Gisbert L. Brunner has been collecting wristwatches since 1964 and writing about them for 35 years
Richard Mille calls his wristwatches “racing cars for the wrist”. And that’s what most of them actually look like too. Born in 1951, the Frenchman started working for the French watch company Finhor in 1974 after completing his marketing studies. When Matra bought the company out in 1981, Mille first went to Seiko and then moved to the elite Parisian jewellers Mauboussin. He quickly rose to the post of CEO. Through acquiring a number of shares in the firm, Richard Mille laid the foundations for his own company.
He resigned in 1999, sold his shares and began to work for himself in Les Breuleux, a small municipality in the canton of Jura in western Switzerland. In 2001, Richard Mille and Dominique Guenat founded Horométrie SA. The newcomers worked with Renaud & Papi, the wizards behind the Audemars Piguet watches, on the design of complex timepieces such as the RM 001 Tourbillon. This extraordinary piece came on the market in 2001. The 80 pieces retailed for $135,000 each. And they sold out very quickly.
The company still continues to work with Renaud & Papi to this day. Audemars Piguet holds a 10% stake in Richard Mille. Some of the ébauches come from Vaucher, a Parmigiani Group member based in Fleurier. The Richard Mille Group currently owns Horométrie SA, Montres Valgine and ProArt SA, the watch-case-making factory which opened in 2013, all of which are based in Les Breuleux and employ around 70 people.
As Richard Mille says in this interview, they should produce about 4,000 watches in 2016. The price range stretches from about €50,000 to well over €1 million. You can only hazard a guess at their turnover. It shouldn’t be too far shy of €200 million.
30 MINUTES WITH RICHARD MILLE TO MARK THE OPENING OF HIS 160m2 BOUTIQUE ON THE MAXIMILIANSTRASSE IN MUNICH
Why did you come to Munich of all places to open your own boutique?
RICHARD MILLE: It wasn’t particularly to do with Munich itself; it was more about the German market in general. You can only open there when a brand is in a perfect position and all the parameters are really in place. You can’t conquer a market twice. If you fail first time round and are dumped by the market, then that’s the place done with.
That obviously wasn’t the case here to start with…
Absolutely not. We weren’t ready. We still lacked the basics such as logistics, production, customer service etc.
But now Richard Mille is properly up and running…
…and there were two ways to go about exploring the German market there too. We could either do it through agents and specialist stockists or do it all ourselves. We could have gone down the classic specialist stock route two or three years ago, perhaps.
But why not now?
For the very simple fact that our collection has become really substantial. We have a lot to say for ourselves in various areas: lifestyle, sport, pure technology, ladies’ watches and more. We need space for all that which regular specialist stockists can’t offer us. So the only option was to open our own boutique where we could put everything we wanted on display.
So why did it have to be Munich?
There were any number of possibilities for getting our foot in the door in the German market with our own store. Hamburg, Dusseldorf and Frankfurt, to name just three. We settled on Munich because the city has a great image and it’s trendy. There are great people here, beautiful cars and plenty of luxury goods. And we found the perfect location for our first boutique on German soil in the Maximilianstraße. All the necessary parameters came together perfectly. Everything worked in Munich’s favour.
Did you have to look long to find a location with shop windows on two sides?
At first we discussed co-operation and sales with large German firms such as Wempe. But then we decided that we would combine all activities on this site, and that included customer service on the first floor. Here we can provide the best and most thorough service without delay. That’s exactly what I had in mind.
What’s your business model when it comes to watch sales? How much should or will German customers take up and how much will be down to tourists?
I’m convinced that tourists will dominate to start with. But in the medium term I’d like the customer base to be predominantly German because I can do business with tourists in Geneva, Beverly Hills, Paris, London or anywhere else in the world. Which isn’t to say that I couldn’t care less whether overseas visitors come and buy here or not. But I definitely aim to attract more German custom.
How many Richard Mille boutiques do you have worldwide?
At the moment it’s about 30. By year end it should be about 40.
How are they run? Do you do it yourselves or via a franchise?
Most are joint ventures with local partners. In the Middle East there are also some franchise boutiques. Here in Munich we run the business ourselves.
What’s the distribution policy? Where do new watches go first? To the licence-holders or the boutiques?
Part of our collection is just for the boutiques. Some watches aren’t sold anywhere else.
All our tourbillons. They go exclusively to the boutiques. But we have a bit of a problem there (he laughs), if you can call it a problem, because demand for our watches regularly outstrips supply, even during a recession.
The problem being…
That we can’t even supply our boutiques, say, with the number of tourbillons and other watches they need. Take the Nadal wristwatch from last year. We produced a limited edition of 50 watches. But we got more than 150 orders for them.
Does the same apply to the new Airbus Corporate Jet wristwatches that I saw in Geneva?
Absolutely. But we’re not supplying those at all yet.
Will the Munich boutique stock one?
That’s very possible. We shall see. But we’ve got so many pre-orders that in the end countless interested parties are going to go away empty-handed.
The Munich boutique is currently stocking two wristwatches that cost over €1 million. Are they meant to be a special attraction or bait to reel in potential customers?
Of course we also view goods like those as something of an attraction. We’re happy when people come by to look at these watches, when people talk about them and our name becomes very well-known as a result. That doesn’t necessarily have to go hand-in-hand with a sale. That way, maybe word will also get out that this or that watch is for sale in Munich. I know customers who will call and then get in their own plane to come and buy the watch in Munich and take it away with them there and then. But let me say it again: what I want to focus on more is developing the German market, not looking after tourists.
Richard Mille loves classic cars. Now the brand has gone into co-operation with Aston Martin. What’s the reason behind that?
