The PuristS Interviews Richard Mille

The PuristS Interview Richard Mille

Rev. 1a
by ThomasM
© April 2002

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An Introduction

The Richard Mille line of watches was introduced in 2001, the first year of the new millennia A.D.

Playing the modern angle to the hilt, the first models from Richard Mille are daring, sleekly futuristic, highly technical, and incorporate cutting edge technology and design.

From pictures, the most common reactions are, first, astonishment and wonder, then, too much...but, like most groundbreaking designs, it is the observer who must catch up, settling into a respectful appreciation, becoming comfortable with the subtle nuances in a none-too-subtle aesthetic.

As a fellow horology aficionado told me, weeks after finally seeing one in person, "You know, at first I didn't like it. But after seeing it, after trying it on, I can't get it out of my mind."

I hope you find the following interview informative and interesting.



The Interview

 P178: The most intriguing question to watch aficionados must certainly be the background of the revolutionary case design for your first RM models. What is the background, the inspiration, for the case design?

RM: This case expresses my love for technique in general, cars and aviation in particular. 

(The case) has a strong personality as I wanted to create a very different object, extremely ergonomic with characteristic lateral ribs of improved rigidity, a large size and easy-to-grip hand setting crown, easy to read watch with clear numbers and anti glare treatment on sapphire glass. In total, an efficient, relentless watch, no gimmick, no glamour. 

It is a global and integral approach to the movement/case/dial. This means everything has been designed by starting from a clean sheet, according to an extremely precise and rigorous specification, with the aim of completely integrating all the elements, like a Formula 1 car where the chassis and the engine are both developed together. For example, no casing ring has been necessary. All this explains the exceptional quality I wanted for this fabrication.

P178: I know the marketing tie in to Formula 1 racing. Is automobile racing a personal passion of  yours? Do you see a correlation between F1 racing and high horology that makes sense of the union found in your watches or are they merely a fusion of two of your personal interests?

RM: (The Formula 1 metaphor) is totally turned into a very high technique research approach, where every component is thoroughly studied, checked in (every) detail, with (the) objective of extreme performance and reliability. 

The image of a RM watch is not one of an individual piece made by a typical watchmaker working with the 
magnifying glass in a Swiss chalet, but the image of a very talented team of engineers working in an ultra modern production workshop. Today, everybody in the high end production, except watchmakers like Philippe Dufour or a few others, makes extensive use of the computer for development, and 5 to 7 axis machine for manufacturing the movements and the cases. I do not make specific comment on this as I find it normal these days, but I personally prefers these tools to serve a strong 21st Century concept. 

On the other hand, as in Formula 1, CART or IRL, my production is very limited, and everything is hand finished (movement blank, bevels, screws are hand polished, as well as locking sections, chamfers, lapped and polished ends, rolled pivots, circular-smoothed faces, etc..)  For example, each titanium screw represents 20 mechanical operations, and the bezel of the case needs 28 stampings. Each movement represents more than 20,000 mechanical operations for 267 components. 

Nevertheless, this watch, as an F1 racer, also has the user’s facilities in mind and the reliability of a great GT car. Since the first deliveries in August 2001, nearly 40 pieces have been delivered, most of them being sold out immediately, and only one came back for a crown adjustment; this repair was made the same day. 

P178: Many have commented on the many design cues and elements from high performance automobiles – the A-arm like levers, the struts, the suspension pieces, the structures and layout of the back. Were these intentional? Are there any performance reasons for this design motif, or are they purely a matter of aesthetic design?

RM: A lot of inspiration came to me from high performance automobiles, such as the shock resistance studies, improvement of the plate rigidity, mostly around the turning points, reduction of friction, easy access for the watchmakers. In fact, I did not want any gimmick in this watch, where every single screw has its utility. Of course, the aesthetics has its importance, but function has always been privileged. This is why the torque indicator (quality indicator versus the power reserve which is a quantity indicator) and the function selector are directly inspired by the automotive industry.

For example, the tourbillon bridge looks like a suspension triangle; I wanted it that way as I did not want to have a stiff bridge, very solid itself, but with everything broken inside in case of shock. 

