Aug 30, 2023
How Richard Mille watches became code for extravagant wealth
Aug 30, 2023
A Richard Mille Co. watch is a powerful symbol of wealth for anyone who’s in-the-know enough to recognize its familiar contours.
The French company produces only about 5,300 a year, which cost an average of $250,000. Designed to withstand high gravitational forces, they’re worn by athletes at Formula One races, golf tournaments and yachting regattas. They also grace the wrists of musicians including Pharrell Williams and Ice-T.
It’s easy to spot a Richard Mille in the wild: Many of them take a tonneau, or rounded rectangle, shape—frequently with transparent dials so the intricate and precisely finished guts are on display. They’re brash, original and made from high-end materials such as titanium and a proprietary version of carbon fiber. In a nod to its ruggedness, a ring of screws is often left visible along the watch’s outer ring, or bezel. “Those screws have been used to hold the case together in the past, but now they are more for aesthetic purposes,” says Craig Karger, founder and owner of Wrist Enthusiast.
In a little more than two decades, Richard Mille has come out of nowhere to crack the top six watch brands by sales, with revenue rising 15% in 2022, to 1.3 billion Swiss francs ($1.5 billion), according to a 2023 Morgan Stanley report. By comparison, Audemars Piguet—founded in 1875—makes 50,000 watches per year at an average price of $51,000 each, with $2.27 billion in annual sales in 2022, according to the report.
“While the Richard Mille Brand, which was founded in 2001, had no legacy, its founders had a very clear vision,” the Morgan Stanley report says. “Its success over the past two decades does not have an equivalent in the Swiss watch industry.”
This summer has been a whirlwind of brand events and promotions, with Richard Mille suddenly everywhere—at least among the rich and conspicuous—despite the relative scarcity of its timepieces.
Now the company is putting the RM UP-01 Ferrari—the thinnest mechanical watch on Earth—officially on sale this month at a price of almost $2 million. A prototype was already worn by brand spokesman Pharrell in June at his Louis Vuitton fashion show in Paris.
So why are people spending so much on these little timepieces? Here’s a look at how Richard Mille has become more than just another luxury watch.
The history of Richard Mille
The brand’s co-founder, Richard Mille, started his career in the 1970s at boutique French watchmaker Finhor (which was absorbed into the now-defunct French group Matra).
After years in the industry, Mille wanted to strike out on his own to address everything he disliked about ordinary watches—to make something that would break the status quo, says Alexandre Mille, the company’s global commercial director and son of Richard. The elder Mille drew inspiration from F1 racing machines and linked the brand’s identity to the sports cars.
He teamed up with co-founder Dominique Guenat to create the first watch, the RM 001 Tourbillon, released in 2001. Only 17 were made. It drew immediate attention, in large part for its $135,000 price tag but also for its materials, such as titanium, a lightweight but sturdy metal. The first watch included a dynamometer, which measures torque, and a torque indicator hand. It had a power reserve of 72 hours, compared with the standard 48 hours, according to the company.
Oliver Müller, the founder of Switzerland-based LuxeConsult, remembers how that timepiece shook the industry.
“The price was so incredibly high that many people were shocked and asked Mr. Mille, ‘Why would you sell even above Patek Philippe, which is still considered to be the Rolls-Royce of watchmaking?’ And he replied, ‘Very easily, because,’ he said, ‘we are not competing with Patek Philippe, nor with anyone else.’ That’s quite a bold statement.”
These days the same scarcity, design and high prices have made it a status symbol. The brand has become known as “the billionaire’s handshake,” says Eric Wind, head of Wind Vintage, a dealer in Palm Beach, Florida.
A focus on durability, utility and design
When Richard Mille was starting the company, he’d go to conventions and throw the watch on the pavement to show that it wouldn’t break. His goal was to make a stylish watch that was durable, something that could withstand anything, Alexandre Mille says. The watches are hand- and machine-tested, subjected to both small and big shocks, as well as ultraviolet and moisture tests, the company says.
The testing can be “simply brutal,” according to one of the brand’s books, Monographie II. “Prototype watches will be assailed from all sides, smacked with the ‘goat’s foot’—a large hammerhead on a pendulum used to beat a cased watch from all angles and in all positions.”
Function and beauty work together, says Alexandre. “When you put it on your wrist, it fits perfectly,” he says. “[You] can see every piece of the watch.”
Richard Mille and Guenat also wanted their products to be truly useful to athletes. For example, the RM 055 Bubba Watson watch has a G-force sensor that can measure the potency of a golfer’s drive.
Why are RM watch prices so high?
On the one hand, a Richard Mille is an extremely high-quality timepiece. The manufacturing involves building tiny, mechanically precise movements—the essential engine of the watch—with high-grade finishes and materials. And they’re done in small batches, so the watchmaker can’t take advantage of quantities of scale. On the other hand, the same could be said for watches that cost a fraction of the price.
