HONG KONG - I remember when I saw my first Richard Mille watch. It was before the watch designer had officially launched his eponymous brand, and when I saw the now familiar tonneau-shaped case – its bezel punctuated by those star-headed titanium screws – I knew I had seen something special. Just how special neither I, nor I suspect, Richard knew.

Richard Mille watches came to symbolise an era in the first decade of this century when timepieces wore their technical prowess on their sleeve. What Mille achieved with his brand was a new style of watch that treated other industries, whether aeronautics or aviation, as a menu from which to select materials that were suited to the unique needs of watchmaking.

Professional tennis player Rafael Nadal wears the RM 027 while on the court.

This was not watchmaking as a pastiche of the past, but a style that took the mechanical timepiece and propelled it into the future. Typical of the outlandish achievements was the Rafael Nadal watch, RM 027, one of which is to be offered in at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong this autumn. Designed for the celebrated tennis player, it weighs about 20 grammes – when I first lifted it I wondered if someone had forgotten to attach the watch to the strap. It is a watch of such comfort that Nadal wears it while he is playing – and refers to it as his “second skin” – rather than having to scrabble around in his sports bag after the match to put it on for the photo opportunity.

It is hard to predict the future, but when the horological history of the early 21st century comes to be written it is likely that the watches of Richard Mille will play an important part. But to appreciate the legacy of their exuberant technology, his watches need to be seen in a wider context.

There is Hublot, unquestionably the most remarkable revival of this century. Jean-Claude Biver, the visionary watch executive, took a dying brand and created a monster success using what he called ‘Fusion’ watchmaking, which relied on mixing ‘new’ materials such as Kevlar and ceramic with old-fashioned gold and steel. Then there are the watches of Urwerk, without which a snapshot of technologically ambitious watchmaking would not be complete. The duo of gifted watchmakers responsible, Felix Baumgartner and Martin Frei, have come up with time-telling machinery that is as startling as it is innovative – time is read off rotating hour cubes that move along an arc that is calibrated to show the passing minutes. Similar in their inventiveness are the creations of Max Busser, whose MB&F watches are a playful paradigm of the Star Trek school of watch design.

(top) Richard Mille Limited Edition RM 027, designed for Rafael Nadal. (middle) Hublot King Power Usain Bolt. (bottom) Urwerk UR-110 ST. 

What these watches share is character. It is no mistake that they have come about because of the pioneers who created a new way of designing and wearing watches. These are timepieces that, like avant-garde architecture or conceptual art, divide opinion. But beware the danger of becoming blinded by the science. Mille watches may bristle with enough technology to bamboozle even the most hardened horolophile – think baseplates made of “grade 5 titanium and honeycombed orthorhombic titanium aluminide with carbon nanofiber core” – fortunately you don’t need to hold a PhD in physics to recognise the aesthetic.

Nick Foulkes is a contributing editor of
The Financial Times’ How to Spend It magazine and a regular contributor to GQ.