On French Culture, Watchmaking, and Design

Currently I am in college studying design, art history, and eventually watchmaking. What you are about to read is my first long form academic essay discussing my thoughts on the current state of French design and watchmaking. This may be one to skip, it is 22.5 pages without the bibliography but I did put a lot of work into this and it may be my favorite project I have ever completed. This essay has gone through many stages of brainstorming, researching, and drafts and has been evaluated by my current professor, and I am immensely proud to write in such length and detail about a subject I am this passionate about. One final note, there are many social issues about design and watchmaking that many want to ignore, I want to mention that I am ignoring simply in the interest of time. Someday I should write about these social issues in design and European culture but I would want to dedicate a separate longer essay to that topic. That’s all, enjoy!

French history is absolutely fascinating, and nothing is more interesting than their history with design, art, and their culture with watchmaking. Since at least King Louis XIV the decorative arts have been celebrated in France, or at least they were, France was incredibly important for Europe’s watchmaking scene, and for a time has had a culture of design. However, countries like Germany or the Scandinavian countries have a much more unified design based off of the needs of their cultures. At a first glance the French history of design, decorative arts, and watchmaking is gone, or at least too scattered to make a real impact. That said, this topic is much more complicated than that, in this essay I will look at French and wider European history in an attempt to decipher and define a distinct design language in France that may not be visible at a first glance. 

Design as a description is incredibly vague, John Heskett wrote it better than anyone in his article Past, Present, and Future in Design and Industry. “Designers may know what they mean by design, but their understanding often is based on experiential knowledge, which is not easily articulated or communicated.” (Heskett 18) Heskett then provides a language example, “Design is when designers design a design to produce a design.” By now the very word is starting to lose all meaning, and all that’s been proven is the versatility of the word. 

While it’s a difficult word to define, this concept is important all of human history, the chair, one uses to sit in, the bike one uses to commute, and the laptop I am using to type on were all designed at some point, thus design, as a culture, must theoretically be the backbone of human society. However, designers, in their pursuit of creating an easier or more beautiful life tend to make one another irrelevant. In the progression of this journal, Heskett writes about an anthropologist, Lauriston Sharp, who discusses Yir Yoront society, how they designed stone axes, which were very significant to this old society, and the eventual fall of this society due to iron axes introduced by Christion missionaries. That is an old example of progress being made, designers out designing each other, and unfortunately in this situation being spread through conquest. 

More recently with the Bauhaus in the 1920s, design as a culture changed again. Before the Bauhaus, design was more of a fine art and objects like furniture were a bit more one of one and artisanal, but the school taught students how to create prototypes and make products for the common person. “The role of the industrial artist went through several stages of evolution in the nineteenth century and was given renewed impetus at the Bauhaus in the 1920s, which emphasized the artist-designer as a creator of ideal prototypes for industrial productions.” (Heskett 23) The Bauhaus did change design massively, and despite it being a German design movement has proven to be incredibly influential in France’s own design history. 

All of a sudden, an artist’s job was to provide or create objects for the better of larger society. This wasn’t the most popular perspective, Heskett writes that artists like John Ruskin and William Morris passionately opposed integrating art into industry, but their handcrafted artwork “fell into nostalgia” because of the efficiency of what the Bauhaus offered. Heskett conclude his piece strong: “Should designers fail to adapt, new competencies will emerge to fill the gap left behind. The evidence of history is that design, as a basic human ability, is constantly required to adapt and redefine itself to meet the needs of its time. We should expect no less for our age.” (Heskett 26) 

Is that what happened to French decorative arts? France does have art movements of their own, Art Nouveau was the international art style of France and Belgium at the end of the 19th century, John Keefe writes for the Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago in The art Nouveau in Belgium and France, 1885-1915. The Art Nouveau movement sought to abandon “the excesses and vulgarities of middle-class Victorian taste.” (Keefe, 3) Art Nouveau was inspired by ancient Egyptian, Islamic, Chinese, and Greek design elements, and most importantly for watches, helped to usher in the age of Art Déco. 

