Richard Mille Watch Prices Are Through the Roof. Here's Why.

Richard Mille Watch Prices Are Through the Roof. Here's Why.

Barely more than two decades in existence, Richard Mille is one of the luxury watch industry’s most compelling modern success stories and one of the most popular and recognizable brands out there — despite the fact that it makes timepieces that are wildly inaccessible to all but the most deep-pocketed and well-connected aficionados. To many who follow the industry, the brand’s stratospheric prices are the story: In 2022, for example, Richard Mille did $487 million in sales, despite the fact that it only made 5,400 watches that year. Yes, that averages out to more than $90,000 per watch, and even that rather stunning stat doesn’t represent the big picture, as many of Richard Mille’s most coveted models come in at an MSRP in the neighborhood of half a million dollars or more. In its 2023 analysis of the Swiss watch market, Morgan Stanley reports that Richard Mille is now the sixth largest Swiss watch brand in the world in terms of sales, right behind Rolex, Cartier, Omega, Audemars Piguet, and Patek Philippe. So why are Richard Mille watches so expensive and what factors set them apart from every other watchmaker in the highest echelons of horology? Read on. 

Origins: The Man Behind Richard Mille Watches

Richard Mille

The foundations of the Richard Mille watch brand reach back to 1988, when its namesake, Richard Mille, Head of Watchmaking and CEO of Jewellery at Paris-based jewelry house Mauboussin, met Dominique Guenat, owner of Guenat SA Montres Valgine, a watchmaker in the Swiss Jura town of Les Breuleux. Mille and Guenat shared a passion for automobiles, airplanes, and other interests peripheral to their vocation of watchmaking, and their professional relationship grew into a personal friendship. In 1999, they joined forces to establish the Richard Mille brand, putting the creative focus on building aggressively avant-garde watches rather than classically inspired timepieces and introducing modern, high-tech materials and processes, like those used in the automotive and aeronautical industries, into the traditional art of horology. "The paradox I saw," Mille once revealed in an interview, "was that many watchmakers were giving themselves limits. Their only dream was to do replicas of 18th- or 19th-century watches. Today's watches are made by machines, so... if we have to use machines, let's [make] contemporary watches." To make the watches that Mille envisioned, the partners brought in Renaud et Papi, a Swiss movement maker specializing in high complications, mostly for its primary customer and majority shareholder, Audemars Piguet. (Audemars Piguet became a Richard Mille shareholder in 2007.) 

The first Richard Mille watch: RM 001 Tourbillon

Richard Mille RM 001

The first watch from the ambitious young brand made its commercial debut in 2001, after an exclusive sneak preview at the 2000 Baselworld watch fair. The timing was intentional, as the company’s first release was intended to embody its vision for what watchmaking could be in the just-dawning 21st Century. The Richard Mille RM 001 Tourbillon laid the groundwork for all of the technical and aesthetic boldness that would follow. It was the first watch to use strong-but-lightweight titanium for the movement’s ultra-rigid baseplate (after the initial production models used German silver with a then-rare PVD coating), and the first to use carbon nanofiber for the levered bridge of the tourbillon cage, an unprecedented feature that updated the formerly fragile tourbillon mechanism for optimum shock resistance. The manually wound tourbillon movement, on display through a clear sapphire dial, included both a power reserve indicator and a new device called a torque indicator, which indicated the amount of tension left in the mainspring. The case, or “chassis” of the watch, in Mille’s terminology, was an ergonomically curving tonneau shape that evoked the silhouettes of sports cars while also caressing the contours of the wrist. Its price was head-turning at the time, and a harbinger of even more costly descendants to follow: $135,000.

Expanding the Toolbox: Modern Tech and Rare Complications

The RM 001 begat the RM 002-V1, which introduced another world-first technical device that would become a mainstay of the brand: an analog “function selector” inspired by a car’s gearbox that allows the wearer to shift the movement from winding, to neutral, to hand-setting mode with a simple push-button. In 2004, Richard Mille rolled out its first automatic movement in the RM 005, with a quick-change date and the debut of another practical innovation: a “variable geometry” rotor that can be set to six different positions to maximize the efficiency of the winding based on the wearer’s activity level: speeding up during periods when the arm is rest, slowing down when it is more frequently in motion, such as while playing sports. 

