If you’ve ever wondered why a Richard Mille watch is so expensive, here’s a look at what goes into creating one…
Clad in hair net, protective booties and little white coat, I look a little bit like a mad scientist, but I’m perfectly dressed for the setting. Here at Richard Mille’s centre of watchmaking in Les Breuleux near Chaux-de-Fonds, precision, perfection and passion reign supreme. Fuelled by a determination to reinvigorate traditional watchmaking, founder Richard Mille has created a cathedral to contemporary watchmaking technology at which the values of rigorous design, innovation and an audacious attention to detail are venerated.
The medical escapee outfit and double-door entry systems go some way towards preserving these values, reducing external dust and pollutants to a space-like minimum. Maintaining pristine working conditions ensures that both the cutting-edge machinery and the humans that mastermind it receive the absolute best possible setting in which to accomplish brilliant horology.
When Richard Mille set out to make watches, he wanted to go beyond what had been done before and achieve perfection from the tiniest screw right through to the largest single piece (that unmistakably curved and fiendishly difficult to produce case that gives a Richard Mille its distinctive shape).
“The exterior and visually striking lines are important, yet they represent only the beginning of the process,” says Mille. ”The interior of the watch, the entire movement right down to seemingly inconsequential details of the shape and finish of screws, the way the interior of the case is utilised for movement layout… is an aspect of equal importance.”
Here, amidst some of the most skilled technicians, designers and watchmakers working in horology today, that mandate is stringently adhered to. You know those small screws on the case? There’s a department just for those, and their design, production and quality control is carried out as rigorously as that of the creation of the tonneau cases they adorn (more on those shortly). The premises is pristine in that very Swiss way – its perfection somehow enhancing the idea of creative possibilities – with quiet computer and design rooms punctuated by the noisier spaces where machinery works around the clock. Then there are the spaces where work is done by hand, in a manner not dissimilar to how watchmaking has been carried out in the region for centuries. Tradition, technology, innovation, all working in perfect synergy under one roof.
Mille enthusiasts will recall that his vision came to fruition in 2001 with the RM001, a watch that boasted an impressive tourbillon (pretty much a ‘must do’ for anyone with haute horlogerie aspirations) but it also looked like nothing else on earth. Futuristic, aggressive and with an aesthetic that had more in common with the motorsport and Formula 1 cars that Mille adores than with traditional watchmaking, it was an instant success.
It was the first time that a watch positioned at the top end of the market featured an 18th-century watchmaking complication – a tourbillon – alongside distinctly non-18th century features such as carbon nanofiber. Conspicuously for its $100,000-plus price tag, it featured no gold. Its hand-finished titanium offered a level of high performance previously unheard of in a mechanical watch – quite simply RM001 was a revolutionary interpretation of horology. The fact that it took three years to design and build is testament to the lack of compromise expressed at every stage – and ultimately, to its final price tag. Its run of 88 sold almost immediately. “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,” Mille told Revolution’s founder Wei Koh in 2016. The best possible solution was always the only acceptable one, and the watch’s price tag – a hefty $135,000 – did little to dissuade customers. The perfect watch proved to be the perfect foundation.
Establishing Horometrie SA in 2001 in Les Breuleux, not far from La Chaux-de-Fonds and in a further contradiction to ‘how things are done’ in Swiss watchmaking, Mille never wanted to create a manufacture. While there are certainly advantages to being solely responsible for all the components and processes of designing and building a watch, he forged an alternative path, seeking out the world’s leading authorities on precision manufacturing, performance materials, engineering, tooling and industrial design. After all, why spend years striving to be the best at shaping metal when you can instead focus on designing the best watch? Channelling the collective might of their experience towards his goal proved to be a winning formula (winning being a recurring theme at Richard Mille).
No part of the watch is deemed less important than another when it comes to its construction – each is part of the whole, and if one is less than perfect, it renders the achievement incomplete. The most obvious expression of this focus is in the case, which is available in a variety of shapes depending on the model.
A Richard Mille case represents one of the trickiest manufacturing challenges within the watchmaking process. You know that light and curvy feeling? That sleek ergonomic embrace that makes strapping a Mille to your wrist so transcendent? That took an entire year of rigorous research, development and trial, just to get it good enough to get Mille’s uncompromising stamp of approval. Speaking of stamping – each case undergoes 68 stamping operations to get the front and back bezels and caseband to align so perfectly against each other that the sapphire glass then fitted into it rests perfectly without the slightest tension. That machining process takes nearly two weeks in total, per watch, with hand-carving of the logo, pushers, crowns and various other details adding further days of work to the process.
Mille has always sought out the very best partners with whom to collaborate, for example drawing on the considerable knowledge and skill of Audemars Piguet Renaud et Papi in making some of the complicated movements. Sometimes, as in the case of Montres Valgine, these entities have become assimilated with Horometrie SA parent company (the legal entity of Richard Mille). Valgine’s owner, Dominique Guenat, is a long-time friend of Mille and worked with him on the very first watches, supplying various parts and also contributing in establishing Horometrie SA. Over the years the original premises has developed in tandem with the demands of a growing business. In 2013, ProArt was added to the business when Mille’s previous case manufacturer went out of business.
Today, ProArt presides over an ultra-contemporary 3,320 m2 building where RM watch cases, components including baseplates and bridges are manufactured. Its existence allows the brand full autonomy over a crucial part of the manufacturing process and ensures the all-important supply. After all, it’s not that easy to make a Richard Mille watch case – especially when the case is made from one of the world’s hardest substances. In 2013 Mille introduced NTPT Carbon to its RM011. This substance wasn’t invented by the brand – it had previously been used in America’s Cup boats – but its high performance, and near-indestructible properties (it’s virtually impossible to scratch) held understandable allure. It would have been impossible to ask external watch companies to work with this material – the required machinery simply didn’t exist, and any attempt to work with it using traditional tools would have rendered little except an expensive bill for new machinery.
Thanks to cutting edge machinery, CNC programmers, inspectors and polishers, all working on site to further the technical sophistication of Richard Mille watches, the technical achievements of the brand have continued to evolve. This convergence of know-how has the ultimate goal of expressing watchmaking perfection and not even the most microscopic of parts escapes scrutiny from myriad experts, craftsmen and women, technicians, designers and artists. Pieces are checked, re-checked and summarily discarded if they fail to meet stringent standards. With Mille watches positioned, since the beginning, to embrace the most cutting-edge technologies and materials, it’s no surprise to discover that the machines that forge them into being are equally advanced. These robots and machines forge, polish, laser, wash, cut, shape and blast watches into (and occasionally out of) existence, their parameters carefully pre-programmed by a team of computer engineers, who in turn pore over first pencil sketches, then CAD drawings and finally three-dimensional prototypes.
While Mille’s machines are amongst the most sophisticated on the market, it is of course the hand-finished final touches that bestow that rarefied quality to each and every piece. While a robot can work to within an accuracy of microns, it is the human eye and the watchmaker’s judgment that ultimately ensures that every wristwatch leaving Les Breuleux is worthy of being worn by a champion – or anyone with a similar number of zeros in the bank account.