Art Déco coexisted with the Bauhaus movement but was vastly different. These movements are equally appreciated today, but Art Déco was an evolution, one to be appreciated with streamline sleek shapes, and vivid colors. (Hunter 4) Art Déco: The Last Hurrah paints an almost disappointing picture; Art Déco may have been the “Proud and final chapter in the history of French decorative arts”. I hold this idea very dearly, but that doesn’t mean it is fully correct. While Art Déco may have been the last unified French design style, it was not the last time French culture and design will intersect. In the 50s French furniture design gained massive popularity and is still sticking around today. 

Two notable designers from this era are Jean Prouvé, and Charlotte Perriand. These designers have similar backgrounds in architecture and moved on to designing furniture, and the respective artists designs in themselves have some similarities. (Wikipedia) Both designers’ pieces have natural wood featured prominently for table tops and arm rests. However, this is where similarities end. Charlotte Perriand’s designs where more avant-garde, featuring fewer natural colors, less symmetry, but sticking to modern ideas of affordable art for the normal person. Both of their designs were very fitting for the time but have aged. Today I would describe them as chic vintage, with colorful steel and the strongly featured asymmetry. I have no doubt these designer artists and their similarities almost entirely defined the aesthetic of the 50s and 60s, much like the Germans defined the 20s and the Italians will go on to define the 80s with the Memphis Group.

The reasons for these design differences are certainly just distinct preferences and sensibilities but may also have risen from their education. Charlotte Perriand went to “L’École de L’Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs” and afterwards to many department store workshops on industrial design, while Jean Prouvé was largely self-taught. (Wikipedia) Interestingly Perriand refused to work with any architect, besides Prouvé or herself and would eventually become an official advisor for industrial design for the Japanese government. Going deeper into Prouvé, we learn that he was not a big fan of the Bauhaus school and preferred different technical methods of working with steel. The final interesting philosophy that Prouvé displayed was his lack of a specific aesthetic, just looking at both his and Perriand’s pieces this becomes apparent in its own beautiful way. Many designer artists become well known because of their aesthetic, so is there some cultural reason that these French designers becomes known for their craftsmanship and technique rather than their own unique aesthetic? 

In discussing design and the mass industry that is formed around it, it’s essential to bring up the artist, or laborer and the rights they were given. France has a proud history of protecting these rights. This is evident in the French two-hour lunch break, or the copywrite battles many French artists have had due to industry. Artists don’t usually get paid what they deserve unless they are known almost worldwide. As stated earlier there were many artists that didn’t approve of rising industry, Katie Scott writes in the beginning of Art and Industry a Contradictory Union: Authors, Rights and Copyrights during the Consulat: “To Invoke the relationship of art and industry is, in some senses, to buck the trend of modern historiography in so far as mass production, a key term for historians of the industrial revolution, is that which art seems implacably to set its face. Typically, art stands for unique objects, superior quality, high prices and elite markets–industry for multiples, inferior quality, low prices, and mass markets.” So maybe French design is simply the lack of a unified design language, an appreciation for individual arts.

There is one more topic I believe to be important in this current context, and that is a piece called Why a Culture of Design in France Never Took Off written by Stéphane Laurent. Yes, I started this journey off being hopeful, and I still am, but this piece is very conclusive and does not have the most optimistic title. Laurent lists off many arguments, one is as follows: “In fact, in France we are still eager to explain design, while our neighbors are exploring and developing all of its refined and elaborated facets.” (Laurent 73) As demonstrated earlier, defining design is difficult all on its own even for just one person, how can we expect an entire country to define “design”. Laurent then writes about the fine arts, writing the same words I have found in every article. 

