Watchmaker Richard Mille, who carved his first design from a bar of soap, draws inspiration from tennis greats and Formula 1 racers alike…
When Rafael Nadal won the U.S. Open to mark his 16th Grand Slam title, it was also a victory for watchmaker Richard Mille. Only 16 years after he released his first timepiece in 2001, French-born Mille has already come to be regarded as one of the all-time great watchmakers, producing pieces like the US$725,000 tourbillon Nadal wore when he defeated Kevin Anderson in the men’s final at Flushing Meadows.
Nadal is Mille’s most high-profile brand ambassador, and his feats on the court while wearing Mille’s incredibly lightweight watches have helped earn Mille, who carved his first watch design out of a bar of soap, worldwide renown. Mille, who calls Nadal “a born winner, and a great guy to work with,” says the relationship with the Spanish tennis sensation is more than merely a financial arrangement.
“I don’t believe in just paying people to wear one of our watches,” he explains. “It has to be real love and real passion; otherwise it’s just fake.” In fact, Nadal has been instrumental in developing the high-performance pieces he wears. “We learn a lot when a timepiece is really on the court in the heat, on the racetrack, golf course, or cockpit,” Mille says. “We can then analyse its shock resistance, functions, its comfort factor during a swing or under high g-forces, and many more real-life conditions.” Tennis is just one area of interest for Mille, whose passion for automotive excellence led him to found the Chantilly Arts & Elegance Richard Mille in France in 2014; it has quickly become one of the world’s preeminent classic- car events. He lives and works at his own 18th-century château, which also houses his personal car collection; it includes a Porsche 917 that was raced at Le Mans, a pair of Lancia Stratos rally cars, and classic Formula 1 cars.
Famed F1 driver Felipe Massa first introduced Mille to the idea of using the high-tech, lightweight materials for which Mille is now famous. Massa “threw down the gauntlet to see if I could make a watch so light that he would not be distracted by it on the racetrack,” Mille says. “You have to remember that under extreme g-forces, even light objects can feel very heavy.” The result was Mille’s first light tourbillon: the RM 006 Felipe Massa, weighing in at just 48 grams, including the strap.
Mille, who has a partnership with McLaren’s F1 team and has been the presenting sponsor of the Le Mans Classic since its inception, says he gets inspiration from cars “in every way imaginable. A watch is not fast like a racing car, but the requirements in terms of stability, shock resistance, longevity, friction, and capacity to function under extreme situations are exactly the same for both in regards to technical design and execution. In terms of the purely visual aspects, the connections for inspirational design concepts are everywhere as well… Inside a car, I find a beautifully finished and crafted engine can be as sexy as any piece of erotic art, and for me the same applies to a beautifully thought-out and executed watch movement. The only real difference in aesthetics between a car and a watch is that one is bigger than the other.”
Chantilly Arts & Elegance, with its unmistakably French panache, allows Mille to indulge his love for both cars and design. “For me, at any rate, great racing cars are the same as great works of art, architecture, fashion, or sculpture,” he says. “Since I really hate the artificial boundaries we set up between all these areas, I wanted to be involved in an endeavour that simply unites all these areas: incredible cars, incredible architecture, art, fashion, history, great food — all within an artistic atmosphere at a very high level.”
Mille prides himself on exacting precision, and his product is priced accordingly. “The extreme pricing of my watches fascinates people because it is so high,” he explains. “Yet the pricing is directly based on the actual cost of production and research. Our quality control is the strictest in the business… Almost 90 percent of the parts we use, even movement and case screws, are specially manufactured to our specifications. [The] cost of the research and studies we undertake is astronomical. I will never cut corners in a way that might compromise this production philosophy.”
Nor does he need to. Even those who still consider his designs overly avant-garde have to admit he’s onto something. As for future plans, “Apart from some fine-tuning, why change a winning approach?” Mille asks. “We plan to continue doing what we have been doing for almost 20 years now. Our clients have no complaints about what we have achieved to date, and even today we still cannot fulfill all the orders we receive each year.”
That includes Nadal’s watch, which was produced in a limited run of just 50 pieces, guaranteed to be in even higher demand now that the Spanish ace is ranked world No. 1 again. “When we first met, Rafael was still coming out of the period after his injury, and honestly speaking, no one knew how that was going to resolve itself,” Mille says. “At the time, I was simply deeply impressed with his personality and willpower; I was convinced he was going to go very far.” And Mille is someone who would know. ■
BY JARED PAUL STERN
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