Richard Mille watches used to be considered an insider’s secret in the horology world—so scarce, in fact, that they were often described as “the secret billionaire’s handshake” on account of their six-to-seven-digit price tags. Fast-forward to 2021, and the very thing that once made the watch so rare—the eye-popping price—has contributed to its becoming a staple on the wrists of stars from Jay-Z and Drake to Rafael Nadal and Odell Beckham Jr. Seemingly overnight, a brand that was considered a curio among watch nuts has instead become one of the hottest and most recognizable watchmakers on earth.
Richard Mille, a French entrepreneur and designer, cut his teeth at Parisian jeweler to the stars Mauboussin before launching his watch brand in 2001. His first product, the RM 001 Tourbillon, was inspired by Formula One race cars, and its signature Tonneau-shaped case and incorporation of engineering methods developed for F1 immediately caught collectors’ attention.
The price back then was $135,000, which caused the watch world to raise an eyebrow. Here was an unknown name offering a timepiece more expensive than some of the most important Patek Philippes. The splashy debut spawned the first of many apocryphal Richard Mille stories. Rumor has it that the origins of Mille’s extravagant prices can be traced to his first advertisement, in the Financial Times, when a copywriter inadvertently added an extra “0” to the MSRP. Mille received so many inquiries that the number remained as advertised. (It’s a rumor the brand denies.) Needless to say, many eyebrows are still arched, but RM can’t keep its watches in stock—the exorbitant pricing has, ironically, become one of the brand’s strongest selling points. To the ultra-online watch aficionado, the flex is as important as anything. But RMs aren’t all flash.
Pictured here are two recent men’s releases, the RM 11–05 Automatic Flyback Chronograph GMT and the RM 12–01 Tourbillon. The RM 11’s case is forged out of gray cermet, an aerospace material that approaches the hardness of diamond. Only 140 were made, and each will set you back a cool $239,000. The RM 12 has a unibody Carbon TPT baseplate, a design feature normally seen in racing cars. As a result, the movement and case can withstand a mind-bending 5,000 g’s of force—for the equally mind-bending price of $1,111,000. The lightness and durability of Richard Mille’s tourbillons have allowed the likes of Nadal, Beckham Jr., and Yohan Blake to wear them in competition—thanks to space-age technology, Nadal’s original RM 027 is so light it floats on water.
The most innovative part of Richard Mille’s legacy might be knocking the stuffiness out of luxury watchmaking. Why, he seems to ask, do expensive watches have to be so staid and serious? At the 2019 Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH), the brand unveiled a new “Bonbon” collection of watches designed with citrus fruits and marshmallows dancing on the dials. These sugary wrist ornaments cost north of $120,000, and Frank Ocean was among the first to wear one. Mille might invite controversy and debate among traditional watch collectors, but it’s hard to deny that he is having the most fun in the watch world—and that he now knows exactly what he’s doing.
A version of this story originally appeared in the April 2021 issue with the title “How Richard MilleMade a $250,000 Watch Ubiquitous.”