Richard Mille Watches: The Billionaire's Masonic Handshake
With reverence for heritage tempered by a healthy disdain for the outmoded and unique, this maverick watchmaker has achieved a standing among the gods of horology by working in almost total opposition of the craft's traditions.
Say, you’re rich. Really rich. Tom Cruise rich — the kind of rich that should have him rebuking those who dare comment on his diminutive stature with the rebuttal, “If I were to stand atop all my money, I would be the tallest man on earth.” And, say, if — like Tom Cruise, Roman Abramovich or even that nameless Chinese billionaire who makes that tiny but crucial widget that makes your iPhone work — you want to instantly recognize if the person seated beside you at dinner also has a walk-in closet stacked so precariously high with €1,000 notes that he almost perished from lucre-induced suffocation when it once toppled on top of him, how do you go about it subtly? Sadly, in the era of leased supercars, rented mega-homes and borrowed über-yachts, it has become increasingly difficult to discern the pretender from the genuinely minted. In the old days, men of a certain net worth could join special clubs — the Skull and Bones club at Yale University, for example. They could reveal their wealth ineffably through secret handshakes or special rings that were signifiers of inclusion into that wonderful parallel universe. But with scholarship students now ensconced shoulder-to-shoulder with bona fide heirs-apparent, a cultivated accent, a well-tanned ankle or a certain nonchalant elegance is absolutely no assurance of bank-account solidity. Sadly, the secret handshake of today pales in comparison to the secret handshake of yesteryear as a gauge of true limitless checkbook depth. Why do high-net-worth birds of a feather want to flock together? Or, simply put, why do rich people like other rich people? 1) They believe that a fellow Richie Rich is not going to have some ulterior motive for wanting to be your friend. He’s not going to want to cosy up your family, then seduce your 80-year-old grandmother and convince her to change her will. He just wants to hang out with you, gaze at your Mark Rothkos and genuflect as smoke furls off the pre-Castro-era Davidoffs, or discuss the finer points of the Neapolitan barchetta over a glass of Vosne-Romanée. 2) They can find ways to collaborate to increase their personal fortunes. The mere thought of enlarging their already titanically swollen bank accounts make all rich people want to place their hands on their hips and laugh like Ernst Stavro Blofeld: “Mwa-ha-ha.” They don’t actually do this, but they want to. All of them. So, once again, we are back to the conundrum: how do you gauge if the man at the bar slings as much mad cash as you? Fortunately, in the last decade, one ultimate stealth signifier of extreme wealth has emerged to become the club pin, the friendship bracelet or the varsity blazer of the world’s financial elite: the Richard Mille watch. The Richard Mille watch is more than a timepiece; it is a sign of inclusion into a very special club. It has, in essence, become today’s equivalent of the billionaires’ Masonic handshake.
To begin with, Richard Mille’s watches are generally not shiny. They are, in fact, mostly matte-finished and stealthy. His most expensive models are the ones with cases made of titanium, or polymer-resins injected with carbon nanotubes, or even unclassified experimental metals intended for satellites. But ever since Richard Mille launched his eponymous brand in the beginning of the millennium, his watches have found their way onto the wrists of the true horological devotees. King Juan Carlos I of Spain has one; in fact, it was he who urged Nadal to collaborate with Mille. Rap icon Jay-Z has one — the same model that Nadal wears — which he wore to watch Rafa at the 2011 US Open. Pharrell Williams has one, as does Kanye West, who rapped about his being far more expensive than a Franck Muller. And Mille’s prices are sincerely stratospheric. So much so that when you first hear that his average tourbillon hovers in the near half-a-million-dollar vicinity — and without even a gram of traditional precious metals in sight — your mind will struggle to comprehend it. But the truth is, the price of the Richard Mille is both part of its insularity and its appeal. Only a small group of the global elite can afford them, and if you have one on, it’s as if you’re wearing an all-access armband to the transcendent universe of the über-rich. Why are Richard Mille watches so expensive? Mille explains, “It is because I am a victim of my own inability to compromise. Every time I get to a point where I need to decide [whether] to save cost or to push performance to the very extreme, I always choose the latter course.” Mille is the only man who makes sports watches that are actually worn by athletes in competition. He was the first to strap a watch to a Formula 1 driver, Felipe Massa, for a race; Massa then proceeded to crash rather spectacularly in the 2004 Hungarian Grand Prix. Thankfully, both the driver and the watch — the first of its kind with a carbon-fiber baseplate, named the RM 006 — survived with zero ill effects. Mille’s watches eschew the old-world concept of luxury, where watches needed to glitter and be made of heavy materials like platinum. Instead, Mille