“All the talk about tradition that surrounds Swiss fine watchmaking? It’s esoterism. The easy way out. I never had that option. I had to innovate and keep the ideas coming.” Even after seventeen years in the business, Richard Mille doesn’t mince his words. Launched in 2001, the Richard Mille brand quickly gained a global following thanks to materials, technologies and movement architecture that had never been seen before in a watch. As though suddenly a window had been opened. But this success would have been shortlived without the solid industrial base now formed by a hub of companies that stretches between Les Breuleux and La Chaux-de-Fonds. They are Montres Valgine (assembly), ProART (components), Horométrie (distribution) and VMDH (decoration). Not forgetting shares in other concerns, including North Thin Ply Technology which manufactures the now famous NTPT carbon. Richard Mille is a small group at the cutting edge of technology, with production slated at around 4,600 watches this year.
From private label to Richard Mille
Who knows what career Richard Mille might have pursued had he not left Draguignan, the southern French town where he was born in 1951, to study marketing in Besançon, the home of watchmaking in France. Newly graduated, he was hired in 1974 as export manager for Finhor. When the company was taken over by Matra, he was appointed head of Matra Horlogerie. But there was a whole world out there, and in 1994 Mille moved to Paris where he joined the Mauboussin luxury group, becoming president of the watches division, managing director of the jewellery division and, ultimately, chief executive of the family-owned holding. This is when he met Dominique Guénat, the man at the head of Montres Valgine, the company his grandfather had set up in the early 1900s. For many years it had assembled Valjoux movements for Longines – hence the name – until the grandson took the reins in 1986 and started a new activity as a private-label manufacturer. Mauboussin was one of its biggest customers, and so when Richard Mille started thinking about a venture of his own, Valgine was his first port of call.
Together the two men steadily built up a small industrial empire. In addition to Valgine, which would soon focus exclusively on the new brand, they established Horométrie in 2001, followed by VMDH in 2013 and ProART – which this year will double its 3,000 square metres of production space. Around 150 people work on the various sites. Investments, and they are substantial, concern not just infrastructure but a fleet of machines which ProART’s works manager describes as being “in a class of its own” – the state-of-the-art equipment the brand needed to pursue its use of unconventional materials, such as carbon and titanium, and highly specific movement architectures.
Our production resources aren't geared towards profitability but maximum quality and total flexibility.
From prototype to production
Despite the several thousand watches made each year, work is anything but routine. “Our production resources aren’t geared towards profitability but maximum quality and total flexibility,” Mille explains. For example, prototypes aren’t made on special production lines but on the same machines as the regular components. “We do production at night and prototypes during the day,” the works manager says. “They’re different aspects of the job and equally interesting.”
First trials with NTPT carbon go back to 2013. Comprising thin layers of carbon threads that are saturated with resin then diagonally woven, this exceptionally resistant composite was originally developed for yachts. In fact the first prototype bezel was cut from a section of mast taken from the yacht that Swiss team Alinghi raced when it won the America’s Cup in 2003 and 2007. “No-one else has the capability to use this material which requires a complex machining process and has a high cost price,” notes Mille before concluding: “We may be the youngest brand, we’re also the one that has gained the most experience! Whether you’re talking resistance of materials, ergonomics or mechanical solutions, there’s nothing we haven’t tested.”