In the past, men of a certain net worth could join special clubs – such as the ones from respectable universities. They could reveal their wealth through secret handshakes or special rings, signifiers of inclusion into that luxurious parallel universe. Well, things have changed a little since then.

However, we still notice that some elegant men still hold a piece that can mean they are part of a very restrict club. In the last decade, one ultimate signifier of extreme wealth has emerged to become the club pin of the world’s financial elite: the Richard Mille watch. 

Richard Mille’s watches are generally not shiny. They are mostly matte-finished and stealthy. The most expensive models are the ones with cases made of titanium or polymer-resins injected with carbon nanotubes, or even metals intended for satellites. But ever since Richard Mille launched his brand in the beginning of the millennium, his watches have reached the status of timeless pieces. King Juan Carlos I of Spain has one and he suggested Rafael Nadal to collaborate with Mille. Rap icons Jay-Z, Pharrell Williams and Kanye West have also been seen wearing a Mille on their wrists.

Mille’s prices are stratospheric – hovering in the near half-a-million dollar area. But the truth is that the price is both part of its insularity and appeal. Only a very small group of the global elite can afford the watch, and if you have one, it’s like wearing an all-access armband to the universe of the ultrarich. But why are the watches so expensive? Mille explains, “It is because I am a victim of my own inability to compromise. Every time I get to a point where I need to decide whether to save cost or to push performance to the very extreme, I always choose the latter course.” 

Mille’s prices are stratospheric – hovering in the near half-a-million dollar area. But the truth is that the price is both part of its insularity and appeal. Only a very small group of the global elite can afford the watch, and if you have one, it’s like wearing an all-access armband to the universe of the ultrarich. But why are the watches so expensive? Mille explains, “It is because I am a victim of my own inability to compromise. Every time I get to a point where I need to decide whether to save cost or to push performance to the very extreme, I always choose the latter course.” 

Mille is the only man who makes sports watches that are actually worn by athletes in competition. For example, he was the first to strap a watch to a Formula 1 driver, Felipe Massa, for a race in the 2004 Hungarian Grand Prix. Massa wore an exclusive model, with a carbon-fiber baseplate, named the RM006. He ended up crashing his car but thankfully both the driver and the watch survived with no injuries. 

Mille’s watches avoid the old concept of luxury, where watches needed to be made of heavy materials like platinum. Instead, Mille wanted to align the performance and the aesthetics of his timepieces with contemporary features. That’s his rationale for his extreme, lightweight watches; the reason for introducing aluminum-lithium, titanium aluminide, carbon fiber and other high-performance materials into his pieces. They represent a level of technological ambition that has changed the industry. 

Among his achievements is the RM 009 tourbillon watch, launched in 2005, which utilized a virtually indestructible case made from ALUSIC, an aluminum-and-silicon compound that has to be spun in a centrifuge until it bonds at a molecular level. The RM 009 also boasted a movement made from aluminum-lithium that, when combined with the ALUSIC case, created the world’s lightest mechanical watch then, weighing in at 28g without the strap. In 2010, Mille beat this achievement by a considerable margin with the RM 027 tourbillon made for tennis star Rafael Nadal – a watch that weighed just 20g, including the strap.

There is no doubt that Mille’s watches will soon be regarded as modern design classics. All of this calls on the question of what it’s like to wear a half-a-million-dollar timepiece on your wrist. Mille often warns some potential customers of the addictive influence of having one of his watches: “Be careful, it is very difficult to turn back once you put my watch on.”