Getting it straight from the top men on the job. BAZAAR sits down for a tête-à-tête with the founding CEO of eponymous brand Richard Mille and François-Henry Bennahmias of Audemars Piguet.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Getting it straight from the top men on the job. BAZAAR sits down for a tête-à-tête with the founding CEO of eponymous brand Richard Mille and François-Henry Bennahmias of Audemars Piguet.

The man behind the brand, Richard Mille.
The man behind the brand, Richard Mille.

Legend has it that Mr Mille is not above throwing his watches (which start at a high five figure, mind you) against the wall. It’s a demonstration meant to show just how robust and well-made his creations are. Yet, even if you weren’t privy to the astounding act, you get a sense of how special Richard Mille timepieces are, thanks to top athletes like Rafael Nadal and Bubba Watson who wear his watches dur ing their tournaments—something that is near unheard of in the watch industry. Even more astonishing is the fact that the company has risen to stratospheric heights in a mere 15 years since it was first founded. We speak to the visionary man on what we can expect from the revolutionary brand.

From race car drivers to athletes to actors, Richard Mille seems to be a brand that firmly believes in collaborations. Can you tell us more about this?

Collaborations are essential; it is important not to stay within your own world all the time. Input from other people with different viewpoints and tastes is always inspiring and very interesting. This year, we have released a number of fantastic pieces such as the RM 50-02 Airbus Corporate Jets, a tourbillon calibre design with our friend Sylvain Mariat, Head of Airbus Corporate Jet Centre’s Creative Design Studio; and the RM 68-01, an artistic tour de force with its airbrushed hand painted calibre by Cyril Kongo, a famous street artist. Two years ago, we started to enlarge the collection and it’s getting bigger. We are always working very hard to create “personal spaces” within the total collection for every taste. From divers’ watches to extreme jewellery pieces and large complicated watches to elegant, thin and sexy models… In any case, you can be sure the ladies will have more wonderful timepieces and choices to see.

Tell us more about this year’s RM 67-01 Automatic Extra Flat.

It has been a while since the ultra-flat collection was enlarged, and our new calibre was ready to mark the moment. With the new release, I wanted to give another choice to those who like to change their watch often, just like their clothes, for evening, events or business. The RM 67-01 is a fantastic new and very elegant watch that can fit perfectly on ladies’ wrists. It is light, elegant and relaxed in daily use, while still being tough enough that you do not have to worry about it as you go about your day. Like I mentioned, I want to give our clients all the choices they need (or, for that matter, all the choices they might not even know they need yet!).

The RM67-01 Extra Flat’s case requires over 215 separate machining operations
The RM67-01 Extra Flat’s case requires over 215 separate machining operations
This year also sees you introducing the RMS05, a complex and technical fountain pen. Why was this project undertaken?

For years, people have asked me for extra items, such as cufflinks, pens and the like, which would match and complement the timepieces. I am very slow in answering these requests because nothing we create is “standard.” Everything we do must embody my philosophy and goals, and also be an extreme exercise in what luxury means in a person’s lifestyle. So, it took us years to find a solution for a special mechanical cufflink, as well as to develop a new kind of fountain pen with a mechanised, retractable stylus. The pen even has its own special calibre designed for it in order to accomplish this, made of grade five titanium. The pen is exactly constructed like one of our watches, without a single compromise in execution or materials. To just take a standard pen, and add some RM style to it, would be unthinkable!

What about your women’s collections? Do you have a different philosophy when it comes to designing for your female fans?

There are numerous aspects shared between the men’s and ladies’ lines; even the high-end jewellery timepieces have very technical hearts: The same torque screws on the case and movement, the same approach to materials, movement layout and design, etc. I would say that they essentially differ only in terms of colour, size, stone setting and similar aspects. Having said that, I also see women buying large chronographs— the same that men usually buy—and men who buy stone set pieces. So the lines between ladies’ and men’s watches are not always as clear as one might first think!

The RM 19-02 Tourbillon Fleur has a flower on its dial that opens its petals once every five minutes (or on demand) to reveal a flying tourbillon
The RM 19-02 Tourbillon Fleur has a flower on its dial that opens its petals once every five minutes (or on demand) to reveal a flying tourbillon
But what does Richard Mille aim to achieve with each ladies watch it develops?

Maybe because I am a man who loves women, my goal is to make every woman happy! So, with each timepiece, I want to unite the inner technical nature of the watch with beauty and sensuality, and this can be accomplished in many different ways. For instance, new types of ceramics can be polished like metal and can be given colour too, showing that even high-tech materials can be very feminine. And that leads to another point. Women love having choices, and I want to provide them with every possible choice: From extremely complicated watches to high jewellery timepieces, [or a watch with a] case of pink sapphire like that used for the Pink Lady automatic… It is hard to make everyone happy, of course. But I do feel that we do a great job for creating every possible type of women’s watch for our clients. The list gets longer with every passing year.

How much has the female segment of the business grown for you?

I have had watches for women very soon after I started the brand; they have always been very popular, and for this reason they were offered in many different variants and finishes. Growth has been progressive and during the last four years— with the introduction of novel combinations of chocolate, black, white and blue ceramic colours combined with gold, new precious metal bracelets and straps—the interest in the ladies’ collection has grown explosively. I would estimate about 25 to 30 percent of our sales are in women’s watches.

What would you say is the secret to your success in this segment?

