Meeting Richard Mille in person can be a surreal experience. The gregarious, gruff-voiced entrepreneur may be meeting you for the first time, but expect to be hugged and high-fived as you walk into his space. To journalists, Mille dispenses sound bites in conspiratory whispers. To customers, he plays the part of a long-lost buddy to perfection.
Since hitting the ground running with his eponymous brand in 2001, Mille has been the undisputed champ of ultraluxurious, ultraniche timepieces. The trailblazing independent watch brand is famous for its high-performance sports complications.
Constructed using state-of-the-art mechanisms and space-age alloys, they are field-tested by actual athletes before going into production - tennis star Rafael Nadal smashed his way to a 2010 Wimbledon victory while wearing a Richard Mille tourbillon.
But above all, it is Mille's knack for making his customers feel at home in his world, thanks to his astute reading of the luxury watch market, that contributes most to his company's success.
"I see the watch market as a global entity, not an Asian market or a US market," Mille says ahead of his brand's showcase at the Watches&Wonders horological exhibition in Hong Kong.
That is not to say that Mille believes in market homogeneity. Rather, he believes in building relationships with individual markets the old-school way - by reaching out and communicating with them.
"Because of the sheer size of the Asian market in pure numbers, and the great distance between Switzerland - and, for instance, Hong Kong - we must make more effort to reach out to people. You cannot fall in love if you are too far apart. It is really that simple," he says.
One of the brand's highlights at Watches&Wonders is the RM26-01 Panda Tourbillon. A gorgeous high-jewellery timepiece with strong technical content, the RM26-01 is cute, ostentatious and whimsical. Capped at 30 pieces each in full diamond-paved white or red gold cases, the watch features a dial anchored by a gem-set, white gold panda festooned with black and white diamonds, surrounded by a hand-painted "bamboo forest".
The brand's trademark mechanical prowess is demonstrated via the complex tourbillon movement, crafted in titanium and fortified by advanced antishock systems to ensure optimum performance and precision.
Given that the panda is emblematic of China, one could immediately assume that the watch is an unabashed courtship of the country's high-net-worth collectors. While Mille himself admits that the RM26-01 will probably have "more resonance" among Asian customers, he refutes suggestions that he creates watches for specific markets.
"I do not like the idea of a watch only sold as a specific 'world region' piece. We [operate in a very small watch-collecting] community today, and we want to treat everyone equally.
There are Asians who can fall in love with a watch made for a US retailer, and vice versa. The personal relationship is between a client and a specific retailer - not a region. That is why for me it is about people and not global areas," he explains.
That said, Mille is of the opinion that Asia will be increasingly influential in shaping the high-end watchmaking industry. He notes that the concept of timekeeping has its roots in the continent, and hence the deep cultural affinity and appreciation that collectors here have for horology. "Since the mid-19th century, Asia has been importing high-end Swiss pocket watches and clocks. The region has always been important for the Swiss watch industry, and I doubt that this will ever change," he says.
On his part, Mille pledges to stay the course with his brand of progressive and performance-centric timepieces. Describing his strategy as "simple, direct and down-to-earth", he proclaims that his methods have brought the brand continuous growth since its founding.
"We never accept compromise in our vision and execution, and we are never afraid to discover, experiment and adapt," he says. "Any watch company that begins to lose a sense of curiosity about new ideas, challenges and impulses is doomed, in my view."