Words like ‘disruptive’, ‘unconventional’, and ‘extreme’ are part of the lexicon of contemporary watchmaking, and that’s in no small part down to Richard Mille.
When his RM001 Tourbillon exploded onto the watchmaking scene in 2001, it shattered preconceptions about what modern horology could entail. It shattered previously set technical records, with notions of what a watch should me made of… and accepted pricing structures. In fact the one thing that never shatters around a Richard Mille watch is the watch itself.
Tested to the extremes of extremes and adorning the wrists of champions across myriad disciplines from polo to tennis to motorsport to athletics, Richard Mille watches are built to withstand pressures that go beyond the everyday experiences of most human beings, using technology and techniques from industries such as aerospace and Formula One.
Scratch-proof, shock-proof and crafted by hand and machine to infinitesimally flawless specifications, there is no part of a Richard Mille wristwatch that doesn’t defy existing standards.
So, when a brand associated with these extreme performance environments and their record-breaking protagonists released its candy-and-fruits themed Bonbon collection aimed mainly at women and centred around the less-than-adrenaline world of confectionary, CEO couldn’t resist the sweet opportunity to find out more about this unusual change of direction for Richard Mille.
Admirers of Richard Mille watches may have been surprised to see candies instead of sport or automotive influences revealed at Salon de Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) in January 2019. How much is it a departure point and how much is it within the brand’s DNA?
We’ve done so much over the years that has been different; the watch we did with Kongo that was spray-painted was pretty out there. I remember when Richard first said that he was going to make a watch entirely from sapphire and he mentioned the cost of doing so and asked if he could put me down to take two [to sell]. We make lots of watches that retail for several hundred thousand francs and then to suddenly make one that retails for 1.6 million. I did say ‘Are you out of your mind?’
Richard Mille watches are amongst the most expensive timepieces in the world. How does your brand justify this positioning?
If you buy a dress in couture that’s USD150,000 and you go out and get measured and have it made how you want, and you see the value. It’s the little bit same in the watches we make for women. The chances of you meeting someone who has the same watch in Dubai or London or Los Angeles is very rare.
Increasingly, people really like that, they like that exclusivity, but they also want people to know it’s a Richard Mille and once you start to talk about the component parts and how you make TP2, how you machine it… it becomes pretty clear what the watch is worth. It’s so obviously a Richard Mille and it is exclusive in that only 300 or so will be made in total, so it will be extremely rare to see anyone else wearing one.
The brand ambassadors that you’ve chosen to partner with in the past tend to be from extreme sports, such as heptathlon champion Nafi Thiam, sprinter Wayde Van Niekerk, racing champions Alain Prost, Felipe Massa, Rafael Nadal as well as protagonists from the world of entertainment such as Michelle Yeoh and John Malkovich; who do you think could represent the Bonbon watches?
How about Grayson Perry? The brand is a lifestyle product rather than a sports product and in the past we’ve tended to focus more towards sports people because we wanted a genuine collaboration between that person and the product we are making for them. We get good feedback from these watches and it’s a type of guerrilla marketing… but someone such as Margot Robbie who we’ve worked with would suit.
I think there are plenty of women who perhaps would have liked a Richard Mille but didn’t find one that fitted their personality and with these we may have reached a different audience.
As you’ll know, the Middle East market likes to personalise. How much can Richard Mille customers personalise their watches?
It happens a little bit, but not much because the levels of complexity of normal production make it prohibitively expensive. For example a few years ago we made the RM 19-02 Tourbillon – Fleur, which had a magnolia flower that opened and closed to reveal a tourbillon inside the petals and some customers wanted an exact match of the petals to their favourite colour. And we were able to do that; it’s quite a long process because the flower is cold enamel and it’s hard to get the perfect match.
We used to do a lot more when we had a smaller production; everything is possible it just becomes more expensive and there are only a few people who are willing to come back a year later.
Is Richard Mille the size it wants to be, will it continue to grow?
The company will continue to grow. We are shutting all our multi-brand retailers and you will only be able to buy from boutiques from next year. The demand is still three or four times what we actually produce.
There are lots of markets that we want to focus on more, where we haven’t fully focused yet because, for example we may not have had the stock or the perfect location. We are a nice size. When I started, in my part of the business we were two people and now my team numbers 115. It’s a substantial growth.
Aside from the growth of the company, what has been the biggest change from a business point of view?
I would say the ability to open stores in places where we wouldn’t have dreamed of opening previously. The brand recognition and visibility compared to a few years ago is huge and people know Richard Mille watches instantly. I’m also amazed at how aspirational very young people are about it.
How is Richard Mille doing in the Middle East?
Our first boutique in the world was in Dubai and today we are more than doubling the size of that boutique. We’ve been quite well established in the Middle East for a while and the brand is well followed.
Customers in the region don’t come with baggage about having to have the same watch as their father or uncle or aunt therefore they are a lot more open that we came out of nowhere, a bit like McLaren, who also showed that the lighter something was didn’t mean it would be less expensive, in fact it would be more expensive because the process to make it light is not a cheap process.
Customers in the Middle East are well informed and ready to accept the brand even though it doesn’t have several generations of history behind it.
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