France has simply been much more welcoming to fine arts and independent artists than designers and “simple” design work, the fine arts were more exclusive and unique, and even thought to be better quality than any industrialized art. Laurent’s conclusion is the most interesting part to me, “Why, then, did such a successful exhibition on Art Déco get organized abroad? France undoubtedly has a long way to go to discover coherent presentation of design for the general public, as well as to meet international standards for achieving outstanding promotion and development of our cultural domain.” So, it looks like I haven’t really started but I have hit a dead end. Not only is it nearly impossible to truly define “design” but French culture is too focused on fine art to have their own design language. I would give up, but there is still more to discover.

                  During and after both of the World Wars other cultures were building up their own design languages. America had the Museum of Modern Art, and in the United States effort to combat communism after WWII they sent MoMA exhibits all around the world. Paris was the only city that saw the entire exhibit, and in all of their French-ness the people were skeptical. Gay McDonalds Selling the American Dream: MoMA, Industrial Design and Post-War France is an excellent piece displaying the globalism that France fights so hard against. 

The MoMA isn’t only for fine arts, there are exhibits for architecture, even at least one old Apple Mac, McDonalds writes on page 400: “The inclusion of such a diverse array of non-high art goods precipitated a controversy, not only amongst some elements of the French press.” This exhibit featured innovations such as Tupperware, today we don’t see plastic food storage containers as an art, but in 1955 when America wanted to glorify their own lifestyle, Tupperware must seem like a miracle. However, McDonalds notes that it really was a minority of the French press that disapproved of the MoMA. “…this format encouraged many French critics to use the exhibition as a kind of rosetta stone or key to deciphering American civilization. “ (McDonalds, 408) This exhibition did indeed help the French figure out American culture, at the end of this piece McDonalds writes: “Yet by proclaiming American mastery in the realm of mass culture or the technical arts, on socio-cultural grounds, one could reasonably assert that even receptive critics had effectively sealed off the possibility of American artists attaining mastery in the so-called ‘high arts’ of painting and sculpture, which by implication, remained the exclusive preserve of the French.” (McDonalds 409) I do have some more reasoning for the lack of a unified French design language, but first it is important to bring up one of the most important movements in industrial design history, the Bauhaus. 

Germany was the bad guy in Europe at this time, and even before WWI their unification was proving to be direct competition with France. The Bauhaus was about as far from appreciated in France as it could get, just due to Germany being controlled by fascism the Bauhaus itself was seen in a negative light. Roxane Jubert and John Cullars wrote an article for The MIT Press called The Bauhaus Context: Typography and Graphic Design in France. One important quote from this article that sums up the entire Bauhaus rise and fall is at the very end: “That was put very clearly, which reminds us that the typography of the Bauhaus and the new typography—whether one advocates them or not—are not the monsters that some have wanted to make of them. The monster was elsewhere. And it killed the Bauhaus.” (Jubert 80) This is just the conclusion of a great read, the article has many great examples of French thought towards the Bauhaus, specifically this quote from Jérôme Peignot: “As to what concerns the creation of printing house type, one may not omit the nefarious role of the Bauhaus.” Claude Mediavilla said the Bauhaus “…may be considered an artificial artistic movement.” Eventually Jubert writes that the Bauhaus was seen as a fascist movement. If I were to go deeper into the Bauhaus, I would describe that many of the students and professors were somewhat communist, or that the school had to relocate and reopen three times because the Nazi party did not like the Bauhaus school, but from the French perspective these harsh critiques do unfortunately hold water. 

