It is the year of our Lord two thousand and six. I am at the Le Mans Classic. The smell of burnt dinosaurs fills the air. This is the scented palimpsest that I associate with maverick genius Richard Mille. This is his terroir; vaporized high-octane race fuel, ignited through the magic of the combustion engine, transformed into asphalt-clawing power. It is this smell, combined with adrenaline and sweat and test-fucking-tosterone, that envelops the Le Mans Classic. For two days, we’ve seen drivers thrash within an inch of their lives cars that would normally be flat-bedded and gone over ad nauseam with Q-tips and chrome polish at Pebble Beach’s Concours d’Elegance.

Here on the legendary Circuit de la Sarthe, we see Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagatos, Ford GT40s, Ferrari 250 GTOs and a hundred-zillion-dollar metal armada of Formula One cars rend through space as if trying to escape the shackles of gravity itself. This is where Richard Mille is most at home. Here, he is the Space Cowboy. Here, he’s the Gangster of Love. For in his world, priceless objects are never handled with white gloves, but used as God and their makers intended. Which is to say, hard. Which is to say, without compromise. Which is to say, to the limits of their endurance and beyond.

The philosophy of ‘ultimate performance’ is Richard Mille’s religion, and its credo of ‘no compromise’ his holy liturgy, incanted and intoned through every level of his manufacturing process. In an industry littered with con men, charlatans, opportunists and snake-oil salesmen, Richard Mille is the real deal. Who else would strap a half-million-dollar tourbillon to the tennis world’s hardest hitter and insist that he is to wear the watch while playing in the most brutal competition? The fact that the player in question, Rafael Nadal, would go on to win the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open without removing the timepiece from his wrist for a single game, deafeningly intones the veracity of Mille’s credo.

Who else would create the world’s first wristwatch with a carbon-fiber baseplate for an F1 driver to wear on the racetrack, and joke that despite a horrendous crash, the watch continued to work perfectly? Who else would introduce materials previously associated only with aerospace into the watch, and bring unparalleled shock resistance, lightness and rigidity to every component of the watch, at the same time introducing architectural geometry and forms derived from F1 cars?

A full decade and a half into his brand’s existence, Richard Mille represents the most significant influence on contemporary horology in the last half-century.

This is the story of how he totally and irrevocably changed the game.

The genesis of a global vision

“Bonjour, Richard Mille,” he says, his distinct baritone like a cosmic cannon shot. It’s a sonic boom over the desert sky. It bounces and careens off the walls, encapsulating the man, the myth, the legend with the same fierce, compact economy and force of will as René Descartes’s cogito ergo sum.

But who is Richard Mille? What’s the man behind the machine all about? He’s a gentleman of exquisite refinement and a man of enormous presence. So as he crosses any threshold and makes that incredible pronouncement of self, “Bonjour, Richard Mille,” the room literally resonates with his energy. Funnily, the only time he was reticent about wielding his mighty name was when we were stopped at the gates of Le Mans by an overeager security guard. Behind, an enormous ‘Richard Mille’ banner soared overhead. The guard politely asked, “Sir, may I ask your name and the nature of your business at Le Mans?” Mille smiled and intoned, “My name is Richard and I am in the business of passion, my friend — always passion!”

While Mille is now a fixture in the pantheon of Swiss horology’s megawatt superstars, he is unique in achieving this status by working in almost total opposition to its traditions. The late Nicolas G. Hayek was once asked where he would like to die. His response was, “Switzerland, because everything there happens 10 years too late.” And it’s true, in horology’s hometown where Mont Blanc is reflected in the ever-placid face of Lake Geneva, time is ironically at a standstill. Progress there was the result of incremental creeps forward, until Mille exploded onto the scene, bending the space-time continuum and catapulting the entire industry light years ahead.

Mille states, “I wanted to start clean from a blank slate and create something entirely divorced from the past — something new that had never been seen before.” For Mille, the watch industry was trapped in the ‘ghetto’ of its own mindset. He explains, “Wanting to do something new was totally unheard of at that time. You see, what are essentially being made today are replicas of watches from the past. It would be the equivalent of Ferrari constantly remaking replicas of cars it created 50 years ago. If this happened, the evolution of the auto industry would totally stop. In art, architecture and performance motorsports, imagination, evolution and innovation are fundamental to their lifeblood. It was my mission to inject this kind of new energy into watchmaking.”

What was coalescing in Mille’s mind was not a watch, but a prevailing philosophy. Mille explains, “The Mille watch is the result of an entirely new global belief system. Every aspect of the watch — from the way it was conceptualized, to the way it was built, to the materials it used, to its resulting aesthetic — was the result of this global system focused on three things: ultimate shock resistance, ultimate lightness and ultimate ergonomics. I wanted to make watches in the way F1 cars were created, as high-performance dream machines without a single iota of compromise.” This ethos of ‘no compromise’ would become an evangelical tenet for Mille and the fundamental precept of the Mille religion.

