Watchmaking in France

Alain Silberstein: the musings of a lifelong visionary


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January 2017

Alain Silberstein: the musings of a lifelong visionary

If the most expert Japanese collectors or Singaporean aficionados know of Besançon, it’s without doubt the ‘fault’ of Alain Silberstein. And yet the watchmaker and maverick is far too independent to become the spokesperson for a region in which he shone but with which he has never been naturally associated for his own watchmaking work.


oday, Alain Silberstein has put his brand on hold, but in the eyes of any watch connoisseur, he remains one of the founders of the “new watchmaking”.

It’s a term that didn’t even exist in 1987 when he presented his works in Basel for the first time. What a shock that was!

An aesthetic shock, with the appearance of a never-before-seen design with thick, round watches, the use of primary colours – red, blue, yellow – forbidden by all the other watchmakers, and a technical shock, with the introduction of tourbillons that at the time were reserved for a few hyper-traditional brands.

The “watchmaking architect”, as he describes himself, has shaken up the sleepy world of watchmaking and opened the way for all manner of experimentation, proving that it is possible to adapt mechanical watches, which had become technically obsolete, to cutting-edge modernity.

What does this visionary make of the current situation in watchmaking, confronted with a crisis that seems to represent a paradigm shift?

Alain Silberstein
Alain Silberstein 

He explains: “The Swiss made the mistake of trying to create global watches that looked the same in every country, when they should have prioritised a local approach, as I did at the time in Japan where I had up to 22 boutiques. But having said that, there will always be both mass-produced and artisanal products, a little like with haute couture and with wine, as can be seen with garage wines.”

“But the problem for independent watchmakers today is that there aren’t any more independent distributors. Watchmaking relied on independent retailers, partners who physically knew their market. Today, for independent designers, there are little more than a dozen representatives who fit this description.”

“That said, I’m paying close attention to what’s happening with crowdfunding. I find it much healthier than working with financiers and intermediaries. Crowdfunding establishes a form of co-creation, a sharing of ideas and dreams. The proof is in the number of incredible new ideas that are being born while everyone else is obsessing over the crisis. The desire to create watches is certainly there, led by young people.”

“For me, another striking phenomenon is the disappearance of the notion of the brand in favour of the notion of the product, of creating capsule collections. We’re witnessing a turbulent and fascinating time. Several brands are yet to realise that their clientele is ageing alongside them. All the master plans have gone out of the window. Amazon, for example, is hurtling through the luxury market, taking margins of 12%, which risks rocking the boat in many areas. It jeopardises the practice of multiplying the margins by a factor of 7 or 8, as the major brands still do. The notion of service is once again a priority, having been largely neglected during the commercial madness of the last few decades.”

“And then in terms of style, what I find most interesting is the sort of new classicism that’s made a comeback, in the sense that the balance has been restored between movement and style, which is a move away from the terribly show-off period we’ve just been through. We saw too many crazy products that didn’t work. Now, we’re returning to true watchmaking values that welcome all sorts of experiments in form, but do so with respect: respect for the customer, for watchmaking values, and for service.”

When asked whether he intends to return to watchmaking, he answers mysteriously, “I would like to attract the third generation.”

Clearly, we’ll be hearing more from Alain Silberstein.

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