Aston Martin may not be a young brand but it’s a very chic one. They’re not all that advanced technically. But their excellent reputation was of great interest to us. I love old cars but I have precious little time for old watches. I love contemporary watches. Maybe I’m a little odd that way. But Aston Martin and Richard Mille go together very well.
What’s happening with McLaren? You’re working with them too. Isn’t it clicking?
We only work with McLaren in Formula 1. Not on the road cars.
These joint ventures seem to be a bit of a theme in the relatively short history of Richard Mille. How does it come about? Who is it that keeps noticing potential new partners?
It was my idea from the off because I knew from experience that the high-end classic luxury watch business can be very boring. I didn’t want my brand to have the faintest suggestion of retro or create any kind of replica whatsoever; I wanted it to be refreshingly new at the most sophisticated level. Working together with like-minded partners from the worlds of art, lifestyle, sport and the automobile industry sat well with that idea.
I’ve been axiomatic since the very beginning: we have to be receptive to the whole world. It’s an inexhaustible source of inspiration for new watches. If you think that way, the business stops being boring and becomes really interesting and exciting. The same applies to the watchmakers in Jura who always have something different to do. Nadal, Airbus etc. It creates variety and enjoyment and ultimately it pleases our customers who own and wear 30 or 40 of our watches. By contrast I’m reminded of conversations with watchmakers who said that their professional life had basically revolved around more or less the same things over and over again, that they’d always pretty much done the same work.
What you say about Mille customers is extremely interesting…
They’re not collectors in the ordinary sense of the word. They don’t lock the watches away in their safe and keep them there forever. No, they wear their watches - our watches – which I really appreciate and love them for.
Does Richard Mille know the main collectors of its watches?
I know many, in fact. This year we’ll make about 4,000 watches. And we only sell them to 1,500, 2,000 people at most. That’s not very many. And many of my customers are now friends of mine.
How many Mille watches do your best customers own?
I know of customers who own every single one of our watches since the RM 001 was launched and, let me stress again, they wear them regularly.
Richard Mille has attracted attention with unusual design and technical world-firsts, such as the shock indicator and the variable rotor winding. Where do such ideas and inspiration come from?
If you’re open to many things and many different areas of activity, as I’ve already said, and if you travel the world with your eyes and ears open, you come across people and developments you find stimulating. If you also find partners from different areas, you face constant challenges. Polo makes different demands from motor-racing or tennis. And that sets goals which you need ideas to achieve. First you come up with practical functions or displays and then you have to think up the correct materials. Eventually it all comes together and you have the watch you wanted. That’s why I’ve brought in titanium movements for the first time. It’s a robust material which is stable long-term and yet is still very light.
Do customers appreciate that sort of thing?
They do if you let them know properly, yes. I remember one customer whom I showed our first fully titanium design to. He asked me why it was so light. It couldn’t be of any real value, for value was associated with heavy things. A couple of years later we had a platinum watch and the same customer wanted to know why it was so heavy and uncomfortable. A lot of our customers are passionate about watches and they keep track of what we’re doing. With time comes knowledge, but also demands. They put a lot of pressure on me. They want to know what’s happening next, when they will be able to see or touch something etc. etc. etc.
Richard Mille is always technically a little ahead of its time. Take the fully see-through sapphire crystal case, for example…
I’d dreamt of that for a long time. When I used to admire cars or aeroplanes when I was young, I wanted to look inside them so that I could see the mechanics live. What’s the use of the most beautiful, refined movement if we don’t show it off? Even a tiny spring is a marvel to behold. Every little screw too. 20 mechanical operations plus polish have gone into each and every one of them. The same also applies to other parts. But it loses its value if it has to flourish in obscurity. And in turn it means we have to make everything equally exquisite and not cut any corners because people can see it all. Back to the sapphire crystal case. It turned out to be a real nightmare. It took so much work. We never thought it would be possible.
You don’t even use a container.
Indeed. Right from day one, we’ve never used containers. We’ve always fitted the movements directly into the case. That’s our philosophy.
What comes first at Richard Mille: the movement or the case?
The movement always comes first. I design my movements the way I want them to be, the level of rigidity, shock absorption etc. I’m not an engineer but I love technology. Then it’s the case. I design it and then we make a plastic mock-up. I’ve always done it that way. I’m very private about that because there’s a huge risk that someone will look at my hand when it comes to new ideas.
Richard Mille has developed this special type of barrel-shaped case and had great success with them. The case is iconic for the brand. But there are any number of imitators now. Does that fill the inventor with pride or not really?
It depends how you look at it. A couple of years back I wrote to a friend and told him that I thought he was more talented than having to imitate my watches.
But Cvstos started seriously copying the Richard Mille style a lot earlier than that.
Indeed. It’s an old story. I had an engineer that I had to let go. He left my company with the plans, went to Cvstos and started making my watches there. But luckily things don’t work that way. So I’m very relaxed about it. They don’t have the Richard Mille spirit.
To finish, let’s talk a bit about the future. How far ahead does Richard Mille think? How many years? Because Richard Mille often has its nose out in front when it comes to materials, say.
Oddly, I almost never ask myself that question. My legitimacy comes from how seriously we go about doing things. I don’t go in for passing whims or deciding in something’s favour because it’s in fashion or might soon be. What we do has to have substance because I hate gimmicks. My watches don’t contain a single screw that doesn’t have a particular function to perform. So it’s important for me to always be consistent.
If I introduce a new material, then it’s because it has a particular quality such as lightness, robustness or durability. It doesn’t matter how beautiful the material is. I’m always curious as to what’s out there. But nor would I ever go for a new material just because it was new. It has to serve my purposes. I’m very cautious about that because I couldn’t bear it if some material caused health problems and we’d used it just because it was new and spectacular.