Creating a Timepiece Worthy of the Tour de France

How a former Formula One champ turned cyclist helped Richard Mille design his latest ne plus ultra watch.


By James Jung

Formula One legend Alain Prost with British procyclist Mark Cavendish. (Photo: Antonin Vincent / DPPI)

Richard Mille may be one of the world’s most preeminent watchmakers, but he’s almost as famous for his obsession with race cars. Ever since bursting onto the scene in 2001 with his radical and highly technical take on the classic, barrel-shaped tonneau, the charismatic Frenchman has drawn inspiration from the high performance machines of Formula One. 

In the stone-and-timber garage of his 18th-century château in Brittany, you’ll find one of the world’s most coveted vintage-car collections (replete with iconic open-wheel McLarens and Ferraris), while his eponymous brand name can be spotted scrawled across racing grids the world over. But it’s in Mille’s unmistakable skeleton-dial watches that his obsession truly manifests itself. From aluminum-and-carbon fiber casings to shock-resistant movements as precise as a four-stroke turbocharged V6 engine, the similarities between Mille’s sleek, ultra-luxe watches and the world’s most bleeding-edge racing cars are striking.

And yet, for his latest limited edition timepiece, the bearded, rakishly stylish 66-year-old  turned to an unexpected inspiration: cycling. It’s a sport that Mille—like any self-respecting Frenchman—grew up with, and one that has recently joined his ever-growing list of passions. 

Worn on the right wrist, the new RM 70-01 is designed for ultimate legibility while cycling. (Photo: Antonin Vincent / DPPI)

“I am stunned by the power cyclists churn out,” says Mille, who can be found logging serious miles on his local country lanes when he’s not bombing around those same roads behind the wheel of his Lancia Stratos rally car. He has also been following the Tour de France in person, often in the backseat of a commissioner’s car embedded in the fast-moving peloton. In 2016, after Mille struck up a friendship with professional cyclist Mark Cavendish, he gifted the Welshman his personal Felipe Massa Flyback Chronograph. The decorated sprinter won his 29th Tour de France stage the following day, the timepiece strapped firmly on his wrist. 

Such are the fortunes of a man who has built a business based as much on spontaneity as on rigorous devotion to detail. But, as befitting any true gear head, it was the technical innovations of modern racing bikes that most intrigued Mille. “The introduction of composites, the lighter materials, the performance gains in gear assemblies, these were revolutionary,” Mille says. “As a tech fanatic, I appreciate the many subtleties involved.” 

To create a Tour de France–worthy timepiece, Mille knew he needed a collaborator. But rather than looking toward any number of world-class cycling companies for this venture, the watchmaker returned to his first love—Formula One. As it turned out, Mille’s longtime friend, four-time F1 champ Alain Prost, had been bitten by the biking bug as well.  

“Richard is the one who had the idea for this watch,” recalls Prost, who at the height of his career was known as “The Professor,” due to his cerebral approach to car racing. “He wanted to blend automobiles and bicycles.” Prost himself began cycling at the behest of his trainer more than two decades ago. (The idea was that the sport would help better condition him for the demands of F1 driving—a sport where heart rates consistently exceed 160 bpm.) Today, Prost rides upwards of 200 kilometers a week, and regularly competes in races like the vertiginous L’Étape du Tour and the prestigious Masters World Cycling Championships. 

The RM 70-01 Tourbillon Alain Prost—which is limited to 30 collectors’ pieces—is the result of Mille and Prost’s three-year collaboration. On it, you’ll find numerous nods to cycling. Take, for instance, aesthetic details such as a barrel ratchet resembling a spoked wheel and a dynamometric crown evoking a pedal. For those more concerned with engineering, there’s the Grade 5 titanium used for both the baseplate and the Allen screws, which provides a stiffness capable of withstanding the roughest of road conditions, whether the local tarmac or the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix. 

Of course, this being a Richard Mille creation, form always follows function. So, much like he’s done before for athletes including tennis star Rafael Nadal, golfer Bubba Watson and Jamaican runner Yohan Blake, he’s created a watch perfectly optimized for the day-to-day demands of sport. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the tonneau’s rectangular and asymmetrical carbon cage, which molds to the wrist without ever digging into the skin no matter where you grip the drop bars on a road bike. 

The biggest innovation, however, belongs to the titanium odometer, a five-digit roller readout that allows riders to easily add the day’s distance to their ongoing tally. Cyclists live and die by their metrics. But while most will rattle off figures like their maximum heart rate or the average amount of watts they can generate in an hour, Prost found that few can recall the total mileage they’ve logged at the end of the season. The RM 70-01 solves that problem. By pressing the pusher at 2 o’clock, a cyclist can activate any of the odometer’s five rollers, while the pusher at 10 o’clock allows the rider to increase the number by increments of one. And there’s no danger of slipping up, thanks to a spring-lock neutral position that protects you from accidentally moving the wrong roller. 

(Photo: Didier-Gourdon)

Sure, most cycling computers offer an odometer—one that automatically calculates total miles—at ten-thousandths of the cost, but anyone who’s resorting to basic bean counting clearly isn’t in the Richard Mille demographic.

For those who are, the RM 70-01, which is priced at a cool $815,000, comes with an added bonus: a hand-built Colnago carbon racing bike with an electronic Campagnolo drive train and thoroughbred Italian pedigree that evokes the spirit of Formula One.