Richard Mille Tourbillon ACJ

In subsequent years, a flurry of increasingly complicated and ambitiously unconventional timepieces would follow — most of them limited editions, with the standard features established by the earliest models: shock-resistant tourbillon, power reserve, torque indicator, function selector and variable geometry rotor. These included flyback and split-seconds chronographs, GMT and dual-time indicators, annual calendars, and exotic, first-of-their-kind functions like the soccer-specific “extra time” countdown in 2013’s RM 11-01 Roberto Mancini; the “G-Sensor” technology in the auto-racing-focused RM 063, which measures and displays the g-forces on the wearer’s body when rapidly decelerating; and the silent, vibrating alarm in the super-complex RM 62-01 Tourbillon ACJ (above), conceived as the ultimate aviators’ watch with the input of Airbus Corporate Jets. 

R&D Obsession: Avant-Garde Materials 

Much of the stratospheric cost of a Richard Mille watch can still be traced to the research and development that goes into just about every new model. In addition to materials such as titanium and carbon nanofibers, both of which have become standard in the architecture of a Richard Mille watch, the firm has pioneered the use of a host of avant-garde substances from the world of aviation and Formula 1 racing cars into its timepiece collections, including aluminum-lithium, Carbon TPT, graphene, ALUSIC, and Phynox. Many of these materials entered the Richard Mille repertoire primarily because of a somewhat contrarian view by the founder, namely that a luxury watch’s perceived value did not necessarily have to equate to an imposing, weighty presence on the wrist. 

Richard Mille RM 50-03 McLaren

The pursuit of extreme lightness in weight coupled with robustness in build has long been a defining characteristic of the Richard Mille brand, as in the RM 009 Tourbillon produced in 2005 in collaboration with Brazilian racing driver Felipe Massa. The watch featured an aluminum-lithium baseplate and case made of ALUSIC, an alloy used in space satellites containing lithium, aluminum, titanium, zirconium, silicon, chrome, zinc and manganese, and was the world’s lightest tourbillon when it debuted. The RM 50-03 (above), developed in cooperation with the McLaren F1 racing team, not only combined a tourbillon with a split-seconds and flyback chronograph; it introduced the watch world’s first case made of graphene, or Graph TPT, a carbon nano-material that is six times lighter than steel while still being 200 times stronger. At just 40 grams, the complete watch is the lightest mechanical chronograph watch in the world.

Impactful Athletes: Watches on the Wrists of Champions

Rafael Nadal wearing Richard Mille watchOf all the watch brands that partner with world-class athletes, Richard Mille is among the most visible, primarily because of its founder’s edict that any “brand ambassador” from the world of sports is required not only to wear their watch for advertisements and photo ops, but also to wear it during play. Since 2010, for example, tennis fans have marveled at the eye-catching timepieces worn by Spanish superstar Rafael Nadal in his numerous Grand Slam matches. Richard Mille watches made specially for athletes, in fact, have often represented some of the company’s most innovative ideas in terms of materials and functions. 

Bubba Watson wearing Richard Mille 

For its RM 038 Bubba Watson Tourbillon released in 2011, Richard Mille migrated its patented G-Sensor technology from the cockpit of a race car to the fairways of the world-class golf courses played by its namesake, American golf champ Bubba Watson (above). The mechanical device allows a golfer wearing the watch to see the accumulated motion of their golf swing in G’s and can record the force generated by the swing, specifically during the last segment, up to 20 G’s of acceleration. The sensor can be reset back to zero for the next swing with the press of a pusher. The case also needed to be lightweight to be worn in play; this model uses one made from TZP-G, a ceramic based on microscopic tubes of alumina oxide powder injected with a green colorant at a pressure of 2,000 bars to achieve its matte finish and the bright green hue (Watson’s favorite color). Richard Mille has made a number of Bubba Watson models since, and all have served him well: he’s won several majors while wearing them. 

Richard Mille RM 053 Pablo MacDonagh

The equestrian sport of polo is another high-impact athletic endeavor despite its reputation as a game of aristocrats. In 2018, Richard Mille worked with Argentinian polo player Pablo MacDononagh to develop the RM 53-01 Tourbillon (above), a watch with a carbon TPT case and a specially designed, dual-titanium-baseplate movement suspended by miniature braided cables. The movement, anchored by a 10-pulley system leveraged by four tensioners, enables an even distribution of force on the watch, ensuring that it won’t stop working even after being impacted by an errant polo ball striking the crystal or by the wearer being dismounted from his horse. Think of it as a more high-tech version of the original watch for polo players, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Reverso, whose swiveling design protected only the crystal itself rather than the watch’s inner workings.

