Richard Mille tells richard holt about his 10-year partnership with Felipe Massa, and how he enjoys design freedom
In a watchmaking world where history and reputation are invaluable commodities, Richard Mille is light on one but bulletproof on the other. Launching his eponymous Swiss brand in 2001, he very quickly won the respect of his long-established peers with watches that are not only stunning pieces of design, but have also taken engineering to new heights.
Now celebrating the 10-year anniversary of a collaboration with Williams driver Felipe Massa, French-born Mille explains why the tie-in with Formula 1 is so important.
“I was always obsessed by performance,” he says, “and I love to make watches that are easy to wear and comfortable on the wrist, but also resistant to shock and vibration. I wanted the chance for my product to go to the front line, to the battle.”
He added: “Formula 1 is normally a killer for a mechanical watch because it’s everything a watch doesn’t like, with all the g-forces and the other stresses. This is why we absolutely wanted a Formula 1 star to be the test driver for our watches.”
Having watches with traditionally delicate complications, such as tourbillons, and building them to withstand whatever the wearer could throw at them made sportsmen a natural fit as brand ambassadors, and Mille has worked with tennis star Rafael Nadal, golfer Bubba Watson and sprinter Yohan Blake. But motor sport is where his real passion lies, and he has worked with Romain Grosjean and Sébastien Loeb – among many others – as well as Massa.
These are far from the kinds of sponsorship deals where money changes hands in return for a little bit of stardust rubbing off on a product. Mille makes sure that his F1 drivers are wearing watches that are made to the same exacting standards as the cars they are driving.
“The traditional watch industry uses a lot of brass and gold, but these materials are quite soft. With our watches everything is done for the performance, which is why we use a lot of materials such as titanium, carbon fibre and titanium carbide,” he says. “When Jean Todt was Ferrari boss I was going there at least twice a month. We have many wheels that work to within the tolerance of a micron, so the turning points are reinforced with ribs exactly the same as those in F1.”
He adds: “We introduced the torque indicator to our watches, which is in exactly the same spirit as the motor sport industry. Normally [in a watch] you have a power reserve, but this is an indication of quantity, not quality. Now in Mille watches you have a torque indicator, which tells you when you have the best performance. When the spring is too tight, it is like an over-revving engine, it puts the engine in danger. When you see a Mille watch you feel the spirit of Formula 1.”
The 64-year-old Mille brought a great deal of experience into his company, having worked in the watch industry since 1974. But when he went out on his own he was keen to break away from the usual constraints of the business. With pieces that start at £60,000, does he feel it will be necessary to broaden the range and start making watches that are rather more accessible?
“I am not interested,” he says. “Not because I’m snobbish, but because what I love is to do very heavy development, and the day you are restrained commercially you forget about your development. I love to make incredible watches and the only way to do it is not to have any restrictions on your development costs. We have a client who understands why we are so exclusive. I love to have this freedom. It takes the time it takes and it costs what it costs.
“This is what I like, to create crazy items. It’s very challenging, and this is what our clients want. It is like having an F1 car that you can drive to the office every day.”
With his passion and his unwillingness to compromise, it is easy to see how Mille has set the watch industry alight. His reputation is already beyond doubt; his place in history is surely just a matter of time.
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