Alain Silberstein: The Legacy and Vision

« La meilleure façon de parler de ce qu’on aime et d’en parler légèrement » Albert Camus

Once again, a Frenchman who is nicknamed the "enfant terrible," following Jean-Paul Gaultier in fashion, Alain Silberstein in watches. 

This nickname likely stems from his nonconformity to norms, his rebellion against nonsense, and his naivety in swimming against the current in a highly connoted and closed-off field, which allowed him to carve out a prominent place in the world of watchmaking.

A child who plays with the codes of design and watchmaking to create his own vision of watches.

With the Courstesy of Alain Silberstein

"The architect of watches," these two seemingly antagonistic terms, were attributed to him because of his education.
At first glance, nothing would have led us to believe that an interior architect had a place in the watchmaking world. Yet, the two professions converge in many ways, and Alain Silberstein proves it to us.

Let's study his conception of timepieces, his philosophy, his design, and this singular character who makes no effort to change his French accent when he speaks English.

The Frenchman studied at an art school in Paris, which based its teaching on the Bauhaus school's concept. He specialized in interior architecture and opened his own studio. How does one become an independent watchmaker without any training in watchmaking?

First, Silberstein will tell you that it takes time.

As his slogan indicates: « le vrai bonheur est d’avoir sa passion pour métier » (true happiness is having your passion as a profession); it is the sharing of his passion that opened doors for him, a passion shared by many business leaders and artisans who enabled him to access this profession.

Secondly, it is indeed his skills acquired during his training and professionalization that allowed him to achieve his ambition.

An architect calls upon several specialists to complete the final design of their project. His expertise lies in effectively communicating with suppliers and professionals from different branches to realize his idea and adapt to technical constraints.
As a watch designer, he will apply this mastery to his associated field. Through his friendships, he also trained in watchmaking for several years, allowing him to evolve his design.

Regarding his beginnings, they are quite atypical and anecdotal, reflecting the character. In an interview with Philippe Toledano, he recounts how it started designing watches by chance for an exhibition of young designers organized by the French Ministry of Culture. It was the time of the launch of the Swatch watch in Switzerland. On his stand, he presented furniture prototypes... and a watch. Despite the watch's great success with the public, no French watchmaking company agreed to manufacture it. Instead, a French furniture company with a watchmaking operation in Hong Kong agreed to manufacture the first watches, which were equipped with Japanese Myota movements. ETA's agent for France suggested using Swiss quartz movements, and introduced him to the catalog of the recently acquired Valjoux manufacture. The result was his first chronograph, equipped with the Valjoux 7750 movement, which was presented at his first Basel Fair in 1987.

The '80s also bring us back to the independent watchmakers' bench, which he faced at the Basel fair in 1987. It was a turning point in his interpretation of watchmaking. Facing George Daniels, Svend Anderson, Vincent Calabrese, or Franck Muller, he understood the potential of this horological art and its mechanisms.

This era marks the resurgence of mechanical watches, thanks to industrialization and standardization. How to make oneself known in the pre-internet era? Silberstein and others benefited from the brilliant idea of Augusto Veroni, who founded the first specialized watch magazine "Orologi" in 1987. Following the same model as car magazines in the '30s, which contributed to the global success of the automobile industry, Veroni propelled the independents featured in his magazine.

Alain Silberstein, the steel tourbillon volant with original red leather tool box and blue strap -


Alain Silberstein designs with philosophy.

Essentialist, for Silberstein, a watch must fulfill its utilitarian functions: the dial must be readable, and the case comfortable to wear.
He advocates for the masterpieces of Abraham Breguet in the late 18th century, with pocket watches whose clarity and readability are explicitly worked into their design. Thus, he makes a very strong gesture by placing on the back certain complications he deems unnecessary in daily life, such as the month or the year.

Second act of resistance in the age of consumerism: a watch has no obsolescence.
It is a symbolic object, often with a story. We all have a memory or anecdote about our first watch, comparable to a first love story. Each watch is a witness to the intimate time of each person who wore it. The notion of passing time is, of course, mentioned in Silberstein's discourse. "Time is eternal." He also evokes different "time zones," when we are children under our parents' care, then when we become adults and independent. The watch, once again, plays a symbolic role in the transition to the age of reason, often given as a gift on this occasion.

I would add that time is not uniform and is not perceived the same way. When we are children, we perceive time much longer than when we age, where it seems to accelerate as we go along. This reflection imminently refers to the surrealist painting "The Persistence of Memory" by Dalí. Alain Silberstein also speaks of this very French way of never saying the exact time but rather approximately: "it's around 2:00 PM," as if we wish to master our time. A lost cause.
The poetry of a watch condenses in its movement, dial and hands, reflecting in the glass the eternity of turning time.

Furthermore, the design of a watch for Silberstein primarily involves dialogue. Not only with specialists but also with his clients, enthusiasts, or collectors. Opening up to the views, advice, and criticisms of others allows him to evolve his object and optimize his design.

This very democratic approach is dear to him and defines his creative process.

Alain Silberstein Chronometer

Alain Silberstein, Laurent Picciotto Collection, sapphire crystal triple calendar wristwatch with moon phases, limited to 10 pieces only, with the courtesy of Phillips


"The hardest part for an artist is knowing when to stop their work."

For Silberstein, it is a quest for harmony between colors, shapes, and materials.
This pursuit echoes the reflection carried by painter Kandinsky, who was part of the Bauhaus movement. He wanted to highlight his theory that there was a reciprocity between shapes and colors. To this end, he created a questionnaire for his students, associating three primary colors (yellow, red, and blue) with three basic shapes (circle, triangle, and square), asking them to match each color with a shape to verify his theory: yellow, a vibrant and sharp color for the triangle and its angular form; red, an earthy and important color with the square; and the blue circle for its depth. His hypothesis was never verified but inspired Silberstein's logo.

