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.