Richard Mille RM 27-03 Rafael Nadal

By far the celebrity athlete most readily associated with Richard Mille is Nadal, who has been partnering with the brand for more than a decade. The first Rafael Nadal model debuted in 2010 and weighed just 20 grams thanks to its carbon composite case and tourbillon movement with an aerospace-grade titanium/LITAL baseplate. Richard Mille has been making increasingly performance-oriented watches for Nadal ever since, all engineered to endure the rigors of professional tennis. The RM 27-03 model of 2017 (above) is among the most memorable: its tonneau case, with a red-and-yellow-striped pattern evoking the Spanish flag, is made from Quartz TPT, a material with a textured surface created by impregnating quartz fibers with tinted resins in a proprietary process. (Yes, you can refer to it as the world’s most expensive quartz watch, if you must.) Nadal, who told Mille when the two first met that he had never before worn a wristwatch and was skeptical about wearing one while playing tennis, now considers whatever Richard Mille watch he is donning as his “second skin,” and the results speak for themselves: Nadal has 14 Grand Slam titles out of his career 22 while wearing Richard Mille watches.  

Extreme Minimization: The Ultimate Thin Watch

Richard Mille Ferrari ultra-thin watch

Taking its “perceived value” boldness to perhaps its furthest frontier in 2022, Richard Mille swept into horological territory that had been previously dominated by traditional maisons like Piaget, Jaeger-LeCoultre, and Bulgari, partnering with Ferrari to develop, to many watch enthusiasts’ surprise, the current record-holder for world’s thinnest watch. The RM UP-01 Ferrari is an almost unimaginable 1.75mm thick, with a movement just 1.18mm thick. The product of multiple years of R&D and dozens of prototypes, the watch has a titanium case weighing only 2.82 grams yet still offering exceptional rigidity. The movement, assembled inside the case, features an extra-flat barrel with a super-fine hairspring and a patented ultra-flat escapement, with a variable inertia balance in titanium that allows for fine tuned calibrations. A traditional winding crown with a stem is replaced by two crowns integrated into movement wheels — one for winding, the other for function selection — which are operable from the front. The hands are directly affixed to wheels and protected under sapphire crystals slimmed down to 2/10 mm in thickness. The 150-piece limited edition is priced for Ferrari owners, at $1.88 million, and makes a strong statement that the brand is nowhere near finished pushing boundaries in technology, materials, and design.

What should I really expect to pay for a Richard Mille watch?

Richard Mille RM 016

Believe it or not, there is an “entry level” Richard Mille watch — the description in this instance referring to a watch priced under the six-figure threshold — namely, the RM 016 “Ultra Thin” (above), with a rectangular rather than tonneau-shaped case and a skeletonized but sans-tourbillon movement, which carries an MSRP, as of this writing, of $60,000. Expect to shell out upwards of $150K for more complex automatic models, like the RM 029 Automatic Le Mans Classic at $176,000. A high-complication masterpiece like the RM 65-01 Automatic Split-Seconds Chronograph retails for closer to half a mil: $310,000. If you want to rock one of the same watches that Nadal wears on the court, you’ll generally need a million or more: the RM 27-04 model that the Spaniard wore while winning the 2020 French Open goes for $1,050,000 — and was limited to 50 pieces, meaning it’s likely to fetch much more on the pre-owned market.

Richard Mille RM 056 Sapphire Tourbillon

All Richard Mille watches are limited in production, which adds to both their rarity and desirability to collectors. Models that have fetched the highest prices at auction include one of the very first prototypes of the RM 027 Nadal watch, which sold for more than 1,100,000 Swiss francs, and the second prototype of the sapphire-cased RM 056 (above), which went for 1,120,000 Swiss francs. Expect all these trends to continue, including a continuing investment in making watches even lighter; as Mille himself once told this writer in an interview, “It’s now accepted that a light watch can cost as much as a heavy watch. Who is going to say, ‘My car weighs five tons, so it should cost more than a car that weighs one ton?’ Everybody is fighting against weight today. And to fight against weight costs a fortune.”


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