Says Mille, “Based on the decision-making process I made when I created my first watch, I should have fired myself. You see, every time I came to a juncture where I could choose between lower-cost alternatives or a more-expensive extreme, I always went for the extreme. Everyone told me I was committing commercial suicide.” But as a consequence, Mille describes the creation of his very first watch, the RM 001, as a work of absolute pleasure for him.

Amazingly, despite its staggering price tag of USD135,000 dollars; despite the fact that Richard Mille was an all-new brand, the very first RM 001 sold in less than half an hour. Says Mille, “I started with the shop Chronopassion in Paris. The first piece arrived in his boutique at about 11:00am, and by 11:30am, it was sold. The owner of Chronopassion, Laurent Picciotto, called me and said, ‘I need another one.’ I couldn’t believe it. Picciotto recalls the customer who had come in to buy another watch and walked out with a Richard Mille on his wrist, “The guy was really mad. He was shouting and cursing at me all the way into the street. He said, ‘You are a bastard. Why did you show me this watch? It is so fucking expensive but so beautiful that I had to buy it!’”

The ultimate performance test

On 7 June 2010, a revitalized and transformed Rafael Nadal came back from what had previously been one of his worst seasons to become the most dominant force in professional tennis. On this day, he was unstoppable, playing his unique blend of tennis, best described as sheer entropy, non-stop kinetic magic as he blitzed past Robin Söderling in straight sets to win his fifth French Open, his seventh Grand Slam and be reinstated as the highest-ranked player in the world. As he raised his trophy above a jubilant crowd, on his right wrist was a marvel of engineering: a carbon-fiber-cased, aluminum-lithium tourbillon watch that had been his companion through every single stroke of every set throughout the tournament: the RM 027. This 20g masterwork of technological innovation was made by Richard Mille and is proof positive that his watches can be worn in even the most brutal and punishing conditions. But for Mille, without this extreme test and vindication, the exercise of making the world’s lightest mechanical watch would have been meaningless.

Mille is quick to point out that each of his forays into extreme lightness has always been accompanied by a real performance objective linked to an elite athlete. His 48g RM 006 and his 28g RM 009 were both created to be worn by F1 driver Felipe Massa during races.

Mille explains, “The idea of pushing a watch to the very edge of lightness was only interesting as part of the comprehensive goal of making a timepiece worn by an elite athlete like Rafael Nadal. And ultimately, lightness was only one component to this. Shock resistance and ergonomics were equally important. People ask me, ‘What use can Rafael Nadal have for a watch when he’s playing?’ But Nadal explained to me after he won the French Open that during the semi-final, which was a very challenging match, there were critical moments when he wanted to check the time. He wanted to know what the condition of the light would be, and also if he were to go on for a certain number of sets, whether they would have to come back the following day.”

What Mille achieved by equipping Nadal with a tourbillon wristwatch that he wore to victory in every single match of the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open, was totally unprecedented. While multitudes of watch brands sponsor athletes across an array of sports, not one of them has ever worn a mechanical watch, much less a tourbillon, while in competition. That Nadal did and that the watch obviously had zero negative influence on his game, is proof positive of Mille’s assertion that his timepieces are ultimate performance instruments.

He explains, “I consider Rafael Nadal and Felipe Massa to be partners. And the critical difference is that I am not interested in having them wear my watches in ads or off-court, or away from the racetrack. I want them to test my watches in competition; I want them to use the watches to the very limits of pressure and even to abuse the watches to demonstrate their value as high-performance technical instruments.”

Chasing Rafael

Winning Nadal over to the idea of wearing a watch during competition, says Mille, was no easy task. “I knew he would be really hard to convince. He is a total maniac when it comes to preparation and details. When he comes onto court, he has to arrange his drinks in a certain way; he has a certain routine and he cannot deviate from this in any way.” When he first broached the subject with Nadal, Mille recalls, “He immediately said, ‘No way. It is impossible. I cannot wear a watch when I play. It would destroy my balance; it would make me lose focus. It would be a disaster.’” Not one to shrink from a challenge, however, Mille says, “It became something of a mission for me to convince him to wear the watch when he was playing. This dictated four objectives for the watch I would create. The first was lightness, the second was shock resistance, the third was comfort, and the fourth was no compromise mechanically, which meant, for me, to create a tourbillon for this watch.” An encounter between Nadal and the King of Spain, who rhapsodized over the comfort and lightness of his RM 009 tourbillon, prompted the tennis champion to reconsider the idea — at least, in principle. “Finally,” says Mille, “he agreed to try it out, with no promises that he would wear it during competition.” Thus began development of the RM 027.

