The boundaries of Tom Mason’s working life might appear small. His average days are spent hunched over a bench in a 12 sq ft workshop where he guides the surgically-honed tips of his specialist tools through the minuscule, high-tech universe found in the mechanism of every Richard Mille wristwatch.

But, when you are providing a unique service to the owners of second-hand timepieces that routinely sell for more than £1m, there has to be a glamorous side, too.

“Before Covid, I used to go around the world quite a lot, servicing and repairing watches in clients’ homes,” says Mason. “I once travelled 9,000 miles for one particular collector because he needed to have a strap changed.”

The former cabinet maker and mechanical engineer switched to horology at 26, studying his craft at Birmingham’s School of Jewellery for three years — and then coolly landed the job with Swiss watchmaker Richard Mille that has undoubtedly made him the envy of many of his peers.

“I was taken on as a very junior watchmaker, but was immediately sent to the Richard Mille manufacture in Switzerland for three-and-a-half months of really extensive, specialist training,” he says. “The job comes with huge responsibility and, to be frank, I was absolutely terrified at first. Even when I started 11 years ago, the values of the various models were already incredibly high.”

Watchmaker Tom Mason services clients’ pieces at Richard Mille’s Mayfair operation
Tom Mason’s average days are spent hunched over a bench but there is a glamorous side, too © Anna Gordon for the FT

A perfunctory trawl of pre-owned Richard Mille watches for sale confirms that even entry level pieces are seldom listed at less than £100,000, with the majority of sellers asking many multiples of that depending on the rarity of the model.

Inevitably, buying such watches second hand from an unknown source is a potential minefield, which is why Peter Harrison, Richard Mille’s chief executive for Emea, decided to open the brand’s first authorised, pre-owned dealership in Europe and appoint Mason as its sole watchmaker.

Harrison’s daughter, Tilly, runs the discreet operation in the heart of London’s Mayfair, which is known simply as Ninety Mount Street. Its aim is to provide potential Richard Mille owners with the confidence that they are buying the genuine article and, equally importantly, that it has not in the past been butchered by a well-meaning repairer lacking the specialist knowledge and equipment that these watches demand.

“The first Richard Mille prototypes were only made in 2000,” says Harrison. “But, as the years went by, we began to receive more and more requests for pre-owned, discontinued or difficult-to-obtain models and noticed that the more historical pieces were growing in importance and attracting interest from serious collectors. Really early models, such as the RM-02 and 03, were made in tiny numbers and are now very sought-after.

“We get calls from around the world from people looking for the hard-to-find and unusual pieces, such as the carbon TPT armour-cased RM 53-01 made with polo player Pablo MacDonough, or the RM68-01 tourbillon with a movement painted by graffiti artist Cyril Kongo — it cost $685,000 new and can now fetch as much as $2m, but we get asked for it quite frequently.”

Watchmaker Tom Mason services clients’ pieces at Richard Mille’s Mayfair operation
Mason has drawers full of tools of movement holders, most of which are designed for use with only one specific model © Anna Gordon for the FT

Harrison says collectors appreciate the peace of mind that comes with buying pre-owned pieces direct from the brand, not least because they can be confident that the watch will look as good within as it does on the outside.

“The construction of a Richard Mille watch and the materials used in it are unlike any other, which means that third-party intervention by inexperienced watchmakers can be disastrous,” explains Mason.

“One of my great dreads is to open up a watch that has come in for service or repair and to discover that someone has caused serious damage by taking it apart.”

Mason has drawers full of tools which include more than 200 movement holders, most of which are designed for use with only one specific model. “The spline screws that hold the watches together are unique, and even the tweezers I use all have to be made from boxwood,” he says. “It’s common to see PVD-coated titanium base plates that have been damaged simply as a result of someone picking them up with a tool made from steel.”

The cost of a service and case refurbishment of a Richard Mille model such as an RM-011 chronograph comes in at about £4,000, a sum that owners of inexpensive quartz watches who balk at spending £5 on a new battery might find difficult to comprehend.

That, however, can be merely the start of things.

“I think the biggest job I’ve had to deal with was putting right the fallout from an Instagram photo that went wrong — the owner had placed their red gold RM-11 on the ledge of balcony in order to capture the scenic backdrop. Someone walked past, knocked it off and watched in horror as it crashed to the road, several stories below.

“The owner got it back looking as good as new — but the repair bill was around £35,000.”

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