The village of Les Breuleux in the Franches-Montagnes region of the Jura in northern Switzerland is a quiet and unassuming pocket of the world. The town’s 1,500 residents are penned in by a patchwork of green pastures, a panorama that Cécile Guenat, director of creation and development at the Swiss watchmaking brand Richard Mille, passes through every day on her 10-minute commute to the brand’s headquarters. “Some mornings I’m late because I get stuck behind a few tractors,” she says with a laugh.
The daughter of Dominique Guenat, the co-founder and co-president of Richard Mille, whose family have lived in the region for 150 years, Cécile was born and raised here. She left to study and work in stints in Geneva and London, before returning five years ago, and has since found the quiet life ignites her creative spark. “Living in the middle of the countryside, I am constantly looking for new things – art, fashion, listening to music and watching documentaries or shows – to inspire me,” she says.
The steady diet of pop culture is transporting and has in many ways fuelled Guenat’s wildly imaginative designs since she came on board. Her debut women’s collection in 2018, a limited-edition run of the RM 71-01 Tourbillon Automatic Talisman, explored the unexpected, graphic alchemy of tribal masks and the art deco movement. Her saccharine-inspired 2019 Bonbon Collection, meanwhile, reimagined childhood delicacies as precious timepieces. It was a surprisingly playful and feminine collection from a high-tech luxury sportswear watch brand that is beloved by world-class athletes such as the tennis champion Rafael Nadal, and has a slogan that reads “a racing machine on the wrist”.
“I had all types of people around me who were perhaps not as convinced. They didn’t say anything, but I could sense it,” says Guenat of Bonbon. “But the most reassuring thing about the process was that Richard was completely convinced. He never hesitated.” Bonbon sold out in two days.
For her latest collection, the 71-02 Tourbillon Automatic Talisman, Guenat has turned up the volume once again and harnessed all the glitter and glamour of the disco era and the movement’s all-night temple that was Studio 54. The limited-edition collection features 10 styles, each limited to seven pieces. The watches are festooned with precious gems arranged in a graphic setting that is heightened by an imaginative combination of colours. “Even though we abided by the constraints of the existing patterns of the Talisman styles, we spent a lot of time working on the placement of the coloured stones, playing with the lines and shading,” she says.
To ramp up their identities, Guenat has named the watches after sovereigns of the disco era: Gloria (Gaynor); Donna (Summer); Grace (Jones); and Diana (Ross), to name a few. “The collection is like a group of close friends, each with their own unique, strong characters and a different sense of style,” she says. Diana dazzles with white gold, blue sapphires, rubies and diamonds in a wink to the American flag, while Donna is set with soulful and sweet tones of pink and yellow sapphires and diamonds. The dazzling bezels are framed by playful bi-coloured embossed leather bands glossed with glitter. Understated, these are not. “A watch is a manner of expressing yourself and your needs. It’s an ornament that can bring a bit of confidence,” the designer says.
Guenat designed this collection two years ago while watching the Emmy-award winning drama series Pose, which follows the larger-than-life ballroom sub-cultural scene in 1980s New York. She polished up the designs nodding away to the funky driving bassline of California band The Internet’s “La Di Da”. “I tried to find the inspiration that gave the possibility to use things I love: colour and mixing colour, that glittery element, the fun – not the best word, but I do like to have fun with my work,” she says of the idea behind it all.
The styles are not just boldly feminine and wildly creative, they boast all the precision and technical bells-and-whistles fans have come to Richard Mille for – including an exclusive in-house automatic tourbillon. That combination of audacious design and innovation has struck the right note: women’s watches now account for 30 per cent of the business. Guenat, for one, is not surprised. “If you look at the history of the brand, it has always been the same – a little colourful and crazy,” she says.
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