“There are some people saying, ‘Oh, you know, Richard Mille, it’s overdone and it’s a lot of BS,’” Müller says. “I don’t agree with that. It’s very high-end watchmaking. It’s innovative.”
The company has made deals to include some proprietary materials, such as thin-ply Carbon TPT, made by Swiss brand North Thin Ply Technology. Richard Mille has the exclusive rights among watchmakers to the material, which has layers of carbon fiber, making it light and strong, the company says.
Is it worth it? Isn’t that the existential question for any luxury product? By definition, it’s worth it because people pay for it.
RM special editions
New Richard Mille products aren’t just new watches; they’re often special editions, or novelties, made in collaboration with a celebrity or sports organizations that lend themselves to publicity.
In 2014 the company released the RM 57-01 Tourbillon Jackie Chan, featuring a hand-painted dragon curving around the dial. The intricacies of the watch are protected by a torque-limiting crown to prevent overwinding, and the run was limited to 15 pieces. Another small-batch watch, the RM 19-02 Tourbillon Fleur, was released in 2015, limited to only 30 pieces. A magnolia flower on its face, representing longevity, opens and closes on a rhythmic cycle.
And in 2017 the company produced the RM 50-03. Its claim to fame was that it was the world’s lightest mechanical chronograph, released in collaboration with the McLaren F1 team.
“You introduce the novelties with very, very small quantities, so people get even more crazy about the novelties,” Müller says. “You create an even higher demand. And it works. Rich people are very naive: You make them believe that they can’t buy something, it will increase their eagerness of getting their hands on that thing.”
Who wears Richard Mille watches?
The has company developed partnerships with dominant players in sports, including one that began in 2010 with Rafael Nadal. Formula One Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc exclusively wears Richard Mille watches; he’s been spotted with an RM 35-01 Rafael Nadal, an RM 35-03 Rafael Nadal and others.
Other brand representatives include golfers Cristie Kerr and Diana Luna, skiers Alexis Pinturault and Johannes Thingnes Boe, as well as show jumpers Carlos Hank Guerreiro and Flore Giraud.
Then there are actors such as Michelle Yeoh, who lends her wrist to the RM 051 and RM 51-01 Tourbillon, and even characters—like Kendall Roy from Succession, who began wearing an RM 67-01 in Season 4, when he had to face down the biggest power play of his life.
When Fanatics Inc. Chief Executive Officer Michael Rubin hosted his annual white party on July 3 in the Hamptons, Richard Mille timepieces worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and up were spotted there. Rapper Travis Scott was wearing the RM 69. NBA star James Harden had the RM 40-01, while rapper French Montana showed off the RM 35-02.
Throwing all the right parties
Part of the jet-set appeal of Richard Mille is that when you purchase one of the watches, you’re buying into a lifestyle. The brand goes to great lengths to offer the trappings of that life to its top clients and to associate itself with events conveying that appeal. They’re for “hanging out with family and friends,” when you’re meant to “take time to discuss through human-to-human connection and get to know one another,” Alexandre Mille says.
One such event is the new Richard Mille Cup, a regatta for boats built before 1939—or replicas of boats of that era. Richard Mille, one of the cup’s founders, has a vintage ship that sailed in the race, which ran from June 10 to June 25 and featured 15 yachts. It started in Falmouth, England, and ultimately ended in Le Havre, France.
The boats included the Moonbeam IV, coming in at a length of 35 meters (115 feet). In 1950 it was bought by Prince Rainier of Monaco, who used it for his honeymoon with Grace Kelly. Richard Mille drew parallels between the boats and his products. “These yachts, built from noble materials, have a soul,” Mille is quoted as saying on the company’s website. “There are actually tremendous similarities between these boats and our watches. Granted, they’re not from the same era, but they are born of the same philosophical approach.”
From the company’s early days, Richard Mille has been the main sponsor and official timekeeper of Le Mans Classic, the sports car event in France that focuses on vintage cars. This year’s watch in honor of the race, the RM 72-01 Le Mans Classic, incorporates the event’s green and white colors. The limited-edition run of 150 watches cost $335,000 each.
Richard Mille also sponsors the Rallye des Princesses, an annual motor sport event, held in June this year in France; it’s aimed at women who collect cars. The scenic route took riders along the French Riviera, beginning at the Place Vendôme in Paris and ending at Nice.
Meanwhile, the Bridge, held annually in the Hamptons, is a love letter to vintage cars. The event on Sept. 23 is invitation-only, with invitations going to people like brand partners and their guests, those who have a car in the exhibition, and special collectors—a key audience for the watchmaker. Bridge co-founder Shamin Abas says Richard Mille is “very invested in the event.”