The language of truth

December 2003

Alain Silberstein is, and always will be a man that speaks his mind. Talking with him, as we did on this occasion for over three hours, means touching on numerous subjects and theories that emanate from his verbal stream of consciousness. However, he never loses his train of thought and he always returns to his innate love of creativity and his independence.

Europa Star: Alain Silberstein, you sign your communication with the term 'Architecte Horloger'. What does this mean? That you were an architect before being a watchmaker?

Alain Silberstein: Actually, I am an architect by training, an architect of interior space to be precise. It was only later that I became interested in watchmaking. In a certain manner, you could say that I am still doing 'interior architecture'...

ES: In what way?

AS: A classical mechanical movement is really descriptive geometry. Look, for example, at this masterpiece by Oudin (Alain Silberstein thumbs through the Antiquorum catalogue for the Beyer auction that he picks up from my desk). This is an exceptional piece of work on the architecture itself of the movement. It is a geometric reflection based on the circle. One part of watchmaking is 'decadent': that which favours decoration and ornamentation over function. From a historical point of view, decoration in watchmaking is from Geneva. I rather adhere to the high tradition of French classicism. Take another look at this pocket watch by Oudin. It is a work of art in readability. All classic watchmaking from the 17th and 18th Centuries privileged clarity and readability. In reducing the size of pocket watches in order to fit around the wrist, watchmakers moved all the indications that had been on both the front and the back of the larger watches to now fit in the small dial. The result was dials that are quite unreadable. Most of the chronographs on the market, with their three small counters, do not display any research into readability, or ease of adjusting or even ergonometric design. They have forgotten about the user. In some ways, they have moved backwards. Why leave the monopoly for readability to quartz watches?

ES: There are however, certain exceptions to what you are describing...

AS: Of course, there are some exceptions. One of the best examples of design and functional innovation can be seen in timepieces by Lange & Söhne. To adjust the movement, you pull on the crown and all the hands go to zero, exactly as in... quartz movements. It is wonderful!

ES: Well, coming back to you, Alain Silberstein, how would you define your watch practices and principles?

AS: It is not just because a person is a watchmaker than he can make a watch. A watch is a movement, OK, but it is also a case, a dial, hands, bracelet, etc. There are many different aspects and crafts involved in creating a watch. I consider myself as a kind of orchestra leader or a movie director who has the knowledge of these indispensable crafts but who does not necessarily practice them intimately himself, in the same way that the orchestra leader does not need to be an expert in all the instruments that he conducts. I am here to conduct all these elements in total harmony right up to the final product. And, to this end, one must forget all the different aspects in order to concentrate on feeling just one emotion. I am there to transform the dream into reality.

ES: Yet, these dreams are very particular. There is the Silberstein 'touch' that we recognize immediately.

AS: This 'touch', as you call it, comes from a certain number of fixed rules. Some are elementary: on all my watches, I always incorporate the second. Because of the second, the watch lives and we feel it functioning. A watch must also have the date in a window since the dates that use hands are unreadable - and my clientele is beginning to need glasses to read (smiles) as they age. Another rule: all functions must be useful, which does not exclude the poetic aspect. Still yet another rule: only work with elementary shapes, such as the circle, the square. Little by little, a style is thus formed. There is nothing rigid in this. One can then innovate or change while maintaining the essential strong characteristics: for me they are primary colours, the golden rule, the shape of the hands. With this as a base, we can evolve and change while remaining faithful to our principles.

ES: We get the impression, however, that you have moved towards more purity in your pieces over the years. Is this an accurate assessment?

AS: Yes, absolutely. My watches today evoke a purer design than when I began in 1985-86. But my former models remain contemporary. The Classic Collection has been around since 1987, the Bolido chronograph since 1991. In fact, what really impassions me is the product. The product must tell a story. In this 'story', nothing must be gratuitous otherwise it is superfluous. But, importantly, this does not mean that we ignore decoration. The decoration is one of the component parts of the work. However, sometimes I let myself go, if you can say that, and create something more baroque. And in that sense, we go full blast into baroque, such as my enamelled dragons. They are among the most complex pieces ever crafted in enamel, and have been created thanks to certain collaborations that I have established throughout the years.

ES: In fact, you seem to think more like a contemporary artist than a traditional watchmaker. Does this thinking translate into the commercialization of your products?

AS: I made some limited series collections since the beginning because I have always wanted to make each of my clients a unique client. At that time, around 1985, limited series production was not very common in the watch industry. I was inspired by the world of art, lithographs, and multiple series. I applied the same logic to watches, and offered a certificate of authenticity with each one, which ensured the traceability of my production. Once the watch is sold by a retailer, he is out of the picture. A new 'for life' relationship develops between the watch owner and the fabricant. It is this relationship that I favour. That is also where the fundamental importance of after-sales service enters the picture. And, when I say 'after-sales service', this goes beyond the simple technical maintenance of the piece. It is a true relationship that I seek. You must treat the after-sales service as if you were in a marriage. For me, a watch exists from the moment it belongs to someone and that person starts adjusting it for himself. Before that, it is nothing more than an inanimate object.

