When French watch designer Richard Mille introduced a watch priced at 1.2 million euros, no one expected the limited series of five timepieces to sell out in five days. Is this a watch or a piece of art?


”We’re building our own case making facility,” general manager Yves Mathys explains as we ask about the big cranes visible from the windows of Horometrie SA in the small Swiss village of Les Breuleux. This is the home of Richard Mille and the place where most of his extraordinary watches are assembled. Others are assembled down the road at Audemars Piguet Renaud et Papi in Le Locle, and until recently many of Richard Mille’s watch cases were made just across the street at case maker Donzé-Baume.

When Richemont took over Donzé-Baume in 2008, Richard Mille was given a five-year grace period to find a new case maker. In the end, the little company decided to build its own case making factory, which will open the end of 2012, just a stone’s throw from the present location. However, the knowhow required for the incredible RM 056 Felipe Massa Sapphire Tourbillon Split-Seconds Competition Chronograph introduced earlier this year at the S.I.H.H. in Geneva was something extraordinary. It, however, was made by a different supplier – and not actually a case maker.

Richard Mille
The three-part sapphire crystal case of the RM 056 takes several weeks to complete. © Kristian Haagen/Worldtempus

Luxurious sapphires

The cases of the RM 056 are made by sapphire crystal manufacturing company Stettler Sapphire AG in Lyss. “We produce 80 percent of all sapphire crystals in the luxury watch business,” head of sales and marketing Hans Studer explains when we pay the company a visit to get an intimate look at the process of making the transparent case of the RM 056. “Basically, we are the main supplier for watch companies producing watches costing 2,000 Swiss francs and more,” he says while showing trays full of sapphire glasses made for brands such as MB&F (Maximilian Büsser & Friends), Rado, Patek Philippe, and Rolex.

Richard Mille
The highly successful RM 011 was recently launched housed in a case made of carbon fiber. © Kristian Haagen/Worldtempus

Record-breaking sapphires

Stettler made the 14.3-millimeter thick crystal fitted on the Rolex DeepSea Challenge that is water resistant to 12,000 meters. “We made a total of five crystals for the Sea-Dweller DeepSea Challenge model,” Studer says, though he declined to reveal whether Rolex actually also produced five watches for the record-breaking dive of 10,898 meters made by film producer James Cameron in March 2012.

Even if Stettler is used to tough assignments, the case of Richard Mille’s RM 056 was something else. “For Stettler it was an incredible experience to develop this sapphire case,” Studer continues. “Each of the three parts made of Kyropoulos sapphire takes weeks of finishing and we have a CNC machine dedicated only to the production of the RM 056 cases,” he says showing the brand-new cutting machine that runs 24 hours a day in order to meet the demand of the five people who ordered the RM 056 during the fair in January. “The case back alone takes five weeks to finish, which means it will take a whole year to finish all five cases,” Studer says matter-of-factly.

Richard Mille
One CNC machine running 24 hours a day is dedicated to the RM 056’s sapphire case. © Kristian Haagen/Worldtempus

Mutual invest

Leaving the Stettler premises, I can’t help thinking that one could have the impression that Richard Mille and his suppliers “R&D” each other, pushing the boundaries for modern watchmaking in an otherwise rather conservative business. The innovative and unconventional mind of Mille demands a lot from his suppliers and without their skills, machinery and ? last but hardly least ?  flexibility, many of Mille’s timepieces would never have made it onto the wrists of their owners today.

Art of time

After the visit to the Richard Mille boutique in Geneva, Horometrie and Stettler, it also occurs to me that in fact the ultra-light RM 027 adorning tennis player Rafael Nadal’s winning wrist and its white counterpart, the RM 038 that sits on golfer Bubba Watson’s wrist, are much more than just innovative timepieces. They are ticking pieces of art and would fit in just as well at Art Basel as they do at S.I.H.H. in Geneva.

Richard Mille
The white-gray RM 038 usually adorns golfer Bubba Watson’s wrist; here it is enhances a not-so-sporty client at the Richard Mille boutique in Geneva. © Kristian Haagen/Worldtempus

When you acknowledge this fact and consider Mille’s watches as art you don’t just buy one of his watches. You invest into his artistic and creative mind, just like you invest in a Warhol, Prince or other contemporary art that pleases not only the eyes, but also seem to justify the exuberant prices asked. And as an added bonus, Mille’s watches show the time too.