APRIL 26, 2022

LIVING COLOUR: THE LIFE AND LEGACY OF
ALAIN SILBERSTEIN

If his wildly popular collaborations with Louis Erard are anything to go by, French design maestro Alain Silberstein has his foot on the gas and is picking up speed.

WORDS FELIX SCHOLZ

The story of Alain Silberstein — the man and the eponymous watch brand — is fascinating, even from a distance. I’m lucky to be hearing it firsthand (albeit over Zoom). Silberstein, the architect turned watch designer, has a storied, and to my mind, underappreciated place in the history of watches. Much of our conversation is spent looking backwards and ruminating on his legacy. It would be fair to think that, after some 30-odd years in and around the business of watches, Silberstein is approaching the endgame. But I’m not so sure. The increasing cadence of perfectly pitched collaborations, along with Silberstein’s own infectious energy, suggests that we can expect plenty of bold, primary colored designs for years to come.

The riot of color and complication that is the Krono Bauhaus is perhaps Alain Silberstein’s most famous design

If you’re not overly familiar with the oeuvre of Silberstein, don’t worry, it isn’t hard to miss. The cylindrical cases and straight lugs have an architectural air to them, which is fitting as Silberstein billed himself as the “Architecte Horloger,” a nod to his professional training as an architect. And while the cases may be bold, they don’t hold a candle to the dials. The hands are simple geometric shapes in primary colors. There’s a sense of whimsy in the dials and indicators — for example, the day of the week indicator on the Krono Bauhaus is represented by an expressive face, with Monday being the saddest and Friday and the weekends the happiest. This light-hearted approach belies the seriousness of Silberstein’s work. The designer was a pioneer, not just in his use of form, color and material (Silberstein was making sapphire watches in the ’90s, long before Richard Mille et al.), but also in terms of having a single clear vision that defined his work. As we shall see, the seeds of this style were born when Silberstein was a young man, and it remains consistent throughout his life. 

This openworked, sapphire-cased tourbillon was ahead of its time

Minutes into my interview, I’m immediately struck by how open Alain is — this is not the guarded dance of a discussion with a corporate executive, with pre-approved questions and the like. It’s a broad, free-flowing conversation that moves from drawing inspiration from Australian petroglyphs to the challenges of after-sales service. But towards the end of my interview, after we’ve covered off his early years, the impact of his brand’s bankruptcy, and his return to watchmaking’s spotlight thanks to partnerships with MB&F and Louis Erard, one word comes up that clearly describes why Alain Silberstein has spent the better part of his life dedicated to his colorful craft. I asked Alain if he would describe his watchmaking journey as a roller-coaster, and he politely disagreed. “If I have to give only one word, it’s resilience. I never changed my style and design, and my vision about the art of watchmaking. Any experience, even the bad, you have to understand that something good could come from it.”

Distinctive colors on the dial of this 2016 MB&F LM1 are unmistakably Silberstein

Beginning of a Renaissance

For a while there, it looked like the watches of Alain Silberstein were the product of a very particular time and that his unique vision of colorful dials and bold cases was a quirk of ’80s and ’90s watchmaking. But, in recent years, Silberstein has found common ground with other freethinkers in the world of horology. MB&F has partnered with Silberstein on the HM2.2 Black Box (in 2009) as well as the LM1 Silberstein (in 2016). Max Büsser, no stranger to walking his own path, is unequivocal on Silberstein’s impact, or rather what that impact should have been: “Alain’s work should have been a game changer in our industry, but unfortunately, most did not understand his work at the time. His group of die-hard aficionados, of which I have been for over 25 years, never grew large enough to impact the rest of the industry. As a single creator, he dreamt up more innovative concepts, whilst always staying faithful to his love of Bauhaus, than most large brands put together. It is heartwarming that finally the world is understanding that his unique style is so precious and so groundbreaking.” 

Given this context, it makes sense that a long-time advocate of creative partnerships, as Büsser is, would want to work with Silberstein. “All collaborations are about working with people I admire and about mixing our strong creative attitudes. A collab cannot be a business or economic goal if you want the result to be truly innovative and the journey to be harmonious. The goal has to be a great product — and I have realized over the years that the journey is as important as the result. What came out of our two collabs is, first of all, the immense pleasure of working with Alain, and secondly, great (and very limited) products that neither of us could have invented alone.” 

Büsser also has a theory as to why Silberstein’s unique approach has been resonating in recent years. “Many watch collectors I know are getting increasingly bored — new colored dials, new colored bezels, new sizes … all based on the good old pieces we all know so well already. How can they continue to feel much enthusiasm? Alain’s work is like an electric shock. A large part of his newly found legitimacy stems from the fact that he has been doing it for over 30 years! It’s unfortunate but if a young creator came up with this style today, many people wouldn’t be paying attention. History and consistency help you gather legitimacy.” 

