Earlier this year, somebody told me that I was known for making horology a feminist issue – an accusation that flummoxed me. For me, my wristwatch of choice is not determined by a name or label telling me that it is “one for the ladies”. I wear what I like, influenced by brand heritage, design, mechanics and, yes, occasionally because there is a smattering of gems.

My personal taste leans towards more masculine watches because I like the size and weight and internal mechanics, but that does not mean that I judge others for their personal choices – not the cars they drive, nor where they prefer to holiday, the clothes they wear or the timepieces they choose to buy. What does frustrate me, however, is when I’m told that women actually prefer quartz because that’s what they buy – a truth that exists because we are only free to choose from the repertoire on offer, no matter how narrow that it is.

Richard Mille

As I pondered the subject of what people actually want, I started to think about all the other women I know that, while they would not bristle at a quartz watch, would personally prefer to buy and wear something with a little more mechanical substance and tradition. This in turn led me to the founder of one of the industry’s most macho, technically advanced and innovative brands, a man who cannot keep up with market demand whether in the men’s or women’s sector. Richard Mille is a true genius in the world of high-end watchmaking and a man who creates timepieces from scratch for the women that make up more than 20 per cent of his clientele. Who better to debunk the suggestion that, when it comes to horology, women do not care for, understand or buy

“I think it is wrong when men suggest that women don’t understand horology,” he tells me. “Come on. Today women are quite literally running the world – they are global leaders, top CEOs and talented engineers. Women are totally at home with electronics and mechanical engineering. So to suggest that watchmaking is beyond a woman’s realm of understanding or outside her field of interest is just ignorant and insulting. What I always find stupid is when people say: ‘Quartz watches are perfect for women because they don’t want to worry about winding timepieces.’ That’s the point of automatic movements for goodness sake – and not just for women.”

RM 07-01

A watchmaker for more than four decades, Mille founded his eponymous company in 1999, with the first watch – the RM001 – going on sale in 2001. Just five years after establishing one of the most innovative brands in the watch industry and, at a time when few other manufactures were looking at the ladies’ market, Mille started designing watches specifically for women. “At first there was little brand awareness among women, so it took time to develop an interest,” he recalls. “But I was sure that there was a market and, for me – and the label – it was a kind of security to be strong in the women’s universe, to be substantial and have a good set-up. Strategically it was a real objective from the start. I never doubted that the demand was there for technical watches made for women and I knew the potential was huge.”

While the majority of brands today are obsessed with volume, Richard Mille is at a totally different price point to most so can afford to go with intuition and gut feeling. Currently producing less that 4,000 pieces a year, Mille knows that it is difficult to measure how far he can take his women’s watches.

He smiles, saying: “I don’t know the limit so I increase production reasonably. What I do know is that the more I produce, the greater the demand. For sure I know there is room for several thousand pieces per year, which is more than enough as I don’t want to go into volume business.”

RM 037
RM 07-01 ATZ White Ceramic

Sisters are doing it for themselves
On the question of who is buying his women’s watches, Mille is clear that the majority of his customers are the end users themselves, busting the myth that only men buy his timepieces. “It’s funny,” he says. “Back in the early days it was probably true that men would choose a matching watch for the women in their lives when they bought a Richard Mille. But that is definitely not the case any more.

“Wherever our customers are – Asia, Europe, the US – and whether it is men or women, we have a phenomenal number of repeat purchasers. It has been one of my biggest surprises. When people tell me they are thinking of buying their first Richard Mille, I always tell them to be careful because they are addictive.”

On the question of why they are so addictive, Mille dislikes the theory of a “billionaire boys club” where the watch acts as a marker of wealth. “I think the price is relevant only because it reflects the exclusivity of the brand,” he says. “The main issue is that it’s not prostituted. In most contemporary big cities, brand boutiques are easier to find than a gas station but Richard Mille is always a little off the beaten track, it is not in your face. Of course we do have a certain price point, but this is a result of long development in each model – much like with an F1 car. Most brands will develop a new model every five years but I do seven in a year in very small quantities.”

