Richard Mille created a stir this year at SIHH 2017 with the launch of the RM 50-03 McLaren F1, the lightest split-seconds chronograph ever made at just 40 gm. The avant-garde watchmaking brand known for its technical innovations and highly engineered cases and movements are now partners with famed F1 constructor McLaren-Honda and the RM 50-03 is the first timepiece borne out of this relationship. But it’s not just about ultralight sports watches; over the years Richard Mille has slowly been expanding its women’s line and as the average age of the buyer drops to the low-40s, the brand has been reaping the benefits of its unique approach that combines haute horology and avant-garde technologies. We spoke to the Peter Harrison, the brand’s CEO for EMEA region.

Harrison is also the founder and chief executive of Redgrave Luxury, the sole distributor for Richard Mille in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Richard Mille Europe is in fact a joint venture between the brand and distributor Redgrave Luxury. It’s a unique arrangement that has benefitted both parties. As a distributor, Redgrave Luxury has secured the rights for Richard Mille to be the timing partner for the Yas Marina circuit in Abu Dhabi and Manchester City Football Club. Harrison believes that this arrangement ensures that the distributor is 100 per cent invested in the future of the brand.

On the new RM 50-03 McLaren F1

HARRISON: Richard Mille RM-50-03 in association with McLaren-HondaIt’s interesting because I’ve been in the watch business a long time and I’ve seen a lot of F1 partnerships, but this is the first time I’ve heard people say there seems to be a genuine collaboration. This is not just about branding and a logo here or there. We’ve worked together McLaren, especially on the use of Graphene. We worked with their engineers, Richard [Mille] went to Manchester University to get an idea of the science behind this new material – to see what we could use. And the response has been a great.

On creating ultralight sports watches

You have to look back to the watch we created for Rafael Nadal. All the watches we have created have been lightweight. From using carbon nano baseplates, grade-5 titanium cases, there’s always been this intention of creating ultralight sports watches. And then we created the RM027 for Nadal, the first mechanical watch with a tourbillon under 20 gm. It was only natural that we make a split-seconds chronograph watch for racing.

On the high cost of using innovative materials

Graphene is too expensive to roll out on production models immediately. It’s a bit like what happens in the automobile industry. I am old enough to remember when cars first had electric windows, back then it was only seen in expensive luxury cars. Cool stuff like parking sensors, heads-up displays and the sort were only seen in luxury cars. But eventually these technologies trickled down to more production models. In the case of Graphene, the cost of manufacturing is very high so it’s unlikely that we’ll be rolling it out in other models anytime soon. It’s like titanium. The grade-5 titanium used in our cases is polished and finished by hand. I think there are some 20 different processes to create these screws.

A kilogram of screws is CHF 20 million. OK, it’s a lot of screws, but it’s still an expensive process. It’s actually more expensive for us to produce a watch case in grade 5-titanium than in gold because machining grade-5 titanium is an expensive process but we couldn’t price it more than gold because the market wouldn’t allow it – people will say, ‘But gold is the more expensive metal’. Yes it is, but it’s a lot easier to work with gold.

The Middle East market is resilient and strong

We are opening three more stores (Kuwait, Riyadh and Jeddah) in the region this year. The Middle East market is resilient and strong. The customer is super-knowledgeable and more informed than ever before. It’s not just about GDP, the average age of the RM buyer is coming down. In the Middle East, clients are less hung up about the whole ‘my dad had a watch beginning with R, so I have to own one just like that’ or ‘my mom’s always had a French jewelry brand for all her watches, so I’ll have to do the same’. It doesn’t work like that anymore. The younger generation buying these watches understand the concept, they are not tied by decades of family advice and tradition. The average age of the RM is in the low 40s. We launched on the back of Richard’s passion for classic cars, which is an older man’s game. He launched because he knew they would understand his concept. But over the years that has changed.

Women’s watches on the rise

We Richard Mille RM-07-01started with the RM-07 eight years ago. Back then, it was the only women’s watch in our range. If you ever go shoe shopping with a woman, you’ll know that it’s not just one pair of shoes, she’ll need to see a selection. So, slowly, we’ve built our women’s line and now it’s nearly 30 percent of our portfolio. It’s important and it’s nice to see as well. I think women have influenced the lowering of the average age of our clients. Ten years ago women were influenced by what their friends had. If their friends had a particular watch, they would feel comfortable to own such a watch. It’s a kind of herd mentality. Now that people are better read, they understand ‘coutureing’ better. Coutureing essentially means that when you walk into a room, you don’t want to be seen with the same pair of shoes, same handbag or dress as anyone else there. There’s value in exclusivity and Richard understands that. We make so few women’s watches a year that there’s good chance that at a dinner table you are probably going to be the only woman wearing a Richard Mille. The great thing is now everyone knows what it means. In the Middle East, we’ve got a specialist (in fact, one of Richard’s children) who is focused on women’s watches and working with high-net-worth women just to move along the process.

On the emergence of online retail in the luxury industry

I don’t think e-commerce is luxury. It’s my personal opinion. I understand that Mr. Porter and Net-a-Porter are successful concepts but I think it might work with ready-to-wear. Some brands produce tens of thousands of watches a year and the customer already knows what to expect. You should never say never, but if you are in couture business, it’s a personal relationship. The client either knows the store or knows one of us in the team and I don’t think it will translate in the e-commerce world. Take for example the relationship with McLaren. You can read lots of information about the latest Mclaren online and you can configure your car. Abut when you go to the showroom, they will say, ‘Have you thought about this, have you thought about that?’, ‘You don’t really need that, but this might be better” – it’s a more interactive service, a personal service that’s more about luxury. I don’t think some brands understand this.

When a distributor becomes a stakeholder in the brand

Richard Mille Europe is a joint venture between Redgrave Luxury and the brand. We did it for a couple of reasons. First of all, we wanted synergy across markets. We didn’t want someone in Dubai competing with someone in Saudi Arabia. I think in the classic distribution model you end up with a multi-brand retail experience, you end up with the distributor’s vision of what a brand should be like. For example, if I was an independent distributor and I didn’t like the new diamond setting on the carbon case of the RM-07 I can turn around and say I’m not going to buy that. I’m just going to buy what I want for my customer. So there is no synergy with the brand. When Richard says this is what we are doing this year, we are like OK, this is what we are doing this year. He knows that the brand has someone who is super-motivated because I’m fully invested in the capital of the business. It ensures a dynamic growth throughout the business. The traditional model works for some brands, it wouldn’t work for Richard Mille. An independent distributor model wouldn’t work. I have done both, so I know. In this joint venture arrangement, Richard knows he has me body and soul. And it’s worked so far.