The critically acclaimed triptych of collaborative pieces designed by Silberstein and made by Louis Erard represents increased appreciation for the designer’s style and approach

Max Büsser’s sentiment is echoed by another of Silberstein’s collaborative partners, Manuel Emch of Louis Erard. When asked about the multi-generational appeal of Silberstein’s colorful watches, Emch said, “In a way, his designs are very technical, but at the same time, very playful, with a colorful approach. It is unique because watchmaking is all about [being] very serious when it comes to the habillage, the dials and hands. They’re always functional. There’s always this sort of functional reflection about it. And then Alain really brought this kind of post-Bauhaus Memphis style. It was very unique, very colorful, very geometric, and very playful.”

ALAIN SILBERSTEIN × ART THEORY

At this point, it’s worth considering where Alain’s famously distinctive style was developed. You should not be surprised to learn that Silberstein’s seemingly fun and free use of color, shape and smiley face is based on serious art theory and academia. Often Silberstein’s work and design is referred to as Bauhaus, but as Silberstein explains, that’s only part of the story — and one that got twisted up over time.

“Now, there’s a big misunderstanding related to Bauhaus. Bauhaus was a school of design in the early ’20s in Germany. Why am I always honoring the Bauhaus school of design in my craftsmanship? When I was an art student in Paris, I went to a prep school, where I met my wife. This school taught with the same curriculum as the Bauhaus school in Germany, based on the basic foundation of architecture, geometry, color, everything. This year was my founding year, and at that time, nobody talked about Bauhaus. It was only years after [that] I discovered that the teaching was the same as … the Bauhaus school. So, when I was first interviewed by journalists, they asked me about my influence, I always said Bauhaus. There is no Bauhaus style in design, no, [it is the] teaching style. This teaching gave me the ability to find myself, and this is why I named my first chronograph the Krono Bauhaus to honor the teaching I went through. Today … I feel more free to say that, in the long run, I’m very close to the Memphis Group design from the ’80s.”

Three shapes and three colors define Silberstein’s look

One Bauhaus graduate, in particular, has had a lasting impact on Silberstein’s watchmaking — the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky. “He was quite a visionary. He tried to find a relationship between primary geometric shapes, so a circle, square, triangle, and the primary colors, red, yellow and blue. So he gives his students a questionnaire with the three shapes and says, ‘please choose the color which will match with these shapes,’ with the hopes of getting some statistical relationship between color and shape. But in fact nobody listened. So I took the test myself, and I made my own choice of colors.” This is why, on Silberstein’s watches, seconds are yellow, hours are red and minutes are blue. What seems like whimsy actually has deep ties into serious art and color theory. 

The theoretical underpinnings of Alain Silberstein’s approach also meant that his watches didn’t’t chase trends, at least when it came to design, and over the decades, Silberstein has been a witness to great change within the watch industry. He debuted his brand at the tail end of the Quartz Revolution, unquestionably an exciting era for mechanical watchmaking, especially if you were an independent atelier who saw timepieces in a different light. And as mechanical watchmaking experienced its renaissance in the ’90s, that star of Silberstein rose and became a global brand, with particularly strong followings in sophisticated markets like Japan and Italy. 

But in 2012, after a decade of watchmaking obsessed with excess — an era Silberstein describes as “Baroque” — Alain Silberstein’s brand declared bankruptcy. The 10-year anniversary of this life-changing event is drawing close and, when I asked Alain about it, it is immediately apparent that the impacts of this time still weigh on him. Silberstein explains the atmosphere at that time, a time with an intense pressure to develop exclusive movements (it was around this time when anxiety around the availability of ETA ébauches was at its peak). On top of this, the watch Internet had not matured into the powerful force it is today. If these things were not the case, perhaps the story of Alain Silberstein the brand might be different, but it was not to be so. 

While it’s clear Silberstein has many feelings of failure about this time, his outlook remains positive. Resilience, and the power of something good to emerge from hardship, is the lesson Silberstein eventually took from the demise of his brand. 

Alain Silberstein’s Key Designs 

Krono Bauhaus 

Released in 1987, Alain Silberstein’s debut watch, the Krono Bauhaus, really set the tone for the French designer’s visual language and clear brand identity with its monobloc, simple cylindric case and lugs. Powered by a Valjoux 7761, it hinted at the playful designs that would come to define the brand. One key difference between early Krono Bauhaus models and later versions of the watch are the stock chrono pushers, which were later replaced with shaped versions.

Cases wrapped in crocodile, like this Krono Bauhaus are another example of Silberstein’s bold creative vision

Krono Bauhaus 2

In 1993, the Krono Bauhaus 2 was released, representing a natural evolution from the original. The pushers were now an assortment of circle, square and triangle, and the primary handset had become more confident and even more Memphis-inspired. On top of that, the case now clocked in at 40mm. It was this watch that would prove to be one of Silberstein’s most enduring and popular models. 

Colorful, sure, but also surprisingly wearable thanks to the 40mm case with short lugs

Marine Krono

Building on the frame of the Krono Bauhaus, the Marine variant, unsurprisingly, makes the watch suitable for fun under the waves, with a more water resistant case, a unidirectional bezel and often some sub-aquatic details, like sea stars as running seconds. A dive watch is a natural line extension for many brands, but on Silberstein’s Marine line, the tension between form and function is more pronounced than ever. 