From 1924-1944 Berlin was home to an early graphic design journal, going by the name of Gebrauchsgrafik. The original editor was a man named H. K. Frenzel, and under him the monthly journal reported on global advertisements, certain global economies and most importantly the new design-based industry. Unfortunately, during World War II the design journal was shifted to spread German propaganda, as Jeremy Aynsley writes in “Gebrauchsgrafik” as an Early Graphic Design Journal, 1924-1938. “Following the formation of the Ministry, the structures by which rights to exhibition and practice could be administered were announced. On September 1933, the Reichskulturkammer Gesetz (Reich Culture Chambers Law) established the Reichs-ministers ability to organize those active in the areas under his jurisdiction into corporate bodies (Koerperschaften). The ministry Aynsley writes about is called the “Reichsministeriüm für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda” in English: the Reich Ministry for People’s Enlightenment and Propaganda. The Gebrauchsgrafik journal was assimilated into this ministry and considering this was a journal on graphic design, and the Bauhaus had many teachings on typography, it doesn’t seem illogical to assume the Bauhaus was just another tool of the Nazis. Add to that the French artist culture and their disdain for mass produced industry, it does feel annoyingly right that even with outside influence French culture does not equate to a design language like the Scandinavian or Germanic countries have. The odd part is the French history with watchmaking.

The watchmaking industry’s history really is a story for the ages. In Watchmaking: A Case Study in Enterprise and Change David S. Landes writes: “There are few industries so independent of place as the manufacture of timepieces. The materials employed are so light in proportion to value that they may easily be transported over any distance without significantly increasing the cost of production, the more so as the raw material itself is worth little by comparison with the finished product. The value of a watch is in the labor that made it.” (Landes 2) In the mechanical watch’s heyday, that labor jumped all over Europe for religious reasons and economic reasons alike, weathered storms of global competition and is finally making a comeback to be a little of what it once was. It all began in France, and the south of Germany. To set the right tone, these first timepieces weren’t even watches, they were large clocks for the home or to stand in the middle of town. 

Eventually during the 16th century with advances in technology, (moving gears around, winding springs tighter etc.) the first wearable watches were created, they were to be hung around the neck or clipped to a waistcoat button. Landes describes these first timepieces as “…of crude manufacture, originally of iron, and [these] earliest watchmakers tended to be recruited from those who had already learned to work with iron…” (Landes 2) Eventually these tradespeople became more specialized in this work, and thus watchmaking became an industry. 

This will be more important later, but these first timepieces, similar to todays were only good for aristocrats and nobles to show off their wealth. In 1625 the idea of watchmaking was strictly German, but by the 17th century France overtook the Prussians. French timepieces were now artistic, many of these timepieces were simple, but artists in Paris and Blois have at this point mastered the art of painting on enamel. Meanwhile in Germany the timepieces were fragile and complicated. “…they outdid themselves in ingenuity, producing clocks and watches that went beyond ordinary timekeeping to provide calendar and astronomical indications. These masterpieces of complexity were the ornaments of palaces, a joy to princes; but they were necessarily costly and, more serious, were hard to maintain.” (Landes 4) This is hardly the stereotype of German engineering today, but if you are to put yourself in the shoes of the French or the British really does make Germanies advancements before WWI all the more unnerving. Speaking of the British, it was the 17thcentury that gave them a start in this new industry. 

They were early on innovations such as the balance spring, a little coil in a watch that keeps everything a bit more even, and reducing the watch movement’s loss of time from 30 minutes a day to as little as five, the British focused more on how their timepieces worked, rather than how they looked. (Landes, 5) The other issue that France ran into was the Edict of Nantes in 1594 (Stacey 10/16) Many of the watchmakers in France were Huguenots and when they had to leave much of the French watchmaking talent seamed to disappear. French watchmaking fell into a bit of a rut and British watchmaking fully took over. Throughout the rest of the 17th and 18th centuries the British had all but a monopoly on watchmaking, but that doesn’t mean the French weren’t trying. British watches were chunky, using tried and tested, and to their credit, accuracy insuring technology. Meanwhile the French were sacrificing a bit of accuracy for thinness, until the use of modern escapements at least. The British were slow to adapt but little did they know, it wasn’t the French they had to look out for but the Swiss. 

