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Review: Richard Mille RM 011

Five years ago we featured a watch, the Richard Mille RM 011, and I asked, “Why does this watch cost $100,000?” Today that same watch changes hands for over three times as much, further cementing the idea that I should have bought watches instead of a house. The question is: why does it cost so much?

Richard Mille

Let’s do a little bit of recapping for those of you who’ve partied a little too hard these last five years. So, Richard Mille is a relatively young brand, virtually a baby by Swiss watch standards, founded in 1999 by Mr Mille himself, who was Head of Watchmaking at Mauboussin and his friend and watchmaking business-owner Dominique Guenat. They also brought in the talents of Yves Mathys, an expert across production, sales, finance—everything.

With the backing of Renaud et Papi, Audemars Piguet’s high complication development arm, Richard Mille, the brand, forged the beginning of a new era. Not just in statement pieces, for which it completely rewrote the game, taking the 1972 Audemars Piguet Royal Oak’s approach to conspicuous wealth and amplifying it to a new level—but in business as well.

Most watch manufacturers start with a watchmaker and a watch, which goes out to find its customer. Richard Mille started with a customer first and created a watch that would appeal to them. The first Richard Mille, the RM 001 Tourbillon, cost a quarter of a million, back then an unheard-of amount for any watch. Sure, it had a tourbillon, but it was otherwise very simple.

The primary selling point of the watch was its look. The large tonneau case, curved to the wrist, packed with other-worldly looking watchmaking that expanded into all dimensions, was immediately recognisable. And so anybody wearing it could be sure that there was no doubting they were wearing a quarter million watch.

The RM 011

The watch was an immediate success, and so more followed. This, the chronograph RM 011, came in 2007, but once again it wasn’t simply about making a watch—but defining a customer. Formula 1 fans, to be precise, as the watch was developed with Ferrari driver Felipe Massa, starting a new line of motorsport brand ambassadors for the Swiss watchmaker.

If you’re an F1 fan, not only will you have noticed that Richard Mille seems to sponsor McLaren, Ferrari and Haas, it also has watches on the wrists of drivers like Fernando Alonso, even though the team he drives for, Aston Martin, is sponsored by Girard-Perregaux. That’s the angle Richard Mille took, securing the right ambassadors no matter the cost.

But the RM 011 is more than just a chronograph. The big date display is accompanied by a smaller month display in the bottom right, making it an annual calendar that can skip the date ahead on all short months except February. As if this wasn’t already a tough bit of watchmaking to pull off—Patek Philippe famously required more parts in its annual calendar than its perpetual—to do so in a watch that could survive Massa’s 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix crash is remarkable.

That’s not the only Richard Mille to survive a high-speed F1 accident. Fernando Alonso’s 2016 pirouette into the barriers at the Australian Grand Prix and Romain Grosjean’s 67G fireball explosion in Bahrain 2020 both failed to claim the Richard Mille watches worn at the time.

In fact, Grosjean, who was unable to reply to Richard Mille Marketing Director Timothy Malachard’s sympathy text message because his burnt hands were in bandages, instead sent a voice note alongside the charred watch saying, “I’m a bit burnt, but look how the watch survived 27 seconds in the flames.”

The RM 011’s features continue. It’s not just a chronograph, but a flyback chronograph, that resets and restarts all in one push—ideal for timing repeating instances like laps on a circuit. I don’t imagine anyone will use it for that, but then basically no one’s using their Lamborghini on the race circuit either. It’s also got, in addition to running seconds at three and chronograph hours and minutes at six, a sixty-minute countdown timer at nine as well.

The Market For Richard Mille

Over the last few years, the watch market’s seen some incredible volatility. Once as stable as houses, an increased awareness of investment value in watches has seen it shift from a gentle climber to a veritable rollercoaster. Big name watches like the Patek Philippe Nautilus and aforementioned Audemars Piguet Royal Oak have reach heights once thought impossible, only to come right back down again—at least, some of the way.

Where does Richard Mille factor into all of this? Well, you don’t tend to hear too much talk of the brand in investment conversations, even though it’s been accumulating value as well as any. The cheapest Richard Mille on the market right now, the rectangular RM 016, trades at around $70,000, ten higher than its RRP. And that’s the one nobody wants.

The first “Richard Mille”-looking Richard Mille at the cheaper end of the scale is the RM 005, and that’s already a $100,000 watch. Go to the higher end and there’s watches like the RM 88 Smiley, which have more than doubled their price at $3m. So, what’s the secret to this monstrous success?

Not just the carefully orchestrated visual appeal, product placement and exclusively high pricing, but also availability. Richard Mille makes 5,000 watches per year, which doesn’t sound like much, but is about the same as a watchmaker like A. Lange & Sohne, whose watches are for the most part available.

With a business focus on desirability, Richard Mille has been able to identify the sweet spot in production versus demand. It has boutiques the world over, but they display no stock. Sales staff sit there all day with nothing to sell. The stage is set, and the appeal of a Richard Mille gets even stronger.

Is The Richard Mille RM 011 Worth $325,000?

Let’s answer the big question, the one I asked five years ago when the RM 011 was available for “only” $100,000. Is it now worth $325,000? If you’re talking about quality, complexity, materials and craftsmanship? No. Nowhere near. It wasn’t really worth the $100,000 either.

But that’s not how this works. We’re used to the idea of historic pieces trading for millions, their rarity and provenance driving up demand and therefore cost. They’re purchased on the assumption that such desirability can only go one way.

A Richard Mille is not a historic piece, but that’s the masterstroke that Richard Mille and his team have managed here, by creating a brand that sells because it is expensive. And it only becomes more desirable the more expensive it gets. As such, Richard Mille have sidestepped most of the conversation around fluctuating markets because it kind of sits in a bubble by itself.

The RM 011 is, to rope in a tired phrase, worth as much as someone is willing to pay for it. And people are willing to pay a lot for it. With prices climbing anywhere between twenty and fifty percent per year over year for the last five years, for someone with the money to spend, it’s a hard proposition to resist.

What’s your take on the RM 011 and Richard Mille as a whole?

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