wanted to align the performance and aesthetics of his timepieces with contemporary racecars. This is his rationale for his extreme, lightweight watches; this is his impetus for introducing aluminum-lithium, orthorhombic titanium aluminide, carbon fiber and other high-performance materials into his timepieces. Mille’s watches represent a level of technological ambition — in terms of comfort, shock-resistance and lightness — that has revolutionized the industry. Among his achievements is the RM 009 tourbillon watch, launched in 2005, which utilized a virtually indestructible case made from ALUSIC, an aluminum-and-silicon compound that has to be spun in a centrifuge until it bonds at a molecular level. The RM 009 also boasted a movement made from aluminum-lithium that, when combined with the ALUSIC case, created the world’s lightest mechanical watch then, weighing in at 28g without the strap. In 2010, Mille beat this achievement by a considerable margin with the RM 027 tourbillon made for tennis star Rafael Nada — a watch that weighed just 20g, including the strap. Even now, as the world returns to classically styled watchmaking, there is no doubt that future historians will regard Mille’s timepieces as modern design classics — horology’s equivalent to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier or IM Pei. All of this begs the question of what it’s actually like to strap a half-a-million-dollar timepiece to your wrist. Amusingly, Mille often warns potential customers of the addictive influence of wearing his watches. He’s been known to say, “Be careful, it is very difficult to turn back once you put my watch on.”
His statement brings to mind the story told to me by Laurent Picciotto, the legendary owner of Paris’s watchmaking mecca, Chronopassion. Says Picciotto, “I had a customer walk into my shop. And just for fun, I showed him one of Richard [Mille]’s early watches — I believe it was an RM 002. Anyway, he put it on and he just stared at it. Then he asked me the price and I told him. He looked at me, visibly upset, and started to yell at me — I mean, really curse at me. But at the same time, he took out his credit card and handed it to me. The watch was so seductive that he could not refuse to buy it, but he was upset that I had made him spend so much money. He was still looking at the watch and shouting at me as he walked out the door. This is the effect of a Richard Mille. It is one of the most powerfully seductive timepieces on earth.” As I was keen to initiate an experiment in which I would wear a Richard Mille and see if people really did treat me better as a result, I asked Picciotto if he would be willing to lend me a Mille tourbillon watch for a few months. He quickly replied, “Declan, I like you, but pull your head out of your ass. There is no way anyone is going to lend you their Richard Mille — including me.” It is interesting to note that in the era of leased supercars and rented mega-homes, no one is willing to loan out a Richard Mille — another factor in favor of its position as the clandestine symbol of genuine wealth. So, it seemed that project Pimp My Wrist wasn’t going to get off the ground. But then it dawned on me that my old college roommate is an erstwhile publisher of a horological tome and a Mille owner. I immediately rang him up and he, too, suggested that I perform some physically impossible maneuvers upon myself. I then reminded him of some highly compromising images that I have of him during our college years, and he almost instantly reconsidered after seeing the merits of my social experiment. He conceded to lend me his Richard Mille RM 021 on the condition that I record my results to be compiled into a story for his magazines. What is it like to strap half-a-million dollars to your wrist? I can tell you right now that it feels damnably amazing. The watch that I pried out of my grudging friend’s hands, amid his Nicholas Sparks-level sobs of separation anxiety, is a proper horological high-performance machine. The RM 021 is simply an incredible-looking watch. It features a semi-transparent baseplate made of orthorhombic-titanium-aluminide honeycomb mesh that was inspired by the core of supersonic-airplane wings. This baseplate is ultra-light, yet disperses shock very easily. The tourbillon, a device that counteracts the erosive influence of gravity on the watch’s regulating organs, is mounted to a 10-spoke titanium turbine that is actually able to flex slightly under massive shock. On the top of the transparent dial are the watch’s power-reserve indicator and its mainspring torque indicator, so that you get a reading for the quantity and quality of the remaining power. Finally, located between three and four o’clock is the gear selector; press the pusher to select which mode you want to be in: “H” for setting the hands, “N” for neutral and “W” for winding the watch. The tonneau-shaped Grade 5-titanium case for the RM 021 features a sort of matte finish with subtle high-polished elements. Apparently, even the titanium screws that traverse the front and the back of the watch were specially made for Mille. Including its leather strap and titanium deployant clasp, the entire watch weighs 71g, which is essentially twice the weight of a plastic Swatch watch, or half the weight of my Rolex Daytona, despite having an enormous presence on the wrist.