At this point in Swiss watchmaking, their watches were good enough relative to the competition but had a long way to go before the Swiss watch became as prestigious as it is today. As for how the Swiss became a key player in the game so quickly, their economy was poor, many had low wages and thus was mostly based off of mercenaries and farm laborers, add to this the Protestants who fled from France and other primarily Catholic areas, Swiss laborers learned how to make a watch quickly, and soon after started to innovate more on the tested formula. (Landes, 16) But before the Swiss would truly climb on top, they still had to beat the British and they weren’t good enough for that yet. “…They complained that numerous master watchmakers had become nothing better than commercial intermediaries, presenting and selling Swiss watches as their own work and even signing their names to them.” (Landes 17) Swiss watchmaking was so new, and it doesn’t really matter how quickly the skill was learned, Swiss labor was still cheap. 

Here is where watchmaking gets really tangled and busy, many people offer up new ways to make watches more accurate, like Pierre Frédéric Ingold with the general idea of machining parts in the 1840s. This idea will be important to the Swiss eventually, but it doesn’t catch on just yet. The British are too stuck in their ways, the Swiss don’t see it as beneficial, yet, and the French are astounded that someone would try to industrialize such a precious form of art. (Landes 19-23) In 1825, however, a man named Adrien Phillippe introduces the idea of using the watch crown to wind the movement, this impressed the Swiss and brought them one step closer to overtaking the British. The key moment in the history of watchmaking was in 1876, where watchmakers from all over the world met in Philadelphia to basically compare notes. 

Pierre Lamard writes a detailed overview of this specific conference in: Worldwide Phenomenon and Transfers of Technology: Swiss and French Watchmaking in the Face of the Centennial Exhibition of Philadelphia (1876). By the 1870s America was becoming a real threat, they were producing so many watches, and more importantly selling them but no one in Europe really understood what the big deal was. Or at least they knew about America’s techniques of using machines to make all of the tiny parts and having all of these parts be relatively interchangeable but the European watch companies just didn’t believe that these methods were actually good. This basic idea was brought upon the British, Swiss, and the French a mere 30 years ago but now in the 1870s the Swiss had developed 

pretty good relations with the Americans and wanted to maintain it. At first it was only the French that wanted to be known in America, and the Swiss were still a bit cold to the idea but eventually the Swiss caved and sent thirty exhibitors and twenty manufacturers. (Lamard 33-34) One of the men sent over went by the name of Theodore Gribi, and he discovered that the tools the American’s were using were actually quite impressive, even writing “On arriving at Locle (Switzerland) I showed this watch to one of our several adjusters … who took it apart. At the end of several days, he came to me and said, literally, I am astonished the result is incredible … One can understand by this example how it is that an American watch should be preferred to a Swiss watch.” (Gribi, Lamard 35) There was skepticism, especially among the French, “They wrote it was not possible to substitute hand made final work by machine tools even if that was true in most industrial areas.” (Lamard 36) but eventually in these late 1800s watches were machine made, maybe final bits of finishing were done by hand. 

By now I feel we are modern enough in European history that some small detail can be clarified, in Landes’ conclusion he explains that the Swiss textile industry was in the German regions, (Landes, 32) which explains why virtually every single Swiss watch uses French words to note the features and specifications of watches, words like: chronométre, or tachymétre. Landes also tries to explain why the British industry failed but the Swiss succeeded, but before that, the “Quartz Crisis” needs to be brought up. The 1970s is home to, in my opinion, the most important and tragic event in all of watchmaking’s history. Don’t worry, everything turns out okay in the end for the Swiss, but watchmaking has never been the same. 

At this point the watchmaking industry is really only between the Swiss, and the Japanese. Cécile Aguillame’s The Swiss Watchmaking Industry Faced with Globalization in the 1970s, has a tight focus on what is known as the “Quartz Crisis” the story goes that the Japanese needed to win once and for all, one killer product that would dominate the industry. Then, at that time, the Japanese watch company Seiko released the first quartz powered watch for sale in the 1970s, and then everything came tumbling down. A quartz watch is powered by a battery and has a little motherboard and a vibrating quartz crystal. This makes even the cheapest quartz watch more accurate than the absolute best quality mechanical watch and thus, Switzerland’s watch industry was all but lost with many of the names shifting to a more luxurious status, and many more going completely under. However, this crisis was a lot more complicated. 