At the back, all the ribs ensure a better rigidity for the bottom plate and bridge assembly, as you can find in a CART or F1 engine around the rotating elements. 

Another example is the time setting mechanism fitted against the case back: we have at the same time a practical approach (why having the hands and dial removed to have access to this mechanism when you can have a clean access from the back?) and an aesthetic one, as the view of this element is just magnificent.

P178: Please share with us a little about yourself – your schooling, professional background, how you came to be involved with horology and marketing.

RM: After business school, all my professional work revolved around management in the watch business, but 
I always felt frustrated not to handle conception and creation as I wished. In fact, I suffered the “Enzo Ferrari syndrome,” who was, before launching his own brand, manager at Lancia, and then decided to express his views of the automobile, have his own concepts and creations made, although he was not a car engineer himself! 

Moreover, I felt it was time to launch my own watch line and to express my love for extreme technique. In fact, one of my strongest characteristic is that I am extremely enthusiastic and passionate.

P178: You spent quite some time at Mauboussin, running the watch operations at the highest levels.  

Mauboussin is generally thought of more as a jewelry brand than as a high horology brand. What did you learn, what experiences do you carry with you, from your time at Mauboussin that are important to your Richard Mille venture?

RM: At Mauboussin, I was President of the Watch Company and CEO of the Jewelery Company. This is how I  launched a line of tourbillon watches whose plates were made either of precious or semi-precious stones. It is also in this period that I had the great pleasure of starting working with Audemars-Piguet/Renaud Papi.

As head of MAUBOUSSIN Jewelers, I decided to have science interface with jewelery. At this occasion, I made an agreement with the NATIONAL CENTER of SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH, a state organization. My wish was to release for each precious stone sold an I.D. card, stating the exact number of years of the stone (when you can insure your client that the stone he is buying corresponds for example to the era of the disappearance of the dinosaurs, you are paid attention to closely!); in which geological occasion and extreme circumstances it was formed, the exact deposit it was found.  There are so many lies or inaccuracies on that matter… 

And also – who can do the most can do the least – if any artificial treatment, such as resins, colours, epoxy, heat, laser, had transformed the stone. We totally succeeded in that field, thanks to very heavy studies, developments, methods, and material such as infra-red and Raman microscopes. We also succeeded to patent these methods, but unfortunately, all was cancelled just after I had left the Company to launch my brand. I still very much regret that the high Jewelery industry missed such an opportunity to give its customers such an honest, interesting and genuine information. 

In my everyday action, I try to keep this mentality of honesty and genuine behaviour. This is why I never hesitated to mention my cooperation with AP/RP, instead of inventing a so-called movement manufacture, and I am most happy that this true statement is extremely welcomed by the trade and the customers.

P178: Fascinating ideas, innovatively applied!  Back to the Richard Mille RM line – 

You started to touch on this issue before, but I want to ask you specifically now - how are your models and variants conceived? Do you start with an aesthetic, and design in the technical features, or do you start with a functional feature set (chronograph, tourbillon, GMT) and dress the aesthetics around those?

RM: As previously said, I cannot conceive a watch to be designed, case on one side and movement on another, as if they were two different concepts or two different universes. Everything has to be in harmony and coherent. This is the reason why there is no function which do not fit with the philosophy. A minute repeater, which represents a fantastic technical unit, would represent no interest for my concept. I absolutely do not criticize what other watchmakers are doing, as I feel very humble in front of many brands which are marvelous in their approach of legitimacy, I just want to explain that my legitimacy comes from my love for advanced techniques. I also and always 
try to think in terms of usefulness.

In the end, I am pleased to know that many of the clients which ante-up for my watches do not know what they like most, case or movement! And this is exactly what I wanted. In fact, my dream was to imagine the surprised face of a client seeing a Richard Mille watch in a show window, and then this client, inside the shop, being more and more surprised by all the details. Then, with a magnifying glass, the interest grows more and more, and after having bought the watch, every day is heaven with this watch which, according to him, has a very strong personality, is different 
from everything existing, nice to see from every angle, ergonomic, innovative, easy to wind, easy to read, accurate, solid, besides the fact it is very sophisticated and technically advanced, and with a lot to talk about. It is the same pleasure than going every day to your office on board a Formula 1! 

