Archives & heritage

Should we colourise the past?


May 2024

Should we colourise the past?

A kind reader* recently sent us this photograph, which shows Europa Star’s founder, our ancestor Hugo Buchser, in a new light. While we’re used to seeing this image from his 1920s trip to India in its original black and white, our reader had it colourised. This sparked a lively debate in our editorial office: should we colourise the past?


he question might seem trivial, but the implications are perhaps more profound than they first appear. It’s true that in the past people saw their own reality in colour, just as we do today. However, any photographic representation of this reality would have been seen in black and white. The world beyond our own narrow field of vision, the real world as it existed elsewhere – any representation of the world that did not depend on our own colour vision, would have been perceived solely in black and white.

But when we look at this same image today, is it better to view it as it was viewed at the time, in black and white, or colourise it to make it “closer to true reality”?

Where does the “truth” of this photograph lie? Is it more “authentic” once colourised, despite the uncertainties that entails? Was the merchant’s jacket really blue, or was it perhaps brown? Was the horn of the phonograph beige, pink, or maybe ivory? We’ll never know.

The question may seem futile, yet at the time this photo was taken, it served as proof of reality. That was how the outside world asserted its reality – through photography, in black and white. Colour was the preserve of painting, a self-evidently “unrealistic” transposition of reality.

So where does that leave us today? Is this colourised photo “closer” to reality than the original? Or is the more real version the one left in its original state, as contemporaries would have seen it in their photo album? Would anyone think of colourising a Charlie Chaplin film? Wouldn’t we lose something precious: the ability to experience these films as viewers of the time did, and better understand their perception of the world in black and white?

The same question arises in watchmaking, at least for the most discerning collectors. How far should we “colourise” or restore a vintage watch? Should we clean its dial? Erase its flaws? Polish out the scratches on its case? Replace some of the movement components? Optimise it? “Boost” it like a Fiat 500 with a turbo-charged engine? Or is it ultimately better to get it in good working order while endeavouring to preserve its original condition, with all its weight of years?

In other words, is it better to have an old, creased black-and-white photograph or a glorious digital restoration? The former carries the weight of its history; it has been passed from hand to hand, been gazed upon by countless pairs of eyes. The latter is attractive but lacks depth. It’s no longer the original; it’s a digitised, colourised, updated copy, perfectly Instagram-ready yet empty and devoid of history.

Should we colourise the past?

*The reader, Aashdhin K. Billimoria, is himself the author of a new “Comprehensive Guide to Vintage Swiss Watches”, richly illustrated with photographs – in colour! Contact (IG): aashdin.billimoria

The Europa Star Newsletter