To isolate the tourbillon device from shocks — in particular those during Nadal’s ferocious backhand — the movement rides on shock absorbers, or silentblocs (rubber elastomers). Says Mille, “I wanted a case where the maximum of things were integrated so that fewer things could flex.”

The lighter the movement, the less it would be influenced by shocks, and so Mille turned to aluminum-lithium, a material from aerospace that he introduced to watchmaking several years ago with a watch called the RM 009. Says Mille, “I wanted to make a movement that was less than 4g — and we managed to create one that weighed 3.4g.”

To make a super-light case, Mille utilized a material that he introduced to the watch industry with his watch, the RM 006. He explains, “When I began, I wanted to use carbon fiber on the most critical part of the timepiece, the baseplate, which is the skeleton of the watch. The watch we made, the RM 006, was actually on the wrist of Felipe Massa when he suffered a horrible crash of over 30Gs, and it survived with not even a need for the slightest adjustment. Now, I decided to use carbon nanofiber for the case of Nadal’s watch. The objective was to have the case as light as possible but rigid enough, because the force is so violent, it could twist the case. So instead of a normal three-piece case, I made it monobloc.” To shave off the final few grams, Mille decided not to use a sapphire crystal, but a type of high-end Plexiglas you find in racecars instead. He says, “What we did was adapt an extreme machine for a very extreme purpose.”

Mille traveled to Spain to present the first prototype to Nadal. His reaction was impressive. Mille recalls, “He was really shocked because when you have an object that is less than 20g in your hand, it is like holding nothing. What is funny is that after this, he started to train with the watch, and he came back with a list of requirements. He began telling us about small improvements and so on. Then I encouraged him to really brutalize the watch, to never hold back, because I wanted him to forget about it, to never compromise on his performance. At one point, the crown came off; at another point, the hands flew; and at another point, the crystal came off. But each time, it showed us where we had to strengthen the watch. To meet these demands, we had to slightly increase the weight but the final product is still 20g. If it didn’t have to be worn during real competition, we could have made it much lighter.”

Even then, there were still minor issues to overcome up until the last minute. Mille explains, “One of the last big issues ended up being the strap. A normal buckle was hurting Nadal, so finally we arrived at a type of Velcro strap. I had a few sleepless nights over this strap because I was worried that if it detached during the French Open, it might fall off, and it would be in front of all the cameras of the world. But to be a pioneer, you have to take risks.”

To answer the question as to whether the watch has been any hindrance to Nadal, Mille points out, “He wore the watch when he won the French Open, then he won Wimbledon wearing the watch, and he went to South Africa to watch Spain win the World Cup wearing the watch. And then he won the US Open with it on. So he told me that now, it is his lucky watch.”

During the US commentary for the French Open, the irascible former player and now commentator, John McEnroe, went on something of a prolonged rant proclaiming that he couldn’t believe Nadal was wearing a “half-million-dollar watch” that smacked not too vaguely of jealousy, but to focus on the price of the RM 027 is to miss its point entirely. Says Mille, “Nadal is an incredibly humble guy and he doesn’t know how to reply to a commentator like John McEnroe when he asks something like how a watch can cost USD500,000. So he replies that this watch is a technical exercise, and I think this is good because I don’t want him to oversell the watch. The fact that he wore it while playing was the best testament he could make.”

The evolution of luxury: Lightness equals performance

Mille believes that in order to understand the appeal of the ultra-light performance timepiece, you need to first overcome the brainwashing about social status related to traditional luxury materials like gold and platinum. Mille explains, “The ultra-light watch is for you when you don’t need to prove anything to anybody, when you are ready to go for the extreme in comfort, the extreme in ergonomics, the extreme in performance, then you have arrived at a stage of maturity where you are ready for the extreme in lightness.”

Says Mille, “This is the fundamental message of Richard Mille. It is the brand for when you have gone past the preconceptions about traditional luxury. For me, it is not the first watch a collector will buy, but it is the last one he will buy once he has transcended beyond everything else and buys this watch only to please himself.”

Mille’s focus on ultra-light ‘racing machines for the wrist’ has resulted in a radical evolution in thinking for high-end-watch collectors. Says Mille, “Before me, gold was a symbol of wealth; it was a sign of importance, it expressed luxury. It was funny because I wanted to convince people to wear much lighter watches, but it was not easy. I was the first to put a tourbillon inside a titanium case, but some people felt that it was almost a waste of money. It’s funny, now we sell many more watches in titanium and in carbon fiber than in platinum.”