And in the reality, it happens like that. It makes me intensely happy! Moreover, some of these clients come back to buy or order another piece with a different material, and with another function, such as a second time zone.

P178: As I mentioned in my introduction, I have experienced this change in point of view myself, on numerous occasions.  Until one actually sees your RM models in personal, actually tries it on the wrist, it is hard to imagine just how well conceived, how well implemented, the entire concept is.

What are current production capacities for the RM model lines, and company wide? 

RM: This year, a few dozen of tourbillon RM 002 ( evolution of RM 001 with a function selector ) and tourbillon RM 003 ( Second time zone ). I also hope to start delivering soon the chronograph 004. Unfortunately, this volume will leave a lot of customers unhappy, as the orders, like it happens in this part of the watch business for a lot of brands, are much more significant than what we can deliver!

P178: Do you foresee production figures increasing to the thousands? To the tens of thousands?

RM: I expect, in the long run, to achieve a yearly volume of 3/4000 pieces with prices from 13/15000 US.

P178: Do you plan to release other model lines that do not use the current RM-00x case style?

RM: There is so much interest in this case that I would be criminal or masochistic to “cannibalize” this one before really developing it fully. However, other models and shapes are already designed and patented.

P178: There has been much speculation about the overlap of unique features of the RM-001 and RM–002 and the 
new AP RO Concept Watch, as well as with recent high complication Audemars Piguet models. 

What is the relationship with Renaud & Papi? With Audemars Piguet?  How did this relationship come about?

RM: I found in Audemars-Piguet and Renaud-Papi the perfect spirit to approach modern times, without for AP losing of course its beautiful legitimacy. When I explained , at the beginning of 1999, the project that, with my friend and partner Dominique Guenat, we wanted to achieve, to AP/RP, I found very enthusiastic people eager to start such development. It was the perfect attitude which would lead later on to the birth of the Concept Watch, and I am proud having participated to the group in charge of this development , and I feel now I am part of the family. 

This happens very seldom in the watch business where everybody tries to hide from the others, to find a manufacture with such an open mind. This means AP was ready to jump without any fear into the 21st century. 

On the other hand, the RM 001/001/003 and the CW might have the same modern spirit, but are very different in many aspects. The CW is, first of all, a new era in the life of the Royal Oak, beautifully designed by Claude Emmenegger, AP in-house designer, and developed in terms of movement by R&P.

I have , with AP/R&P, a very open relationship. I can bring new ideas, R&P develops them, and we share them. This is a textbook case of win/win challenge you today find in the automotive or aerospace industry. This is why we have in common a few technical ideas such as the torque indicator (which serve the same concept but are totally differently built ) or the function selector. We prefer to have this kind of deep cooperation than to share a pair of hands or a new strap color!

P178: Is there a risk to be borne by the consumer who purchases your watches because of their cutting edge, possibly experimental, materials and technologies?

RM: In fact, the edges seem to be sharp, but are incredibly soft , pleasant to touch. All cases are hand finished, the bezel and back rather thick. This is the reason why the gold case weight nearly 80 grams. 

I was afraid that in case of shock, the edges would be badly damaged: as I like to say, the crash tests for the movement as well as the case have been more than any watch can endure during a lifetime. From the “mouton pendule” ( 5000 g) to daily shocks, I am amazed how after 18 months my first prototype is good looking and well working! Of course, at the beginning, a few pieces broke and have been reinforced and modified, but since more than one year, the watch did not need to be open in spite of hard treatment ( I at least let it fall 100 times on purpose, to show to journalists or trade clients). 

In fact, I think I never accepted the idea of a tourbillon being fragile. On top of that, this watch fits so well on the wrist. As I told you, a watch to live with!

P178: How will Richard Mille watches be serviced in the US? Internationally?

