As the saying goes, “You either love ’em or hate ’em.” That definitely applies to Richard Mille and their watches. But is it really that black and white? Nearly everyone I know has an opinion about this brand: I often hear people refer to Richard Mille as (too) loud, (too) colorful, and (too) expensive in one breath, and then as innovative, desirable, and successful in the next. Clever marketing has earned this luxury watch brand plenty of attention. So, how much technical innovation and character are hiding behind the marketing hype?
The Story Behind Richard Mille
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the man behind Richard Mille is none other than Richard Mille. Born in Draguignan, France in 1951, he began his career not as a watchmaker but rather working on the marketing and management teams of various luxury brands. These included, among others, the watch division of the company Matra and its brands, such as Yema. Seiko acquired Matra in 1974, and Mille later moved on to jewelry company Mauboussin in 1992. In 1999, he ultimately decided to found his own watch brand together with his friend and business partner, Dominique Guenat. Guenat was himself owner and CEO of the watch manufacturer Valgine. To this day, the company Guenat S.A. Montres Valgine still supports the development, production, and distribution of Richard Mille watches. In 2001, two years after being founded, the brand launched their first watch, the RM 001. But more about that later!
The structure of Richard Mille is about as complex as the watches themselves. Several other companies hold shares in the business and are active in its operation to varying degrees. Aside from Guenat S.A. Montres Valgine, it’s also worth mentioning ProArt SA, who supply Richard Mille with certain watch components (including cases, bridges, and pushers). For most of their automatic and chronograph movements, Richard Mille collaborates with Vaucher Manufacture Fleurier. It’s also interesting to note that Audemars Piguet Renaud et Papi has invested in Richard Mille as well. This partner is particularly advantageous due to their highly complex movements, including tourbillons.
In short, instead of developing their own cozy production house (as the Swiss industry tends to romanticize), Richard Mille is based on cooperation with specialists – surely a point of criticism for many. But it’s all part of a clear strategy, as laid out on Richard Millle’s official website: “For a long time, I wished to launch my own brand. I wanted to create a new business model, far removed from traditional marketing strategies, something totally original […]”. Being different and having this special business model are central to the brand’s identity. In 2018, the Richard Mille Group employed around 148 people and, according to various sources (including the FHH Journal), had a total turnover of around 300 million CHF. For reference, Audemars Piguet raked in $937 million USD that same year, according to Statista. That’s the equivalent of roughly 915 million CHF.
The First Richard Mille Watch
Two years after the company’s foundation, Richard Mille released their first watch. It demanded a six-figure price of $135,000 as soon as it hit the market. That’s a lot of money for what initially appeared to be a sport watch with, believe it or not, a “thing” on the open dial that looked like a tourbillon. Using the terms “sporty” and “tourbillon” in a single breath to describe a watch was previously unheard of and justifiably raised some eyebrows.
Tourbillons are not really made for action-packed lifestyles. The combination of a heavy timepiece with highly fragile components make every impact a stress test. However, none of that matters for the RM 001. Its manual movement was conceived separately from the case and seems to float inside of it without any connection. Outfitted with a bridge made of carbon and carbon fibers, the movement is absolutely shock resistent.
In this regard, the RM 001 was truly revolutionary, and of course, it was strictly limited. Specialists rightly paid a lot of attention to its futuristic design, composed of a barrel-shaped case with eight screws on the bezel and a visible movement. Richard Mille himself described the watch as “one [of] the greatest revolution[s] of its time in watchmaking history.”
Why all the hype?
“Richard Mille cost a Lambo,” observed US rapper Meek Mill in his song “Going Bad” – and he’s not the only one to notice. No matter what you think of their strategy, the brand has achieved what others can only dream of. In some circles, it is on its way to achieving “cult” status. For example, both my 12-year-old cousin as well as my father, who has absolutely nothing to do with watches, have already heard of Richard Mille. A German Google search for “Richard” produced the following suggestions: Richard Mille price, Richard Mille Nadal, Richard Mille Drake, Richard Mille Odell Beckham. It’s also interesting to see which countries most frequently search for the brand: Singapore, the UAE, and Switzerland. On that note, let’s take a closer look at a few key aspects of the brand’s success!
Point 1: The Price
The second half of the aforementioned Richard Mille quote continues: “[…]My goal was to create a new, ultra-high-end luxury segment within the high-end watch business[…].”So the price is a part of what makes up the brand’s individuality. One might even dare to say that Richard Mille created a completely new category/market through price politics, the same way Audemars Piguet once did with the Royal Oak. This strategy sees them with very little competition. Based on optics, Hublot would be a natural enemy of Richard Mille, but even models like the Big Bang Tourbillon sell for AS LOW AS $63,000. Richard Mille uses high price tags so that their customers belong to an even smaller, more elite group within the luxury watch segment – extreme luxury, “the billionaire’s secret handshake,” if you will.
