WRITER: Ken Kessler
Prized by professional athletes and serious collectors alike, Richard Mille timepieces are known for their incomparably distinctive and shock-defying designs. A new collaboration with French street artist Cyril Congo takes graffiti art to a whole new level, proof that traditional watchmaking can keep up with the times.
Distinctive – earning this adjective as a term of praise is a double-edged sword in the world of haute horlogerie. The world of high-end watches is a curious mix of innovation and tradition, and being too outré can frighten those of a nervous disposition: watch buyers are notoriously conservative. If “innovation” and “tradition” therefore seem mutually exclusive, for Richard Mille the choice has been made: the former has superseded the latter.
There is no question that the brand’s products are distinctive, and cannot be mistaken for those of any other maison. Mille, inspired by the world of automobiles, aviation, science fiction, architecture and any other discipline with fresh ideas, has always produced skeletal designs that allow the observer to admire the movement.
In its wake, during the 15 years since that first model reached the stores, the Mille form has been copied by a dozen wannabe brands that have attempted to achieve the same cutting edge image, but they lack the harmony of a Richard Mille concept. So strong was the first impression made by Mille that any watches born since 2001 using the Mille recipe come off as mere imitations.
Achieving the Mille result goes beyond making a skeleton watch: in a Richard Mille timepiece, the movement and the physical structure are integral. Mille does not follow the simpler, traditional path of having a separate movement housed in a case that acts like a shell. Understanding how car designers have turned engines and suspension element into structural components rather than bolt-ons to a separate chassis, Mille appreciated that it would increase the strength and integrity of the watch. This lateral thinking has created timepieces so strong that Rafael Nadal can wear his Richard Mille Tourbillon during professional tennis matches – and the watches survive the hammering.
Because of this marriage between the power source and the housing, Mille has created a design language that allows the company to experiment with colours, materials and topologies without limit. From the outset, Mille established a modus operandi of ‘No Constraints’. He has produced watches containing opening mechanical flowers, and bridges that are accented by tiny diamonds to create a spider’s web. Watches that show G-forces, watches in bold colours, watches with unusual displays and mixes of complications – yet all are instantly identifiable as Richard Mille models, regardless of case shape, materials or dimensions.
Mille’s ‘Frenchness’ also means that he cannot resist art, any more than he could control his passion for cars. Here, Richard can reference previous watch creations, a history of timepieces including efforts from the greatest painters in recent history. Dali melted them, while Picasso put his name on a watch. In 1985, graffiti artist Keith Haring produced a design for Swatch. Two years later, an Andy Warhol model was produced for Movado and in 2016, Anthony Liggins collaborated with Ernst Benz. Mille – because that’s what he does – has taken this a step further.
Just as he integrates movement and case, Mille has achieved a new level of integration between art and horology with the astounding RM 68-01 Tourbillon Cyril Kongo. Mille has enabled the artist to use as a canvas the visible levels within the watch. Mille’s movements are inherently three-dimensional to a far greater degree than conventional movements. By stacking the components, Mille gives them space to “breathe” and the eye sees a network of fine components in distinct layers.
Paris-based street artist Kongo has exploited every surface presented by the skeletal structure. From the chapter ring, graduated in hours and minutes, to the bridges supporting the various components, Kongo has decorated them all, including the barrel cover and the glass itself.
RM 68-01, says the brand, is “the outcome of Richard Mille’s desire to introduce contemporary art within haute horlogerie in an unprecedented manner.” Using a tourbillon shows Mille’s commitment to a marriage of street art and high-end watchmaking, a pairing one might think impossible: “street” and luxury? Kongo, who played matchmaker, explains, “Graffiti is a language with its own codes, a form of writing, whether this be on a gigantic wall, on canvas, or any other surface. I am not a painter bound to a single space, nor to any particular surface.”
Taking over a year to develop a special painting technique suitable to a micro-milieu, Kongo employed an airbrush able to deliver one droplet at a time. Even the weight of the paint had to be determined so as not to upset the watch’s functionality; ensuring it would adhere to the titanium surfaces created further challenges. It remains pure Richard Mille, while at the same time expressing and embodying Kongo’s vision.
A feast for the eyes, the complexity and detail rewards the observer with something fresh with every glance. It is certainly as pure a manifestation of the Mille philosophy as the regular editions, however inadequate the word ‘regular’ seems. What differs in this remarkable watch, limited to 30 pieces worldwide, is attitude. It is, in so many ways, Richard Mille’s naughty alter ego.