RM: Besides important problems linked for example to the tourbillon itself, which would necessitate the watch to come back to Switzerland, an extremely professional and highly qualified point of sale like Westime is totally capable of handling any problem. As previously said, the watch has been studied to be maintained without touching the very sensitive points or for the watchmaker to work on a very effective approach: for example, the cover of the barrel is hold by 3 eccentric screws, instead of being put by pressure. This avoids any mis-manipulation which could lead to a fatal damage when opening the barrel.

Each watch carries an international guarantee for 2 years, and any watch damaged can be returned to any official dealer in London, Geneva, Paris, etc… and of course LA.

With the introduction in the years to come of less complicated watches, a local repair organisation will be set-up.

P178: The RM-001, RM-002 and RM-003 all incorporate a tourbillon, will this be a consistent design feature? 

RM: Before the end of the year, a chronograph will be released, and more developments are to come during the coming years.

P178: Do you plan to use any other ultra-modern, high-tech materials in your cases as might be consistent with the F1 racing aesthetic?

RM: YES :-)

P178: Who, if any, do you view as potential competitors to your Richard Mille line?

RM: By creating this concept, one of my wish was to avoid competition. Moreover, I am convinced that it was compulsory to bring to the dealers additional business and not make clones of existing brands.

P178: It is very bold to launch a new luxury brand in the midst of consolidation in the industry and the overall economic uncertainty worldwide, at least in the near term. Why now?

RM: I am certain it was time to launch a product such as mine. In fact, I though more in terms of  product and concept acceptance than in any other economic data. The incredible demand and sell-out shows that it was the right time anyway. 

P178: It is frequently said that, "The truly high end goods and services do not suffer as much from economic swings as the truly wealthy are not as affected by them." 

What do you think of such a statement? Do you think the sales of haute de gamme goods are as affected by economic conditions as the sales of more common luxury goods seem to be? 

RM: The high end watch business is getting more and more successful, and this is valid for all kinds of sectors dealing with this segment of rare merchandise. But, besides exists a stuctural reason which shows brands that were considered 10 years ago belonging to the high end are not anymore in this segment. In the meantime, their volume has terribly increased while the customer’s culture has fantastically improved. Many customers now have a clear idea of the production of each major brand. Many of the groups being public declare their turnover and their volume; then the magic stops. Moreover, more and more customers are proud to wear a watch which cannot be seen on every wrist, as they do not need a social recognition linked to the brand awareness of the product they 
are wearing. This is the beginning of a drastic change in the consumer’s habits.

P178: What do you see as the promise of the market in current circumstances? Potential pitfalls and dangers?

RM: All dangers exist, but are limited in our watch field for one simple reason: the swiss watch production cannot meet the global demand for stuctural reasons, mainly linked to qualified workmanship. Even in times of recession, the stocks which are made, mostly in the middle range section, are step by step absorbed, and in the long run, the growth carries on with an impact on the average prices that regularly increase, to compensate for the difficulty in boosting the volume. This is why the swiss watch industry has been so successful since two decades, when we saw at the same time that the Japanese industry, wanting to answer by all means to the demand, is now in big trouble.

 This is also why the Swiss industry sometimes suffers, but never very long. Some groups can have problems, sometimes with difficulties in digesting recent brand purchases, but the business overall shows a healthy profile, and has proven it can resist to important economical crisis. The good results shown by independent companies are also very encouraging.

P178: Do you personally collect watches? Other than your own, what watches do you admire or enjoy? Do you collect anything else?

RM: I collect cars, not watches, as my wife prevents me to have too many passions! 

My tastes in terms of watch models are very eclectic, I admire what Ph. Dufour is doing, I love the Royal Oak and the ultimate chic it represents, the Cartier tank as well, with its refined design, Repossi and of course, Patek, Parmigiani, Lange, Jaeger, Nardin.

P178: Thank you very much for your candor and obvious passion in what you do, Mr. Mille.  All horology aficionados everywhere anxiously look forward to the exciting new pieces to come from the House of Richard Mille.

             RM-003: GMT dual time                             RM-004: Chronograph Rattrapante


Editor's notes: Richard Mille watches are currently available in the US exclusively at Westime, Los Angeles, CA - 1-888-9Westime


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