Of course, the price goes hand in hand with limited availability. According to various sources, Richard Mille’s annual production lies around 5,000 watches. In comparison, Audemars Piguet produces about 31,000 watches in the same timeframe. By comparison, that’s basically mass production. The entry-level Richard Mille timepiece starts around $80,000 USD (list price). The most expensive watch in their current portfolio is the RM56-02 Sapphire. It demands a list price of roughly $2,000,000. Even though the typical Richard Mille buyer might not worry about value retention, let’s take a look at the two most popular Richard Mille models in 2019 based on Chrono24 search volume: the RM 011 Felipe Massa and the RM 035 Rafael Nadal. At least these two watches have performed very positively and proved themselves solid investments.
Point 2: “Partners & Friends”
“A racing machine on the wrist.” That’s how Richard Mille advertises their watches. Motorsport has had a clear influence on Mille’s timepieces with their unmistakable designs and unique materials. Unsurprisingly, Richard Mille often emphasizes his passion for racing and the engineering that goes into it. So, it makes sense that F1 driver Felipe Massa was one of the first partners to be outfitted with a watch. And the best part? He actually wore it while racing, including during a crash in 2014. Luckily, both he and the watch survived unscathed. Today, Richard Mille seems to have the entirety of Formula 1 as partners. Their decision to sponsor the American team “Haas” came as no surprise. Richard Mille watches also make appearances on the tennis court with Rafael Nadal, and on the football field with Odell Beckham Jr.. However, Rolex, Omega, and other major brands are also more than familiar with attracting big-name brand ambassadors. The clever thing about Richard Mille is that their watches are actually worn in competition, thus underscoring their durability. The short-term effect is evident in the case of football star Odell Beckham Jr., for example, who wore a $300,000 RM 11-03 during an NFL game in September. This had a visible impact on subsequent searches on our marketplace:
At least in the short-term, the hype is demonstrably real! The list of celebrity Richard Mille wearers is at least as long as their astronomical list prices: Pharrell Williams, Drake, Bubba Watson, Ed Sheeran, and Jay-Z, who proudly announced on Instagram that the case of his approx. $2.5 million RM 056 itself took 3,000 hours to produce.
The strategy is clear, and even Richard Mille himself takes the spotlight often enough, telling his story as an industry rebel. All in all, I think it’s pretty sound marketing – putting watches in unexpected places and using the price as a strong marketing tool. The brand is able to get its message out without using too many words. The mere presence of that flashy bling on the field sometimes causes us to lose sight of the ball as we focus purely on the player’s wrist. After that comes the googling, astonishment at the price, and the chat with friend about that crazy expensive timepiece.
This marketing is particularly effective with younger generations. People under the age of 35 are responsible for 60% of the searches for Richard Mille on Chrono24. This is likely because displays of luxury is encouraged on Instagram and other social networks. On blogs like Highsnobiety and Hypebeast, Richard Mille looks a lot better paired with Off-White sneakers and Supreme hoodies than a Grand Seiko does. In these circles, even Rolex is being ousted by brands like Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, and Richard Mille. A Rolex might still have a certain outsider chance, but only if it’s “iced out” with diamonds.
So, is Richard Mille’s clever sponsoring and media buzz really enough to beat all the “old” brands when it comes to the cold, hard numbers? Probably not. But, in order to set themselves apart, those who can afford a Richard Mille also want the world how much their watch is worth.
Point 3: What about the technology?
In case the wearer would like to justify wearing the equivalent of a nice family house with a pool on their wrist, Richard Mille offers all kinds of more convincing arguments than just, “I had the money.” These watches really have a lot to offer in terms of technology. For example, there’s the RM 27-03 belonging to tennis star Rafael Nadal. In this model, Richard Mille uses so-called “carbon TPT,” which is composed of countless wafer-thin layers of carbon fiber. The case back and the bezel are made from quartz TPT, in which thin layers of quartz crystal and synthetic resin are melted together. As for the list price? It surpasses the $800,000 mark.
Another example is the RM 11-03. According to Richard Mille designer Fabrice Namura, this timepiece was developed in close cooperation with McLaren and their chief designer Rob Melville. The goal was to create something more than just an “ordinary watch.” The McLaren logo on the bezel is just a superficial reminder of the collaboration – but it is a lovely detail, reminiscent of the distinctive air intakes on the 800 HP P15 “Senna” sports car. This flyback chronograph has titanium pushers that resemble the headlights of the famous 720S. It’s definitely a watch with “flex appeal.”
I understand that this brand and the way it’s marketed may rub some people the wrong way. I was initially skeptical as well because, let’s be honest, many of us are guilty of false modesty and are secretly proud when someone addresses our watch and perhaps also the price we had to pay for it. Or maybe that’s just an especially German phenomenon. In my opinion, as is so often the case, you should reserve judgement until you’ve taken a closer look. By doing that, I learned that a brand can turn their weaknesses (the lack of history and tradition) into their greatest strength. Richard Mille doesn’t have to worry about what a conservative and well-established community is going to think when they make major changes. The argument stands about their unconventional development, design, and marketing strategies. But if you go around saying that you’re going to revolutionize the watch industry, then you better deliver. And I think Richard Mille has done that so far.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to like the watches and their price tags. The upside to all the Richard Mille hype is that particularly the younger generation may be getting interested in (mechanical) watches again. Similar to the rise of the smartwatches, this could have a positive effect on the watch industry as a whole. And I personally find that pretty cool!