Richard Mille RM011 Felipe Massa
If you decided to build a watch, a really good one with some kind of complication, where every last piece—up to and including the smallest screw—was custom-made just for it, how much would it cost? Thousands? Tens of thousands? It’s hard to say at a guess, but this much is true: the Richard Mille RM011, a flyback chronograph in rose gold, costs £100,000. Let’s find out why.
It seems like such a long time ago now, but it was in the last decade of the last millennium that mechanical watchmaking, an industry emerging from recovery after being made obsolete just a decade or so prior, finally let its hair down.
Think about it: for centuries, watches—and before, clocks—have remained functional, built for a purpose and rarely just for creation’s sake. They were sat in the hallway, or hung from the wall, or were strapped to the wrist, quite simply telling the time.
Sometimes, just sometimes, watchmakers would add a bit of a flair—by using rose gold, perhaps, or by adding a flourish to a hand tip—but watchmaking was a serious business, with no allowance for casual experimentation.
But an even more functional technology rose up and stole the crown mechanical watches had worn for so long, in the shape of the quartz crystal oscillator. But Swatch—ironically one of the largest luxury conglomerates in business today—actually chose to have a bit of fun with its creations, showing the world that watches didn’t have to be so serious.
In 1991, a decade into the realisation that mechanical watchmaking needed to pivot from practical tool to aspirational luxury, watchmaker Franck Muller did something that defied generations of Swiss tradition: he made a fun mechanical watch. What you need to understand is that, up to then, high-end horology consisted mainly of classically designed watch cases housing traditional complications, with never a thought to individualism. A watch from Patek Philippe looked very similar to a watch from Vacheron Constantin, which in turn looked very similar to a watch from Audemars Piguet.
But Franck Muller helped to change all that, triggering an avalanche of new brands such as Roger Dubuis, Parmigiani Fleurier and Urwerk—which caught the attention of the head of jewellery company Mauboussin, a certain Richard Mille. What Mille saw was an opportunity to express his passion for watchmaking in the most stylistic way possible, by combining it with his love of Formula 1.
Richard Mille was no watchmaker, however, and so he sought the advice of friend and Renaud et Papi co-founder Giulio Papi. If you don’t know what Renaud et Papi is, it’s an Audemars Piguet-owned facility that produces some of the most incredible movements in the world. It doesn’t matter if you’re a one-man band looking to break the ultra-high-end market or Audemars Piguet itself, Renaud et Papi will develop and build a completely unique movement just for you—at an eye-watering price.
What kind of price can a creation like this really command? Let’s attempt to break this Richard Mille RM011 down by the sum of its parts, starting with the screws. As a benchmark, if you were to repair an ETA 2892, for example, and you needed a new screw of some description, it would be available to purchase for somewhere in the region of a few pounds. There’s a stockpile of the things, made by a machine that’s made these same screws for the past decade, the benefit of economies of scale.
But what if you wanted to make your own, unique screw, or to have someone make it for you from scratch? Half a day’s work from start to finish, at a rate of £120 a day for skilled labour, plus machinery, tooling and materials? It would be conceivable to suggest that to manufacture a screw like that could cost £50.
Now, what if you wanted it made from a selection of different materials, including exotic metals like titanium, and you wanted a variety of different sizes? Plus—because this is supposed to be a high-end watch after all, the finishing would need to be immaculate. The cost, of course, would expand dramatically.
And then there’s the tooling to consider, because if you make a new type of screw, you’ll need a new type of screwdriver to actually use it. One that’s precise enough to apply the right amount of torque without scratching or deforming the screw. The costs are piling up, and all we’ve got are a little pile of screws and something to use them with.
Of course, Richard Mille didn’t make just one watch—4,000 were made in 2017—and there will be parts, like screws, shared across different models to help lower the cost per unit. But a screw still won’t cost a few pounds, not until Richard Mille sells as many watches as the Swatch Group.
Then there are the parts that are specific to each model, which require an even more limited production. The sapphire dial, for example. Sapphire crystals are pretty common, but I’d bet there aren’t many outfits suited to machining a piece of a sapphire—and then printing on it. Or the skeletonised big date wheels, if you can even call them that at this point, spindly and delicate, manufactured to an exacting degree in tiny numbers.
And we haven’t even talked about research and development. This movement, the calibre RMAC1, has hours, minutes and seconds, as you’d expect, but also a flyback chronograph with a countdown timer, dual hours and minutes sub-dial, plus a month indicator to complement the big date, and even an automatic winding rotor with adjustable geometry.
All this has to be designed, developed and tested for just a few thousands watches. When Omega develops a new movement, for example, the investment is on the basis of its adoption within hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of watches. You do the maths: if Omega sells a watch for £5,000 with an in-house movement and sells 100,000, then a company making that same movement and only selling 1,000 will need to up its margins considerably.
Richard Mille likens his watches to Formula 1 cars, and beyond the obvious marketing spin this engenders with the motorsport inspired details like the clutch pressure plate crown and throttle pedal pushers, there’s actually more truth to this notion than might first be realised. Within Formula 1, a dozen teams compete with machinery that is custom built from the ground up in such minute numbers that a complete car has a cost associated to it of around £10 million. The steering wheel alone costs as much as this Richard Mille, and it’s the limited and complex nature of both that does it. It’s the price to pay to do something different.
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