ES: Does the fact that you are a resolute independent make your life easier or more difficult?

AS: Being independent already has a definite advantage. For the most part, my retailers are also independents and usually head up family run businesses. We thus all speak the same language. We have also built up personal relationships based on trust. The most extraordinary example for me is Japan. In that nation, there is a very personalized approach that has allowed me to envision long-term relationships with retailers. A Japanese is going to choose me for what I do in particular because he considers that what comes from the exterior enriches him. The contrary to this example is the United States. There, it is they who know everything, or so they think, and it is they who tell you what you have to do. There is absolutely no future with what you call the 'trade' in the United States. By this I do not mean the individual clients themselves who appreciate my products - I know that because I had 20 sales points in the USA. But the 'trade' does not care about the client. It cares only about the profit that it can make off the back of the client. In addition, there is no trust. Relationships in the USA are based on contracts, lawyers, etc. It is like the TV series Dallas. On top of that, we can add the problem of commissions for the salespeople, which changes everything. On the other hand, in Japan...

ES: You're what's called a 'living treasure'...

AS: In Japan, there is an extraordinary respect for craftsmanship and artisans as there is nowhere else in the world. Japan has taught me a lot. The quality is the basic virtue. Quality is more important than everything and concerns all aspects of a product and its environment. The Japanese also taught me, for example, the importance of packaging. Here we create packaging boxes that, once empty, we don't know what to do with them. In Japan, everything is transformable, reusable. Nothing is superfluous or throwaway. There is an ethic of creation that is a real school, even sometimes a school of wisdom. The Japanese have been my best clients since 1987, and since then we have mutually supported each other. With the large groups, the notion of personal relationships is dead and buried. There is no more human contact. There is no direct interaction. It is the quality of human relationships that enriches me and that enriches us all.

ES: Do you think that a journey like yours is still possible today?

AS: When I began, I did not have any real money, only small amounts here and there. But, at that time, you could still rent a nine square-metre space at the Basel Fair. Today, it is the triumph of 'cold cash'. The price to launch a product is exorbitant. Also, I began my journey in the Far West of watchmaking, where pioneers were relaunching the mechanical movement. I had the opportunity to meet real visionaries, men like Jean-Claude Biver of Blancpain or Claude-Daniel Proellochs of Vacheron Constantin... There were real exchanges, real emulation. Doors were still partially open. Today, the large groups have locked all the entrances. Now, watchmaking belongs to the marketing gurus who grew up in the same soap company. They apply the same formula. I don't know if my journey would stillbe possible today...

ES: How many watches do you sell per year?

AS: Currently, I sell 2,000 watches a year. We are a team of 20 people, based in Besançon in France. Alain Silberstein has therefore become a veritable brand but our type of production and our individualized manner of distribution limits us. I imagine that I could reach an annual maximum production of 4,000 watches, which would represent a very good ratio between supply and demand. Beyond that, it would mean another type of business, and that does not interest me.

ES: Besides Japan, what are your best markets?

AS: We are present in about a hundred stores around the world. About 30% of our sales are in Europe, in fifty stores. About 60% to 70% of production is exported, of which 30% goes to Asia, where we have 20 sales points in Japan alone. There are some current trends that are very interesting, and these involve galleries of watchmaking art. I have just returned from Kuala Lumpur, where we organized a joint exhibition with Michel Parmigiani and Richard Mille. It was a watch exhibition that allowed us to fully showcase the watches displayed. In a general manner, we are seeing a reawakening in watch distribution. Retailers have now understood that it is imperative to 'protect themselves' by having at least 20% to 30% of their sales with independents. The Italians, who are always on top of the trends, understand this very well. I increased my sales 136% last year in Italy.

ES: Doesn't this 'reawakening' correspond to a change in generations?

AS: Yes, perfectly. We are witnessing a radical transformation in consumer habits. I think that we are gradually moving away from the absolute sacred nature of the Brand, since so many are illegitimate. The new generation of consumers, who have grown up with brands, are fully aware of this. In the future, there will be two possible ways: the manufacturers on one side and the artisan-creators on the other. These will be the only two groups to have the necessary legitimacy. In this period of major changes that we are traversing, no one can say what watchmaking will be like in three years. But, there will always be a demand for fine watches, on condition that we give them the language of truth.

This watch with its crowns and pushers integrated is fitted with a small automatic chronograph movement with a column wheel (FP1185), stainless steel case, anti-glare sapphire crystal, water-resistant to 100 metres. Limited edition of 500 numbered watches.