Does it though?
If you compare watches to cars then Richard Mille is like Pagani. A freaky luxury piece that looks completely alien to most people. A piece of art that is expensive beyond any logical reasons but we still love it. It is cool simply for existing and as a car nerd I am happy that these kinds of cars are produced even if I will never buy one myself. I don’t go around talking about how my rusty 90s Limousine is more practical in the city and a smoother ride on the Autobahn. I wouldn’t do that because that’s completely besides the point.
Why do we need a ‘bad guy’?
Why do people feel the need to do this then with watches? Even if you do not like their designs, surely anybody who has a little interest in watches can appreciate the innovation that they bring to the table without having to feel insecure about it. If you don’t like it fine, but why is there a need to villainize the brand and everything they do. If you are one of those people rambling in the comments about your disdain for the brand, take a second and explore why you actually dislike Richard Mille. Where is the anger coming from? Do you need them to be the bad guy?
Featured image credit: Swiss Watches Magazine