For instance, Augillame reminds us that just a few months before the “Quartz Crisis” many manufacturers were already complaining about a lack of personnel to staff their workshops (Aguillame 190) Aguillame continues and explains that many of the Swiss didn’t even believe that the electronic wristwatch would succeed. By the 1960s, as Aguillame explains, the Swiss watch industry was incredibly disorganized. Most of the companies that exist create only one specific part of the watch, and the final brand that designs and puts out the watch usually didn’t control who sold the watch and how it was advertised. (Aguillame 192-195) Add to that these businesses were also mostly family run and not everyone is good at management positions the entire industry was very fragile and not susceptible to change. The Swiss did create the first quartz watch, but it was the Japanese that sold the first quartz watches, further the Americans were back in business creating digital watches. The problem, Aguillame claims, was the Swiss need for perfection. It was only in the 1980s when the Swiss had a successful quartz watch in the Swatch. These first Swatches were so perfect that many of them still work perfectly, provided the battery is replaced but they were too late. Aguillame finishes his essay reminding us that none of this is so simple, and that the Swiss watch industry is very much alive. 

Now if we go back and read Landes’ conclusion there is a lot of stress on the culture in Switzerland, specifically certain parts of the French speaking Switzerland. The Swiss have had to export resources since the early 19th century, at the very least, and finally Landes asks the question, “Is the cultural matrix still intact?” (Landes 39) Through the complex history of watchmaking, I learned that the French were very consistent with their disapproval of industry, and I am reminded that these changes take place over decades, longer than I have been alive. All of this history is fine, but what is the state of French watchmaking today?

Watchmaking is having a real comeback, Japan has gone from having one watch brand to at least three, German watchmaking is better than ever, and American watchmaking is having a rebirth. Most importantly, for this context, French watchmaking is having their own moment. Using some French specific examples, there is a term in the greater watch community for small upstart brands, “Micro-Brands”. Many of these brands have the opportunity to evolve into “Indie-Brands.” Brands like Baltic, a French brand founded around 2015, and Yema, another French brand that was around since the 40s, then failed, then a few years ago came back and is now manufacturing their own movements, are just two incredible examples of independent watch brands from France. Further, an incredibly promising project from a brand founded just around 2019, going by the name of Buci-Paris is one of the best examples of an excellent “Micro-brand”, side note, the founder is currently one of the first women of color to be in an executive position in the European watchmaking scene. As if none of that was enough, even very traditional French luxury brands have been making some incredible watches over the past few years. 

The three largest French brands with a stake in watchmaking currently are LVMH (Louis Vuitton), Hermes, and Cartier. Louis Vuitton was founded in 1854 and in 1987 merged with a champagne company, Moët & Chandon to form the venerable LVMH. This group has a long history of messy acquisitions and has only recently gained good faith in the eyes of the watch enthusiast. During the terror of the Quartz Crisis many old watch brands went under, LVMH bought one of these historic brands, Tag Heuer. After this acquisition Tag Heuer became sort of a joke, offering seemingly overpriced watches with cheap components, a legendary brand was thought to have collapsed. However, after nearly four decades of failing to catch the enthusiast’s eye, Tag Heuer, and the wider LVMH group hit their stride. Tag Heuer’s collection today offers many great racing inspired pieces for the watch and car enthusiast, and Louis Vuitton’s own watch collection has transitioned from less of a cash grab and more of a piece of the watchmaking culture. The other brand of note in LVMH’s portfolio is BVLGARI, their watches are fashion first, and thus not as loved in the wider watch community yet but have been getting better and more innovative with watches like the Octo Finissimo being the world’s thinnest watch for a while or the Serpenti being a jewelry focused snake shaped watch that in my opinion is quite beautiful. The final thing I want to touch on with Louis Vuitton is the LVMH Watch Week, which is a festival LVMH puts on to honor the watchmaking culture, showcase their properties work and even boost young watchmakers work on a large stage. 

