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Feature: Richard Mille’s First-born Is Twenty Years Old!

Richard Mille’s debut watch, the RM 001, put a hand-grenade up the backside of the industry when it was released twenty years ago. And it wasn’t just due to its outlandish looks and spine-shuddering $135,000 price tag.

Yes, the combination of a curved tonneau case, 3-D-effect dial and unorthodox calibre (visible through the front and back) was an aesthetic bombshell. But what really got jaws dropping was the fact that Richard Mille announced its entry into the watch world with none other than a tourbillon — the ultimate in horological show-boating.

It was as though a baby had just burst out of the womb, gnawed off its own umbilical cord and started breakdancing.

The RM 001 tourbillon was the brand's spectacular first watch

The RM 001 tourbillon was the brand's spectacular first watch

Shock of the new

The RM 001 was perhaps the most audacious watch the industry had seen since the 1970s when Gerald Genta, then working at Audemars Piguet, ripped up the design rule book to create the Royal Oak. For a fledgling brand like Richard Mille to come up with such a watch showed serious cojones . And there’s been no let-up in its propensity for shocking the world ever since.

The RM 001 has been the bedrock of the brand, the big daddy of almost every other RM model in its brief history. And it came about because of the single-mindedness, drive and creativity of Richard Mille himself, a man who admits he could no more put together a watch from scratch as perform open heart surgery on a dolphin.

So how did Richard Mille, a brand with all the history and heritage of a Dubai shopping mall, find itself in the vanguard of the avant garde watch movement, becoming one of today’s best-known independents?

Founding the brand

A marketing graduate, French national Richard Mille spent the early part of his career working for watch companies in a non-technical capacity before joining posh French jewellers, Maboussin.

When they disagreed on the commercial strategy of its watch division in 1998, Mille decided to part ways, eventually finding a partner in Dominic Guenat, owner of a company that made watches in the private label sector. Founding the Richard Mille brand in 1999, Mille and Guenat formed a further partnership with Audemars Piguet, who would later become a shareholder in the company.

The reverse of Richard Mille's RM 001 model

The reverse of Richard Mille's RM 001 model

Over the next two years, they would define the ethos of their brand, which was influenced by the worlds of motor-racing, aeronautics and sailing, together with the high-tech aspects of innovation, resistant materials hitherto unused in watch-making, and accuracy.

After a huge amount of research and prototyping, they unveiled their creation at Baselworld 2001, just three years after starting the company.

Unsurprisingly for such an idiosyncratic watch, the reception was mixed. Some were aghast at this brazen rebuttal of conventional watch-making, while others loved the fact that Richard Mille was clearly intent on following its own path in the industry – stuffy tradition be damned!

What makes a Mille amazing?

So what are the key things – aside from outlandish design – that have made Richard Mille watches so talked about since the introduction of the RM 001 two decades ago?

Its use of highly unorthodox case and component materials has been revolutionary, especially with substances like graphene, a material discovered by two researchers at Manchester University who went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. The RM 001 was itself a game-changer, made from titanium and carbon nano-fiber. Such materials make Richard Mille watches the lightest around.

Then there’s the choice of sporting ambassadors and the fact that Mille insists they wear their watches when they’re in action – be it on the running track, tennis court or in a Formula One car hurtling around at 360kph.

Putting the fun in function

Also, Richard Mille watches function differently from other watches. Take the crown on the RM 50-03, for example. You don’t pull it out to set the time. You use a push button set within the crown to choose a mode – Wind, Neutral or Hands (for the time-setting) – which is indicated on the dial as W-N-H. It’s a bit like choosing your gear when driving, which is no surprise given Mille’s passion for cars.

And, of course, there’s the price tag. Most of us would have to sell our internal organs and pimp out our entire family to Russian oligarchs for several years before we could afford a Richard Mille watch, with that RM 50-03 split seconds chronograph model reaching the million dollar mark.

The RM 055 manual winding Bubba Watson model

The RM 055 manual winding Bubba Watson model

Richard Mille has clearly scoffed at the idea that, to be taken seriously, a watch brand needs to have a vault of dusty old calibres and a family tree dating back to when Napoleon was potty training. However, with Richard Mille’s son, Alexandre, now ready to take the hot seat it seems well-placed to build its own lasting legacy.