So, does the world really treat you better with a Richard Mille on your wrist? In a word, yes. I never thought that a timepiece could create so many moments of spontaneous amusement and friendship, but it has. One such moment was when I was seated at Sushiso Masa, a cult Edo-style sushi restaurant in the Nishi-Azabu district in Tokyo. As my guest and I were the first to arrive, we had ample opportunity to notice the conspicuous wealth indicators of the remaining two couples who arrived, including two crocodile Hermès bags and an impressive amount of Van Cleef & Arpels high jewellery on the ladies. One of the ladies was wearing a diamond-encrusted ladies’ Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore, while the other was wearing a Chanel J12. But because of the way we were seated, the men’s wrists were obscured. It was only when I was getting up to go to the men’s room that one of them suddenly remarked, “Wow, I like your watch.” As I turned toward the man closest to me, he smiled as he raised his wrist and revealed the RM 003 GMT tourbillon sitting proudly on it. Amazingly enough, the other man at the sushi counter also laughed and raised his wrist to reveal that he, too, was wearing a Richard Mille tourbillon. We were soon congratulating each other on the fact that we’d all chosen the stealthy titanium-cased versions. Suffice it to say, the ice was not broken, but inexorably smashed: we were soon trading watches, pouring each other ludicrous amounts of sake, laughing as if we were long-lost friends and getting similarly smashed. What was even more incredible about this was that I’d always perceived the Japanese to be reserved and slightly standoffish. When I asked one of the men about this, he grinned and said, “This is what is nice about the Richard Mille customer: he is always a cool guy. Like Richard.” But I would not comprehend the level of incredible friendliness you receive and the simply astonishing level of access you gain wearing a Richard Mille until the following week in Paris. There, I stepped into a well-known luxury flagship to meet up with my friend, Simon. Simon is a very cool guy with an effortless boyish charm, and he’s also one of the most popular guys in Asia despite the fact that he is entirely based in Paris. Any Asian celeb worth her salt — from Gong Li to Zhang Ziyi — knows his name and knows to go to him to get the handbag of her dreams. Women will fly him on first class via the Airbus A380 from Paris to Singapore just to deliver their new custom crocodile creations; if he needs a little R&R, then Formula 1 tickets, a hotel suite and a driver are always at his disposal. He beckoned me to the small alcove where he normally ensconces his VIP customers. There sat a jolly-faced mainland Chinese woman enjoying a glass of Champagne as she admired a handbag with a diamond-set lock. She looked up warily at me, but as she did, the watch on my wrist caught her eye. “Richard Mille,” she declared, holding out her own wrist to show off her diamond-festooned tourbillon. It transpired that she was a Richard Mille fanatic and had purchased 20 of his watches — each one diamond- or gem-set — within the last six months. Immediately, she began to chat amiably with me, and after a couple of glasses of Champagne, and as her bag purchase was being wrapped up and sent off to her hotel room, she asked if I had plans that evening. She and several friends were having dinner before going to an Usher concert. The next thing I knew, I was chatting to several of the other Richard Mille-clad members of her entourage and we were whisked away in a series of black minivans to the famed restaurant Pierre Gagnaire. Each of them had subtly clocked my wrist before giving me an almost-imperceptible nod of approval and delving into conversation with me. The meal was sublime with endless courses and a river of Burgundies so opiatic that by three in the morning, with my ears somewhat deafened by the Usher concert I’d just attended, I was only partly aware that I was in an art gallery with JonOne, Paris’s hottest graffiti artist. JonOne and I were talking when I noticed that under the cuff of his battered leather jacket was a stunning Richard Mille RM 005 in black titanium. At the same time, he looked at the brushed-titanium masterpiece on my wrist. He nodded and said, “Follow me, I know another party with really cool people. People like us.”