Cécile Guenat channels Pokémon and African art at Richard Mille

Portrait of Cécile Guenat and Richard Mille RM 71-01 Talisman ladies watch
Left, Cécile Guenat, director of ladies’ collections at Richard Mille, photographed in her studio at the brand’s headquarters in the Franches-Montagnes region of Switzerland. She wears one of the ten ‘RM 71-01 Talisman’ women’s designs she created this year. From CHF400,000 (€354,000). Right, each of the ten Talisman designs is individually decorated in variations of gold, diamonds, mother of pearl, onyx and black sapphires. Portrait: Julien T Hamon
(Image credit: Julien T Hamon)

It’s taken a long time for the fine-watch industry to get to grips with what women want in a timepiece. There have been sporty, flowery, minimal and jewelled pieces to cater to a spectrum of tastes. But aesthetics tend to err on the classic side.

Cécile Guenat, director of ladies’ collections at Richard Mille, is out to change that. Her latest creation – the ‘RM 71-01 Automatic Tourbillon Talisman’ – is a super-technical, multi-textured object that looks as if it sprang from a Ridley Scott storyboard rather than the tiny Les Breuleux village in Switzerland’s Franches-Montagnes region. ‘When I started designing this collection, it was the summer of Pokémon Go. The “morphing” that underlies the creatures’ evolution in the game informed parts of the collection,’ she says.

Architecture is also a powerful influence: ‘I really like very clean spaces, but also the forms and volumes of art deco – I was thinking of the longitudinal tautness of New York’s built environment in the geometric and organic shapes of the collection.’ Ancient African sculpture and masks, meanwhile, are a reference for the graphic dial designs. ‘The contrasts and geometry of these objects fascinate me because they prefigure elements of today’s design in content and form.’

Richard Mille hand-drawn sketch

Every Richard Mille design begins with hand-drawn sketches. Guenat’s were informed by her love of sci-fi films, art deco architecture and ancient folk art

(Image credit: Julien T Hamon)

Has being a female designer influenced her creative output? ‘If you claim the status of designer, it doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman. But I think you have an obligation to remain attentive to popular culture. I like to know what’s going on around me.’

Having graduated from HEAD, Geneva School of Art and Design, Guenat learnt on the job with a jeweller in Lausanne. She worked in creative teams for fashion and jewellery houses and, three years ago, was enticed back to the family business – watchmaking – in the Swiss mountains. (Her father, Dominique Guenat, is Richard Mille’s business partner).

you have an obligation to remain attentive to popular culture. I like to know what’s going on around me

Since it launched in 2001, the Richard Mille brand has made its name producing super high-tech timepieces in space-grade materials. This year, it partnered with North Thin Ply Technology, the University of Manchester and McLaren Applied Technologies to develop a fabric-layering process that incorporates graphene and produces ultra-light results in carbon and quartz designs. Such collaborations make sense, as Richard Mille watches are destined for wear in extreme sporting arenas, such as Formula 1 and international tennis. Rafael Nadal wears the ‘RM 027’, weighing just 20g yet crafted to withstand the extreme shocks of a tennis ace at play.

The Talisman collection is created with a similarly high-spec technical remit, including an in-house automatic tourbillon movement that weighs just 8g and is just 6.3mm tall. Watch engineering at this level has to be super-fine to allow for varied layers of precious materials and the undulations of different finishing techniques, such as sandblasting and polishing. It helps that engineers and designers work in tandem at Richard Mille.

Cécile Guenat moodboard

Guenat’s inspirations displayed on the moodboards pinned to her studio walls.

(Image credit: Julien T Hamon)

‘We have been able to distil different cultures and codes wonderfully, and my fine jewellery expertise has enabled us to enhance forms and combine materials,’ Guenat explains. You can see it in the distinct chevron motif that recurs across the Talisman dials. ‘It was an abstract way of playing with mother of pearl.’ There’s also tension between the polished gleam of gold and the brilliance of diamonds, so that the complex and varied geometric lines create ‘a harmonious whole’.

There are ten variations of the Talisman, though there was only meant to be one. ‘I realised that, as a woman, I like being offered a choice,’ Guenat says. Each iteration includes diamonds of various sizes, shimmering slivers of mother of pearl, glossy onyx detailing and stealthy black sapphires. The variety of setting patterns explain why Guenat’s office walls are lined with the frames of chocolate-box interiors: ‘They inspire the gem-setting paths,’ she explains.

Guenat is a shy character. Yet her design vision is perfectly at ease with the tough-tech brand’s avant-garde aesthetic. ‘I was tremendously excited to work with the specificity of a watch case and the technical beauty within. If you think about it, the lifelike quality of a mechanical object that beats out the rhythm of our daily lives is perpetually stimulating.’

As originally featured in the November 2018 issue of Wallpaper*

For more information, visit the Richard Mille website

Caragh McKay is a contributing editor at Wallpaper* and was watches & jewellery director at the magazine between 2011 and 2019. Caragh’s current remit is cross-cultural and her recent stories include the curious tale of how Muhammad Ali met his poetic match in Robert Burns and how a Martin Scorsese Martin film revived a forgotten Osage art.

With contributions from