 Diving, Silberstein style. A profile of the Marine Krono

Bolido 

The rectangular Bolido manages to be more conservative in feel than Silberstein’s round watches, despite its unusual shape. Typically made in titanium or steel, and released in a range of color treatments from black to bronze, and in chronograph or time only versions, it’s a very of-its-time watch inspired by Deco watch design. 

Rectangular watches are often seen as plain, even boring, affairs. Not a complaint you can level at the Bolido

Tourbillon Volant

Alain Silberstein’s Tourbillon Volant was released in the early 2000s, using the familiar bezel-less backloading 40mm case, but with an attractive, somewhat industrially finished tourbillon movement, exclusive to Alain Silberstein and based on the Progress 6361. As with most of Silberstein’s watches, it was released in a dizzying array of limited editions and materials. The core model appears to have been made in 500 pieces, but the wilder, more artistic designs were often made in small limited edition runs of nine. 

Tourbillon Volant (Credit: Sotheby's)

Collecting Silberstein Today

It should come as no surprise that, these days, higher profiles equal higher prices, and Alain Silberstein, a colorful creative who has stayed true to his design ethos for decades, is one of the more surprising passengers on the hype train. Louis Erard’s second collaborative series, released in 2021, was a triptych of watches, each available in 178 pieces, with retail prices of CHF 3,500 for the day-date model and CHF 4,500 for the monopusher chronograph. These watches were a smash hit, and even now, almost a year after their announcement, these watches are being listed at thousands of dollars above retails. While Alain Silberstein’s own watches are not yet common fixtures on the auction scene, they do show up, with occasionally surprising results. In 2021, Sotheby’s Hong Kong sold a semi-skeletonized Tourbillon Volant, made in 2004 as an edition of nine, for HKD 252,000, or roughly USD 32,000. In 2010, back when tourbillons were the complication to have, Sotheby’s UK sold the exact same watch, achieving GBP 15,000 for it, or USD 28,650 in today’s money. Even factoring in currency fluctuation over the last decade, it’s a strong result for what, by most expert accounts, would be seen as a fairly niche watch.

An even starker example of this upward trend (involving an even more out-there watch) is offered by Phillips, who sold another Alain Silberstein tourbillon from 2004, this time a bright titanium model with an underwater motif. The first time this theoretical dive watch went under the hammer was in 2017, where it pulled HKD 150,000 (USD 22,220 today). When the same watch sold again in June 2021, it was a different story. This time it netted HKD 882,000 (or USD 112,540). Even accounting for the possibility of a heated battle between two passionate, specialized collectors, this sort of increase is remarkable. Sure, it’s not the same level of mania that we see for run-of-the-mill steel sports watches, but it’s a long way from the deep discount doldrums most defunct brands from the ’80s can expect. 

Marine Tourbillon, “Black Sea” (Credit: Phillips)

While we’re seeing strong secondary prices for recent Alain Silberstein collabs, as well as the occasional exceptional results for rare, highly complicated pieces, the majority of Silberstein’s watches are still well priced, even if the numbers are creeping up year-on-year. And while there’s a cornucopia of wild and frankly wacky options out there, we expect Silberstein’s most recognizable designs, like the Krono Bauhaus and the Arkitek, will be the models that attract the most interest from collectors. 

The Future of Silberstein

The seeds for Silberstein’s renaissance were sown early, a few years before his brand shut up shop. Instrumental in this process was none other than MB&F. Says Silberstein, “We started collaborating in watchmaking before the closure of my company. I started with Max Büsser in 2009. So, from time to time over the years, I made some other collaborations, and the LM1 I did — which took almost three years with Max — was an amazing success. Since then, the value of my brand on the secondary market has risen.” 

And, along with the value of Silberstein’s work, his reputation for a distinct and consistent approach to watch design has grown. Manuel Emch from Louis Erard speculates, “Just maybe, this is also what the market needs today. Today we talk all about the same products, which are always the same colors, shapes, materials. There is a similarity to the watches today, and somehow Alain is totally out of this, I would say, conventional tradition. He brings in this explosion of colors and shapes, and that makes him very different. And I think it’s refreshing, even if it’s something that he already did for the last 30 years, but it’s somehow refreshing and spot-on with the needs of today.”

Silberstein’s recent collaborative efforts feel fresh and relevant, which is remarkable given how much his approach to watch design has stayed the same. And after speaking with the man, I can see that it isn’t just the love of primary colors and theory-inspired whimsy that has remained constant. Resilient is the right word to use — Silberstein has borne firsthand witness to the at-times remarkable vicissitudes of the watch business with a particularly Gallic sense of aplomb, one which has served Silberstein well, and will continue to do so, for many years to come. 

Felix Scholz

Felix Scholz has spent the last decade covering watches from his home in Australia. Given this, it's surprising that he still struggles with time zones. Over the years he's become a firm believer that less is more when it comes to watch design — except when a rainbow bezel is involved. He's written for numerous titles including Hodinkee, GQ, A Collected Man and more. These days he looks after the Australian edition of Revolution and takes a break from writing about watches to talk about them, as the co-host of OT: The Podcast.

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