Another big term in the watch community is the idea of the “fashion watch”. This term refers to a watch that is created only to look good, often sold by prestigious fashion brands but made in offshore factories using off the shelf or poorly made components, but still sold at the brands normal rates. All three of these brands has been at some point accused of being a fashion watch brand, and only recently has been getting the respect they deserve. The most recent success story has been Hermès. The luxury leather goods and textiles has been around since 1873 but only recently have they been catching the eye of the enthusiast. I first heard about Hermès through their collaboration with Apple making luxury watch straps for the Apple Watch, but recently has been making some really impressive watches. Their most recent watch is called the Hermès HO8, and the design is very sporty and modern, but the entirety of their catalogue is still very dressy and it’s a bit obvious that they are still one foot in one foot out on the fashion watch train. 

The most historic of this trio is Cartier. Founded in 1847 they started as a jewelry brand and released their first watch in 1914, it was a lady’s watch seeing as the wristwatch wasn’t popular for men until World War I, but later in 1919 Cartier released the famous Tank. From here one Cartier will release many sport watches with a very Art Déco aesthetic, among them is my personal favorite, the Santos Du Cartier, which was originally a pilots watch. Cartier’s style is truly legendary but for a while, since the quartz crisis, many enthusiasts ignored this French watchmaker. Cartier is more or less independent as a jeweler and a watchmaker although their quartz movements may be from another manufacturer, their website isn’t clear. The detail that many enthusiasts point to for their arguments that Cartier is strictly a fashion watch brand is their lack of transparency. While it is easy to find details on Cartier’s watch movements on 3rd party sites, they don’t exactly advertise the reference number for the movements used in their watches, even if many of their mechanical movements are in house. These design houses are incredible prestigious but lack a unified design language between them that many German design houses share. This is again pointing to the earlier assertion that French culture is still defining what design is, and not define what they need to design, or the disdain for a unified industry standard.

Smaller watch brands are pushing the entire industry forward but have a lot less heritage to draw on. Yema is one of the older independent micro-brands / indie-brands in the industry at the moment, originally founded in 1948 but shutting down eventually to be brought back to life in the mid to late 2010s. Their modern collection focuses almost entirely on the sport watch, and their little heritage. Their dive watch, the Superman, is iconic for its crown-bezel locking technology that was super useful back when dive watches themselves were useful. One step smaller is the indie-brand Baltic. Baltic has a split focus on dress watches and sport watches, and while not having any heritage of their own, they do draw on other’s forgotten heritage to make some beautiful low-cost vintage style watches. Up until last month the brand has used mostly Japanese movements but has just released a dress watch with a Swiss caliber. Before that they did release an impressive one of one perpetual calendar watch (a complication that will keep an accurate track of the date month and year for ~999 years accounting for leap years) for a charity watch auction. Finally I have to bring up Buci-Paris who remains one of my favorite watchmakers in theory, unfortunately their one collection they have released is not quite to my tastes. Unfortunately, these three brands also have scattered designs with little similarities between them, making it difficult to define modern French design.

I do have one more lead to go on, and that is a somewhat close examination of a couple of more recent French industrial designers. Alain Silberstein started his career as an interior designer, but since 1987 has become the watch industry’s sweetheart. Alain Silberstein is still alive, so there is an unsurprising lack of academic writings on him. However, there are a couple interviews from two watch enthusiast journalist platforms. Jon Bues from Hodinkee and Felix Scholz from Grail Watch both have had the opportunity of a lifetime to interview Silberstein, and both have concluded that Alain Silberstein is just getting started. Through these interviews I have learned that Alain Silberstein follows the Bauhaus teachings, and the design style of the Memphis Group from the 80s. 

