Keeping up with the Times

Rumours have been rife that the French watchmaker Richard Mille will sell off shares in his independent company to a luxury multinational. The entrepreneur tells GC he plans to take his brand as far as he can to guarantee its survival

There is nothing more precious than independence,” the French watchmaker Richard Mille says when we meet at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) in Geneva. He is there to present a first-of-its-kind piece to his collection, RM 63-01 Dizzy Hands, a timepiece inspired by the first few lines of the French poem Le Temps.

“We need to take a step back from time, to be able to make fun of it,” says the chief executive, who also speaks of another novelty, the RM 031 High Performance, as an “atomic bomb” because of the precise technology behind it – “the most efficient timepiece in the history of watchmaking”.

Later I meet the savvy entrepreneur in his office in Paris, just a few steps away from the Place de la Concorde. Mille’s first stride towards independence came in 2001 when he founded his eponymous company, which has an annual turnover of more than $207 million and was last year valued by analysts at between $320 million and $425 million.

Since creating his own watch brand, which Mille claims was inspired by his two passions in life, the motoring and aviation industry, he has had several offers from luxury titans to buy his company but until recently has always refused. It took the French luxury group Kering to persuade him to reconsider but despite widespread speculation to the contrary, he says: “It didn’t work out.”

He adds: “Finally I am happy because there are still so many things to do. My aim is to make sure the brand is strong enough to survive and take it as far as I can.”

It is clear Mille thrives on his independence and embraces risk, which is reflective in his unusual timepieces, often using rare materials like platinum, titanium and carbon nanofibres. This extends to his private life, where his love of vintage cars started at a young age and transpired into an obsession for racing Formula One cars. “Don’t repeat it, but I think I love cars even more than watches,” he says. “As far as I can remember, cars have always been part of my DNA.”

His first car was a Jaguar XJ6 his father gave him. “I remember at one point, I was the export manager of a company and the CEO asked everybody: ‘Who does that car belong to? He is paid too much.’”

His second vehicle was a Renault Alpine. Mille bought the French sports car with his first month’s salary along with a fair bit of credit, he points out.

I like speed; I have always liked speed. I know it is quite a caricature to say this as a man but it is true.

Mille has a collection of more than 30 racing cars. He first started buying them at Le Mans when he was younger. “I have some in Brittany, the others I keep in a garage near Paris.

What I like about vintage cars is not looking at them in a museum, it is to see them racing, which is what they were designed for. I like to see them among modern cars because they immediately distinguish themselves.

Mille admits keeping a whole collection of 1970s F1 cars hidden away, including five four-wheel drives, the only ones ever built. Among his treasures is a Peugeot 905 that won Le Mans several years in a row as well as a less flashy Mini and a Volkswagen Combi. And, of course, a Type E Jaguar: “A fashion plate. One of the most beautiful cars ever.”

Paradoxically, Mille lives a quiet existence in the countryside with his wife and two children in an 18th century chateau in Brittany called Domaine of Monbouan. He is often seen zipping around the country lanes in his Aston Martin Vantage or his Mercedes, popping into the local village for fresh bread at weekends. His factory is close by in the picturesque Suisse Jura, where he sketches each RM design before it is handmade by his team of engineers.

While other watchmakers are creating aggressive and high-priced men’s watches, Mille says he deliberately announced 2014 as “the year of the woman”.

“In the past three years, women’s watches have rocketed. It now represents 20 per cent of our business and will probably double in the two to three years to come,” he says.

Mille plans to create dedicated corners for women in each of his boutiques and open 10 new shops around the world this year. “We will also soon have a bigger flagship store in Paris,” he adds.

Mille says he will limit himself to five or six new creations this year and try to lower the average price of his timepieces from $207,000 to $138,000.

“I have always tried to break the rules,” he says. “When I started, expensive watches had to be heavy and made of gold. I decided to go for lightness and carbon.”

Since then he has succeeded above his own expectations, surprising the market and collectors with his innovative designs. “I wanted to escape from the traditional watch ghetto and make a modern product. Why would someone buy in 2014 a replica from a 1780 timepiece?”

Mille was one of the first watchmakers to convince sportsmen like tennis star Rafael Nadal and golf pro Bubba Watson to wear his watches while playing tournaments. When Watson clinched his second Masters title in April, he did it wearing a Richard Mille watch – the revised RM 038 Bubba Watson Victory Watch, no less, created to celebrate his 2012 win.