I believe in a universal design concept where a technical approach can become a common language of style, even between the sexes. There is extreme beauty, sensuality and even pure sexiness to be found in the curved lines of a car’s bodywork, the design of a jet engine, a beautifully polished part of a movement or the finish of a watch case. This approach ties in perfectly with women of today who are often leading active lives or have highlevel job commitments. The concept of ultra-feminised ladies’ watches only being worn at tea parties whilst discussing a new colour of nail polish is so old-fashioned and behind the times. Women today want and expect more. And we do our best to provide that.

Red gold RM67 -01 Extra Flat Richard Mille
Red gold RM67 -01 Extra Flat Richard Mille
Richard Mille has always been a brand with cutting-edge innovation at its core. Why has this been so integral to the brand’s DNA?

I began my brand because I could not find the watch of my dreams; a watch that was forward-looking in terms of everything: A contemporary design, cutting-edge movement, and the novel application of materials and methods. So I went out and started one on my own. As expected, this urge of mine became the essence of the brand’s identity, and it is still the same today. Of course, I felt my ideas would be successful, but success is never guaranteed and I have had to work very hard to achieve the brand recognition [we have]. Now, only 16 years of age so to speak, the brand occupies a premier position in the watchmaking world with an incredible turnover—an accomplishment that is quite remarkable. It turned out beyond my wildest dreams. At the same time, however, I keep my feet on the ground.

If you had to pinpoint just one reason for where the brand is now, what would it be?

Our watches filled a unique position within the watch industry; it was a revolutionary concept never seen before, and has remained so since. If the watches were not so radical, they would never have succeeded, as no one is waiting for yet another tourbillon in a round case with a flat dial covering up the movement. Watches like those are a dime a dozen.

What is the one thing you wish every woman to know about the brand?

I love women passionately, and also have a lot of experience with the jewellery industry from my previous job experiences. Basically, we make exactly what we think women are looking for. You will not find any watch at any other brand that combines feminine sexiness with a highly technical approach. We are working hard at the factory to raise the level of creation in order to remain at the front line.

The Diamond Fury (left) requires over 1,500 hours to produce and has 4,635 brilliant-cut diamonds
The Diamond Fury (left) requires over 1,500 hours to produce and has 4,635 brilliant-cut diamonds

There is no-one else who has a better grasp of Audemars Piguet’s business than François-Henry Bennahmias. With a tenure that spans over 20 years with the brand under his belt, the Frenchman worked his way up the corporate ladder to the top of the family-owned company in 2012. We spoke to him at the recent reopening of the brand’s swanky flagship boutique at Liat Towers.

What’s a highlight for Audemars Piguet in 2016?

The Royal Oak in yellow gold for men and women. Nobody else has launched yellow gold for the last eight years, so we took a bet and the outcome was really good; we started to sell watches very quickly in many stores in the world. The fact that we haven’t seen yellow gold for quite some time made a lot of people say, “It’s cool!”

You also launched the Haute Joaillerie Diamond Fury, a follow up to last year’s Diamond Punk. Can you tell us more about it?

When we started with the Diamond Punk, the pitch was: We will never do high-end jewellery from the 19th or 20th century. I want to think tomorrow, not yesterday. I don’t want to see flowers or butterflies; I want to see edgy, modern. We pushed the envelope a lot further with the Diamond Fury— which could have been called the Game of Thrones watch or the Dragon watch because of the shape of the scales. I think our designers have a lot of fun in the studio at night. I don’t know what they do, but they come up with these crazy, brilliant ideas.

François-Henry Bennahmias
François-Henry Bennahmias
Why the decision to do such an extravagant piece given the economic climate?

I’m going to challenge your statement. Let’s assume for a second that the economic climate is so bad that not a single wealthy person in the world buys anything anymore. No cars, no planes, no art, no jewellery, nothing. Is that what’s going on right now? No. There are always people who can afford these watches. They want the wow effect, so we have to deliver something that they have never seen before. When the emotions are right, people will actually buy. The best proof of that is the new Royal Oak Double Balance Wheel Openworked in stainless steel. It was launched right after the fair—a rose gold version will be launched in October—and it is a success because every time it shows up somewhere, it’s sold out within the next few days. It’s our third bestselling watch in the world; and at $61,800, it’s not a cheap stainless steel watch.

How does the brand slogan of “There are exceptions to every rule” apply to your female timepieces?

Completely the same as it does for our men’s timepieces. The independence and purchasing power that we see in women today is completely different from two decades ago. Before, a woman had to ask her husband or boyfriend for an expensive item. Today, we see women buying their own watches because they have jobs, make money and they make decisions. People ask me: “Who is the Audemars Piguet woman or man?” I don’t care . I hate putting people in boxes; they are anyone they want to be. What I do care about are people who didn’t know anything about our brand and now are fans.

What would you recommend a woman looking for her first watch?

If she wants something simple, she can start with 33mm Royal Oak. If she appreciates the mechanical aspect of the brand, she can move to the 37mm or she could think: “Oh, the Royal Oak is too sporty, so I want the Millenary.” Right now, our best-selling watches for ladies are the 33mm and 37mm gold on gold Royal Oaks.

How have you seen an evolution of women who buy from the brand?

It’s not what they like; it’s that we see more women coming to our brand. That’s a big change. We see younger women coming into the boutique—women between 20 and 30 years old—who say, “I want to wear AP.” Women are also buying men’s watches; and this is a global trend. 

The Royal Oak Double Balance Wheel Openworked features the world's first double-balance wheel escapement
The Royal Oak Double Balance Wheel Openworked features the world's first double-balance wheel escapement