Michelle Yeoh

Mille believes that shopping habits have changed since the early-2000s, with people becoming less interested in brands and women especially looking for something more exclusive, something adapted to their needs and something that can’t be found everywhere. He insists that a brand name is no longer important and that sophistication is much more relevant today.

“So there are many parameters – exclusivity, novelty, creativity. With Richard Mille, passion is a huge part of the concept. I control everything and everything must be perfect – for example with the open link bracelet I became totally cuckoo – we went through at least 20 different modifications to achieve perfect integration with the case. Equal in importance with passion is comfort – it is a modern concept that people today don’t want to compromise on and our watches are so comfortable that, after wearing them, it is hard to go back to another brand.”

RM 26-02 Evil Eye
RM 051 Tourbillon Phoenix

Just for her
When designing for women Mille says that he never simply makes a case shape smaller. “The only way to keep the tonneau shape and to stay ergonomic is to make the case narrower,” he explains. “This means that the case is quite long and the lines are more feminine. In this way, the watch is completely integrated in the Mille family in that it is ergonomic but, at the same time, it is very different. We found that a lot of women were wearing men’s watches but found them uncomfortable. For that reason, we make two different sizes of women’s watch because we know that often they prefer bigger timepieces.”

And Mille insists that when it comes to the technical side of his women’s watches there is no compromise and where there is crossover it is because it works. “I wanted to come with sexy materials for women step-by-step,” he says. “We decided to use the extra light carbon and the success has been unbelievable. Of course, as with everyone, I do create pieces in diamonds and gold, but I will never compromise in either materials used or mechanics. As I’ve already said, comfort is super-important and it was a major endeavour to bring women to extra light watches. There is no difference in how I look at a new watch – no matter what gender it is for. I want to be consistent with my concept and only after that do I look at the different parameters for men and women.”

RM 19-01 Tourbillon Spider

As a watchmaker who also knows jewellery, Mille loves that women’s watches allow him a greater freedom with colour, intricate design and stonework. Suggesting that the limited numbers of each reference he works with makes creativity easier, he says: “I love the development process of different materials and colours because I am not afraid to experiment. What makes my life easier is the limited production – when you are not operating in a commercial world, the small quantities allow you to find customers and develop whatever you want.

“I push limits and learn something new every day but I won’t take risks. We have experimented and tested everything. When it comes to creating for women, I always say that I have no problem lowering my level of testosterone. I like to be playful. My challenge was to integrate women in a complicated world but at the same time I wanted symbolic value – I have played with the Celtic knot, which represents the timeless nature of our spirit; and the spider that was at the heart of the RM 19-01 Tourbillon Spider, which challenges perceptions of scariness and beauty. Most of the symbols are a little rebellious – the RM 26-02 Evil Eye and the RM 51-01 Tiger and Dragon Michelle Yeoh – but the basis is technicality. Take for example the RM 19-02 Tourbillon Fleur, whose animated, hand-painted magnolia petals open to reveal a flying tourbillon before closing again.”

The RM 19-02 Tourbillon Fleur

Complicated women
When it comes to technicality and love of complications, Mille finds little difference between his male and female clientele. “Some are interested in sports watches, many of them play golf or tennis and want a watch to be shock resistant, light and reliable. Others want something a little more lifestyle or ultra-slim and unobtrusive.

“Watches can be really boring – people want to copy pieces from the 18th or 19th centuries. But I make contemporary watches for contemporary users. The common denominator in all my watches is technicality. Modern women are interested in science and attracted to high-tech in the same way as men. The two universes are not cut down the middle, they are integrated and the reality is that women are only going to become more dominant in the future. This market segment is only in its early stages of growth and it is extremely short-sighted not to recognise that women are choosing and buying their own timepieces and deserve the same attention that is afforded to men.

“When I started my company, my objective was to only be involved with technical watches and I was not going to redefine my philosophy because I was making pieces for women. I have always been equally interested in aesthetics and mechanics, and
a well-fitting watch creates a real challenge because you have to adapt the movement. I believe that we have the best women’s collection in the world – the categories, the colours and the shape. In fact, I am certain that this is the case because we can’t keep up with demand, and when I see our success – women’s watches now account for 35 per cent of our sales in Europe – I think I can’t be wrong.”

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