 

Eternally Tank

Alain Delon Cartier Tank

The timeless Cartier Tank celebrates its first centennial.


By Sara James Mnookin

“I don’t wear a Tank to tell the time . . . I wear a Tank because it’s the watch to wear.” – Andy Warhol

It was sleeker than the Santos, evoking an aerial view of the tank, with elongated brancards on either side of a square compact case—a design innovation that also solved a nagging dilemma in those early days of the wristwatch: how to join a flat band to a round face. “The majority of men’s wristwatches during World War I were converted pocket watches,” says Nate Borgelt, international senior specialist at Sotheby’s. “The Tank, a design directly based on a machine for war, was masculine, made from the ground up to be worn on the wrist.”

According to Cartier lore, the first Tank was offered to General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces (who would later rise to garner an unofficial six-star status as General of the Armies). Soon thereafter, Cartier placed six pieces in its stores, which sold out in record time.

General John J. Pershing.

“It was really the first high-profile celebrity watch,” says Marion Fasel, founder and editorial director of the fine jewelry blog, The Adventurine, who points to the precise moment that cemented the Tank’s iconic status, when “silent-film star Rudolph Valentino insisted on wearing it in The Son of the Sheik.” Dubiously dressed in a turban and a wristwatch, Valentino may have made little narrative sense on screen, but he changed sartorial history, inspiring men from London to L.A. to shelve their pocket watches for good.

“Stars have been wearing the style ever since,” Fasel adds. Its strong lines and formidable military credentials have indeed drawn a platoon of famous admirers—among them, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Marcello Mastroianni, Alain Delon, Frank Sinatra, and Warren Beatty. Truman Capote claimed to own no fewer than eight Tanks—enough to pull one off his wrist and give it to a passing journalist whose style he found lacking. Capote’s friend Andy Warhol never even wound his, famously remarking, “I don’t wear a Tank watch to tell the time… I wear a Tank watch because it’s the watch to wear.” Yves Saint Laurent evidently agreed.

So did many women. Greta Garbo, trailblazing androgyny, naturally wanted a Tank on her wrist. Sex bombs Brigitte Bardot and Elizabeth Taylor used it almost as a counterweight, to cool off their curves. Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly ensured the style became de rigueur for willowy WASPs throughout Europe and the U.S., while Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis carried the Tank trend well into the unisex-obsessed 1970s.

One of Jackie’s beloved Tanks, a gift from her brother-in-law, Prince Stanislaw Radziwill, sold for a staggering $379,500 at Christie’s in June. The anonymous buyer was said to be Kim Kardashian—a plausible theory, given how recently  the reality star had been robbed at gunpoint in Paris.

Alain Delon Cartier Tank
Actor Alain Delon, with director Jean-Pierre Melville, on the set of 1972’s Un Flic.

It seems that, for many women, the Tank has become a kind of armor. Recall Princess Diana’s frequent appearances in her black-strapped Tank L.C. or yellow gold Tank Française in the years after her painful split from Prince Charles.

“It is neither too masculine nor too feminine,” Fasel says. “The design is really the golden mean.”

Such wide reach is hardly mere happenstance. The Tank not only pioneered watch design, but also its marketing, as one of the first styles to be sold by size rather than sex. Freed from traditional boundaries, many men found they preferred the trimmer lines of the smaller case, and a few ladies elected to size up. The Tank opened up new ground between genders, carving out space for vanguards to challenge fashion (and thus societal) norms—and all long before most of the world was ready to grapple with the concept of that sort of fluidity.

“If all tanks were made by Cartier, we’d have the time to live in peace.” – Jean-Charles de Castelbajac

The De Stijl movement, also born in 1917, called for simplicity in design, isolating elements down to form and color. Cartier’s Tank thus has its own specific vernacular—a crisp roman-numeral dial, blue-steel hands, and a sapphire cabochon crown, although the house has never shied away from tinkering with this formula. “The style has a very recognizable language, modified to keep it relevant and new,” Borgelt says. By changing small aspects—size, angles, the way the crown is elongated or shortened, the colors of the stones and cabochons—Cartier prevented the classic from ever feeling quite done.

In 1921 alone, the face was stretched into the Tank Cintrée, which followed the natural curvature of the wrist, and the case lines were made to overlap the brancards for the luxe Tank Chinoise. An extra-flat version, the Tank Normale, arrived in 1964, and the bolder, sturdier Américaine, in 1988. Bucking the gritty minimalism of the ’90s, the Tank Française flashed its shiny steel and gold bracelets, starting in 1996.

Today, Borgelt says the most collectible Tanks tend to be “any limited editions or vintage pieces, particularly from their London workshops or with European Watch and Clock Company movements.”

Cartier Tank
The 2017 Cartier Tank Cintrée Skeleton in pink gold. (Photo: Cartier)

To celebrate the style’s 100th birthday, Cartier has released 13 new models in four of the Tank families: the Tank Louis Cartier, Française, Américaine and Cintrée. The dearest are a pair of Cintrée skeleton watches with mechanical movements and manual winding, in pink-gold and platinum, for $56,000 and $62,000 respectively.

Flammarion published a sumptuous new book, The Cartier Tank Watch, on November 14. In it, frequent collaborator Franco Cologni charts the Tank’s evolution, reminding the world that, in the age of the Apple Watch, there is still only one definitive rectangular timepiece.

“Tanks will be with us as long as watches are worn,” Borgelt predicts. And presumably that will be for at least a few more days.

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