As Richard Mille closes in on the first decade of his eponymous brand, he recently took a break during an 18-hour stopover in New York to talk to Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief Douglas Gollan about why he started his watch company, why he has been successful and what’s next. Just one night later Mille was in Geneva where he received a Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève Award for his RM 025 Tourbillon Chronograph Diver’s watch—the brand’s first round watch—a timepiece that features both a chronograph and a tourbillon waterproof to 300 meters. Of course winning awards is not unusual for Mille, who only weeks earlier was in Singapore to receive the Grand Prix de l’Horlogerie Asia Edition on behalf of his RM 019 in the Ladies Watch category.
ET: Tell us about your background?
Richard Mille: Until 1998 I was President of Maboussin Watch Company and CEO of the jewelry company, and for a long time I had wanted to launch my own brand. It was a sign of freedom to do what I wanted, and I wanted to create a new business model far from the traditional marketing strategies, something totally original. In the high-end watch business I wanted to create a new segment of ultra high-end luxury, and I was very eager to know what could be the result.
All my life I was a manager, so I mixed my strategy and cut it in two. One side was focused on crazy development, technology, new watch culture, and on the other side, I had a very careful business plan since I didn’t know how big the market would be. But it was much bigger than I expected. Since then it has been continuous growth, but controlled growth because I don’t want to go into high volume. I want to remain exclusive.
ET: Tell us about your launch?
Richard Mille: The first show was at Basel Fair in 2000 and everybody was totally breathless. Of course I had a lot of friends in the distribution who were eager to see the result of what I was telling them about, but they absolutely didn’t realize I was creating a revolution. So on the one hand I was behaving like an old established brand, and on the other hand, in terms of creation, I was a rebel, which is still the case today.
ET: How do you view creativity?
Richard Mille: I am like a painter in front of a frame. The limit is the frame, so I like to be consistent. But I don’t want to be a prisoner. I want to go into fields where it is surprising. Everyone was telling me the pocket watch market was dead, but I came out with a vision to renew the pocket watch. People think of a grandfather watch style, but I saw no reason I couldn’t renovate the concept. Inside the frame I am free to paint whatever I want. I like to mix extreme technique and innovation. But it must be for the sake of performance, technique, architecture, art. The people who buy my watches want an investment. If you talk to auction houses they talk about rarity, creativity, innovation, authenticity. So auction people say my watches are worth money, because they are made in small numbers and they are representative of a new era. It was like the launch of surrealists and cubists.
ET: So have you created a Richard Mille era?
Richard Mille: I guess so. I control my growth, and I want to control my image. In the watch business if you don’t make any mistakes you last, and the biggest mistake you can make is to open the tap.
They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery. But how do you feel when you see others following your inspiration?
It’s a mixture of feelings because you are upset. I feel pitiful when I see that other people can’t be creative but at the same time it’s a tribute. It’s the same thing that happens in other fields. When you have a new shape of cars coming out you see others follow. That is why I create a lot. I have plenty of new models every year and this is the answer to staying ahead—and I am always ahead.
ET: What’s the company currently like?
Richard Mille: We are now 70 people so it’s a very human size company with of course subcontracting, as is the case in the watch business, so I have very good personal links with my parts contractors. Like everybody in the watch business the key is to deal with the best.
We are quite well organized although I still suffer delivery problems, but this is due to the innovation. I always say, “We know when we start, we don’t know when we arrive.” I like to always start from scratch, so we aren’t trying to do industrial models. When I make the decision to launch a model I never stop unless it turns out that technically I can’t make it. So deliveries are a mystery, but it is fun. I work myself on creativity and I like to follow everything: the production, the financial aspects, after-sales service, marketing, distribution, which is why I travel a lot and work like a donkey.
ET: How do you balance your side as Creative Director versus your side as a Professional Manager?
Richard Mille: I have no conflicts with myself. But last year I was about to go to the factory with the idea of launching 10 new models. Then I said, ‘Mille, your people are going to hate you, this is too much, so I reduced it to five.’ All my life as a manager it was about numbers and I was frustrated as a creative person, so now I am loose and I have ideas all of the time, but everything is limited—as a limited edition or just the capability of the production. But corporations can’t spend five or six years of development and only make 35 watches. That is why my watches are so expensive.
ET: How do you ensure you are attracting the best talent?
Richard Mille: At the beginning it was difficult because people were unsure. But now people know I don’t change my mind, they love the challenge and it is never the same, so we are always opening a new era. On the RM 20 pocket watch, just the crown has a system of quick clasps, and to avoid breaking the stem, the crown loosens after a certain pressure. The first one is a pure nightmare to design and make, but this is the challenge the engineers enjoy, and they love it. So for each watch we are trying to bring new discoveries.
ET: Do you have any hobbies outside of work?
Richard Mille: I am crazy about cars and airplanes. My dream would be to have a landing on an aircraft carrier with an F-18.
ET: Any favorite hotels, and what makes them special for you?
Richard Mille: In Paris, the Plaza Athénée. In New York, the Four Seasons. In Beverly Hills, the Beverly Wilshire. But all places are magnificent, so it is the friendship of the staff that matters. For example, in Paris I feel absolutely home at The Plaza Athénée. The barman, the restaurant waiters, the doorman, they all know me and what I like. At breakfast, they know what paper to bring me. They make me feel part of the family. The personalization of the service is what makes it special.
ET: What’s your goal for the next five to 10 years?
Richard Mille: I would like more time to race my cars and to carry on creating as I’m currently doing.