Mille has also been a pioneer in the use of titanium both as a case material, and more importantly, as a material for his movements. Says Mille, “Titanium was used before only as a material for the case, and even as a case material, it was used in very simple geometric forms. The manufacturing process for titanium is expensive. This is why my titanium cases are almost the same price as gold [cases]. In addition, the finishing and the polishing are all done by hand and very challenging. But my interest in titanium was not just as the case of watches. I was the first to make a titanium baseplate for the watch. And this was so costly, so time-consuming and a headache, but I did it because the material benefits are substantial and I will not make any compromises in my watches. I was discussing with the boss of Vaucher [which makes the movements for the RM 011] — to make 3,000 movements; he has to make 5,000 to 6,000 plates. This rejection rate is enormous. In any other industry or with any other brand, I suppose this ratio would be totally unacceptable, but this is the way I want to do things — without compromise!

“When people ask me how I can accept a rejection rate of 45 percent, I said this is part of the identity of the brand. In the past, there was something like this in watchmaking, which was true grand feu enamel. The rejection rate was incredible, but it gives some nobility to watchmaking, rather than to make things in a faceless, soulless, industrial way. And this is also the case for complicated watches for some brands today. You give pride to the watchmaker creating your watch.”

When asked where he draws the line in terms of materials innovation, Mille is quick to reply, “I want to ensure that 50 years from now, the integrity of the case and of the baseplate is still there. There are materials that I refuse to use because of this. As a collector of vintage racecars, it is important to me that beautiful things continue to exist and are easy to be maintained. There are many people who introduce materials to watchmaking just to be sexy, but this is very superficial. And in a few years’ time, when these watches are very difficult to repair, it is the consumer who suffers.”

Aesthetic revolution

Look at any Richard Mille watch and you’ll be drawn inside its hypermodern mechanical universe, almost like descending into a futuristic cityscape. Says Mille, “It made sense to have my watches be transparent, for several reasons. The first is, if I were going to have an enormous amount of hand-finishing, then it made sense to show it off. The second thing was, many brands would want to create something modern-looking on the outside, but on the inside, they use exactly the same movement as everyone else. I want to demonstrate the extremes I had gone to make the movement of the watch the most innovative part of it.”

“After working in dimension and transparency, I started to think about what had most impeded the realization of something truly architectural, and I arrived at the baseplate. For 300 years, people have been using the same type of baseplate. So for one of my watches, the RM 009, I decided to create an all-new execution of the baseplate, which was more like the skeletal structure of a super-skyscraper with boxed sections made in aluminum-lithium. For the next high-concept timepiece, the RM 012, I wanted to go even further and make a baseplate that was like the frame of a Ducati, and of course, everyone said this was not possible because the amount of work needed to build something like this, with the tolerance necessary so that each gear was properly positioned, was crazy. We had to be within one-micron accuracy and the people making this frame were pulling their hair out, but this is the cost of being a pioneer. Because I am not inhibited by cost, I said we must do this.”

Even with his aesthetic vision, Mille has remained militantly uncompromising. He exclaims, “I had a big fight with Renaud & Papi when I received the first execution of RM 012. I was so angry that they had sandblasted everything. They didn’t understand that with this type of structure, you had to go to the extreme in terms of finishing, playing with polishing and angles, et cetera. As I don’t care about the cost, we had to go to the extreme. This makes it totally different from an industrial product.”

Unparalleled ergonomics

Put a Richard Mille watch on, and despite its substantial size, you’ll find yourself forgetting it’s there. This is thanks to the extraordinary ergonomics engineered into Mille’s timepieces.

Says Mille, “In the watch business, we work with antagonistic shapes. The movement that is central to the watch’s architecture must be flat, yet at the same time, we are striving to make the case curved and ergonomic. In order to reconcile these two elements, you have to bring in a lot of technical elements, even to the point of reconfiguring the gear train, so that the case can become as comfortable as possible. For brands that use ubiquitous movements and then try to adapt a case, this is very difficult, but because I always work from scratch, ergonomics is of primary importance even at the stage of movement development. This is similar to F1 — for example, the body of the car is always moving toward further aerodynamics, but the shape of the engine, which is a constant, must always be integrated. In addition, in F1, you must avoid overheating and balance issues, and so the engineering teams for the body and the engine must work together. I feel this is exactly the way you must work with watches, taking the human body as the constant, because they are meant to be worn.”

The door to the future

In many ways, Richard Mille represents the final evolutionary step in any watch collector’s progression. Says Mille, “My watches are for when we escape from the superficial to the real thing. It is an evolution not just of the watch, but of the collector. It is the door to the future. One subject that is most often discussed with regard to Mille’s overt modernity is the question: how will Richard Mille be perceived in the future? My belief is, though his watches were revolutionary when they first emerged, I think they will become future classics. When the Barcelona chair or the Ferrari 250 GTO were first created, they were groundbreaking. Today, they are classics and as relevant as they were when they were first created, by virtue of their originality. Similarly, we can see Richard Mille’s already-15-year-old RM 001 and six-year-old RM 027 are just as electrifyingly relevant as the day they were created. They are horological milestones recognized for their aesthetics as well as the lofty performance parameters which they established.

Opening photograph by Thomas Lavelle for Revolution.

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