Once in a Mille: In conversation with fine watch designer Richard Mille
by Bill Springer
Like one of his famously distinctive skeleton watches, Richard Mille never stops. But he did find time to tell Bill Springer what makes him tick...
Sitting on a private jet bound for Limoges on our way to the 2016 Tour de France, Richard Mille is reminiscing about the unlikely prototype for his unique watch brand. “I knew exactly what I wanted,” says the suave, bespectacled Frenchman. “I remember the day like it was yesterday. I carved what would be the prototype for my very first watch out of a bar of soap.” It was 1999 and the 50-year-old Mille was CEO of the French jewellery house Mauboussin. “I said to myself, I have to do it now or I never will.”
Watches have been a passion of Mille’s since he was 12 years old, when he took apart the watch his father gave him for his first communion. He couldn’t put it back together again but the seeds had been sown.
The advantage to launching later in his career was that Mille had a very clear vision. “My concept for making watches was based on three pillars, and still is,” he says in his deeply accented but impeccable English. “My watches will have the best of technique and innovation at any cost. They will have the best of artistry and architecture at any cost. And the best of the heritage and culture of fine watchmaking with hand finishing at any cost.”
Mille spent years and a considerable sum of money developing his first watch – the RM 001 Tourbillon. People thought he was crazy but he wanted a watch engineered in a comparable way to a Formula One car. He assembled a team of talented horologists in Switzerland and they turned the complicated idea he’d carved out of a bar of soap into reality. It was stunningly modern, painstakingly hand-crafted, featured carbon fibre instead of gold or diamonds, and cost twice what any other men's tourbillon cost at the time.
The ground-breaking RM 001 was an unequivocal success and he went from showing the first pieces to producing large numbers in a number of weeks. And that was when he really started having fun. As a long-time motor racing aficionado, he started making watches for F1 drivers – watches that could withstand the shocks and G-forces of a grand prix. Brazilian driver Felipe Massa was the first of many F1 drivers to sport a Richard Mille watch – world champions Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button would follow. But he didn’t stop there. “I opened up to different sports – golf, tennis, sailing, in addition to motor racing – because I hate to be prisoner of one system,” he adds. “And I love the challenge of making a high-performance watch for different sports.”
It’s clear that, just like the winners with whom he partners, Mille gets a kick out of obsessively pushing the limits. In his case it’s with technical innovation and design rather than results and performance. “When I work with someone, my only condition is that they must wear the watch during their sport. It’s my only condition.” Multiple tennis grand slam winner Rafael Nadal doesn’t just pose for pictures with his Mille watch, he wins tournaments wearing it. Masters-winning golfer Bubba Watson plays in his, as does Pablo Mac Donough, the best polo player in the world.
Mille loves travelling the globe seeing these talented sportsmen in action with his creations strapped to their wrists. In Limoges, Mark Cavendish, the British professional cyclist and renowned watch collector, is star-struck when he meets Richard and shakes with joy when the Frenchman takes off his own limited-edition watch, nonchalantly hands it to him and says: “I want you to wear this. I hope it brings you good luck.”
Cars may be another Mille passion (he has an impressive collection of classic and road cars at his 18th century château in Monbouan), but he also has links with the sailing community thanks to being the principal partner of Les Voiles de St Barth since its inception in 2010. “In yachting, the level of innovation is just unbelievable in terms not only of material but also aerodynamics,” he says. “There is a lot of technique and innovation, like our watches. The boats also have very strong personalities. They are beautiful, they are very shapely and they are finished by hand, which is also the case for my watches. There are a lot of similarities.”
Mille may be a globetrotter but what becomes clear at the Tour de France is his strong sense of patriotism. “Our watches are made in Switzerland,” he says as we watch the brightly coloured cyclists and lush green fields speed by from the official Tour car. “But I pay my taxes in France. I know I’m crazy, and it costs me lots of money, but I just love France.”
The day after our meeting, Mark Cavendish swoops to victory in Stage 6 of the Tour wearing Richard’s watch. But Mille misses it. Forever the action man, he’s in a helicopter en route to race his vintage F1 car at the Le Mans Classic. Making every second count, just like his impeccable, distinctive watches.