Among his other influences is, of course, the Bauhaus movement, which was the foundation of his art school education in Paris. To recall, Bauhaus was the name of an art and architecture school founded in 1919 in Germany by Walter Gropius, whose manifesto summarized the rapprochement of all arts (architecture, painting, sculpture) to craftsmanship, becoming by extension an artistic movement.
We can easily associate this movement with the work of some independents today, such as Philippe Dufour, who still uses period tools to create unique, handcrafted pieces.

Among his influences and inspirations is the Memphis design that appeared in the '80s in Italy, characterized by its scattered shapes and bright colors, born in Milan by a group of architects and designers who wanted to shake up and break away from the monotony of the design of the time.

The Memphis design style, with the courtesy of hommes.Studio

A side note: the yellow second hand on Silberstein's watches is a tribute to Roger Tallon, a French creator and designer, who designed the TGV and the Mach 2000 for LIP.

Like a painter whose tools are brushes and colors, Albert Silberstein uses components and what suppliers can offer him as tools and starting points for his creation. He creates from constraints. (Like an architect). His collaborations with Svend Andersen also testify to his interest in movements and their development.

Alain Silberstein

Alain Silberstein watch

Alain Silberstein, stainless steel perpetual calendar wristwatch, with the courtesy of Phillips

His approach aligns with Abraham Breguet in the 18th century, where design holds as much importance as mechanics and influences each other.
For Silberstein, a watch is a work of art in its own right due to its philosophical concept, the artistic movements that inspire him to create, and the artisanal techniques used on these dials, such as enameling, whose secrets were taught by his friend Mr. Michel Vermot, elevating timepieces to true unique and artistic pieces.

After 25 years of independence, Silberstein closed his company in 2012 for various reasons. But the artist is still present on the scene thanks to numerous fruitful collaborations such as with Maximilian Büsser for MB&F or Manuel Emch for Louis Erard.

Today, Alain Silberstein has become a reference in the world of design, evidenced by a conference given at the AER Bourgogne Franche-Comté to demonstrate how design is a powerful tool for innovation.

And if you ask him how to appreciate art or design, well, in good French fashion, Alain Silberstein will tell you it's a feeling, a simple intuition. It's like good wine; it’s not judged by its label but appreciated by its taste.

Alain Silberstein: Interview

How did your passion for watchmaking begin?

En dessinant des montres, tout simplement. La mesure du temps est un univers à part entière qui s’inscrit dans le temps long de l’histoire humaine, où chaque génération s’approprie une façon de lire le temps qui passe en créant des « garde-temps », où le passé inspire le futur.
By simply drawing watches. The measurement of time is a universe in itself that is inscribed in the long span of human history, where each generation adopts a way of reading the passing time by creating "timepieces," where the past inspires the future.

What difficulties did you face at the beginning of your career?

Architecte d’intérieur et graphiste de formation, je n’ai pas rencontré de difficultés particulières à créer mes premières montres. Il m’a juste fallu maîtriser un changement d’échelle, passer du millimètre au dixième de millimètre.
L’architecte est un « maître d’oeuvre » qui sait s’entourer des meilleurs professionnels – aussi passionnés que lui dans leur spécialité – pour que son dessin deviennent une réalité.
La véritable difficulté a été d’identifier dans les différents pays les points de vente qui comprenaient mes créations.
As an interior architect and graphic designer by training, I did not encounter any particular difficulties in creating my first watches. I just had to master a change in scale, moving from the millimeter to the tenth of a millimeter. An architect is a « maître d’oeuvre » who knows how to surround himself with the best professionals – as passionate as he is in their specialty – to make his drawing a reality.

The real difficulty was identifying the points of sale in different countries that understood my creations.

What is your creative process for designing a watch?

J’imagine toujours une petite histoire où ma montre va jouer un rôle majeur, puis je cherche le mouvement mécanique le plus adapté à cette histoire. Malheureusement, le choix est restreint. C’est pourquoi je préfère aujourd’hui commencer par dessiner des mouvements qui seront les véritables moteurs de mes histoires à venir.
I always imagine a little story where my watch will play a major role, then I look for the mechanical movement that best suits this story. Unfortunately, the choice is limited. That’s why today I prefer to start by designing movements that will be the true engines of my future stories.

What do you think of the contemporary watchmaking industry?

Il y en a pour tous les goûts !
There’s something for everyone!

What would the perfect watch be, in your opinion?

Pour moi, une montre est une oeuvre d’art, comme un tableau ou une sculpture. Le propre d’une oeuvre d'art est de nos émouvoir. Difficile d’exprimer par des mots pourquoi nous sommes émus… ou pas, par telle ou telle création artistique.
Voici par exemple trois montres qui m’inspirent, ne me demandez pas pourquoi : Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk Date, Bulgari Octo Finissimo, Audemars Piguet [Re]Master02.
For me, a watch is a work of art, like a painting or a sculpture. The essence of a work of art is to move us. It’s difficult to express in words why we are moved... or not, by a particular artistic creation. Here are, for example, three watches that inspire me, don't ask me why: Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk Date, Bulgari Octo Finissimo, Audemars Piguet [Re]Master02.

Are you a collector? If so, what criteria do you use to build your collection?

Je ne suis pas du tout collectionneur mais j’aime m’entourer de beaux objets qui illuminent mon quotidien.
I am not a collector at all, but I like to surround myself with beautiful objects that illuminate my daily life.

Author: Fiona Galati