A quick online search reveals that the Memphis Group was an Italian design group, and they basically formed all the stereotypes of the design of the 1980s. A longer online search however reveals that the Memphis Group like many modern art movements were fragile and not well liked in their time. The story goes an architect named Ettore Sottsass wanted to discuss the future of design and invited a group of young designers and architects all to be in one room and create the design language for the modern age. (Wikipedia) The group was born in 1980, and Sottsass left in 1985 before the group would disband fully in 1987. During the groups life however they made a lasting impact, many critics at the time described the Memphis Group’s furniture as loathed or “a shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price.” (Wikipedia) This design of asymmetry and contrasting colors does live on and did define the design of the 80s. Most importantly, however, plenty of its influence does live on in the watchmaking and clock designs of Alain Silberstein.

In his interview with Grail Watch Silberstein claims that the Bauhaus is a teaching style, not a design style. That is a perspective I have not thought about before, but it makes sense. Many designers have tried to reinterpret Bauhaus design, but you can’t reinterpret design from a teaching style. In both his interviews with Grail Watch and Hodinkee Silberstein reveals his love for the Bauhaus graduate Wassily Kandinsky, who set up a questionnaire to determine that connection between primary colors and shapes. Kandinsky didn’t find any conclusive connection, but when Alain Silberstein first started designing watches, he took the questionnaire and determined his own personal connection. Silberstein’s designs feature the yellow circle, red triangle, and blue square prominently, and not just those shapes but the variations, typically the hands on his watches include a yellow “squiggle” a red triangle and a blue rectangle. Alain Silberstein typically designs watches for the most expensive of luxury brands, the type that call their watches “Horological Machines.” Even today this suggests that French designers still prefer one-of-a-kind art for art’s sake, not for industry. 

As if his perspective needed anymore explaining Alain Silberstein even compares himself to sculptors and painters in the Hodinkee interview: “Do you ask a painter or a sculptor who is their customer? I am designing watches for me. And it’s a true quest for harmony in the watch. There is a moment when you are doing a painting or a sculpture when you have to stop.” Alain Silberstein is a brilliant designer, but he’s more of a fine artist. 

The other French design I want to highlight is a legend among any professional designer, Philippe Starck. Phillippe Starck as a household name started when he worked at Adidas (Wikipedia) but founded his own design firm and nowadays designs Yachts and luxury hotels. I am not fond of this kind of designer and honestly when looking at his designs I can’t really find much in common between them, but he is a designer from France and has a long career of stereotypical luxury design. It is interesting, however, that he designed the interior of the International Space Stations housing module, and disappointing that he worked with a 3D software company to design a chair with the help of Artificial Intelligence. This is par for the course of successful designers, designing stuff for the sake of being cool rather than for the sake of being useful, which goes against my personal idea of design, but it again supports the argument that throughout much of French culture, design for industry and for general use has been, and unfortunately still is looked down on.

It seems that time is up, and I have not answered the question I posed. At least, just reading essays and sections of books isn’t enough. I hope that being immersed in Paris will lead to new discoveries, what do their buildings look like, what is their current fashion, and it’s not like Paris doesn’t have plenty of decorative design museums. For now, it feels. conclusive that trying to fit the enormity of French artistry isn’t so simple, and there isn’t an incredibly visible style. One could say that today many French watches happen to be sport watches, but there are also many dress watches from these French brands. Alain Silberstein has taken influence from and Italian design movement, and a painter from the Bauhaus movement, whereas Phillippe Starck has been designing yachts and luxury hotels, hardly for the common “citoyen” if you ask me. 

The last great design movement from France was the Art Déco, which I truly adore but it wasn’t until this project that I learned the Art Déco came from France in the first place. As with any and all cultures, this isn’t forever. Maybe, with the rise of new French watch companies they will stop trying to define design, and actually design. Or maybe design in itself will fall out of fashion, for any combination of reasons be it social, political, or economic. As of right now, French design might be defined by individual artists, underdogs if you will, who refuse to give into the big bad industry, constantly making beautiful art that doesn’t quite fall in line with each other, a lack of a unified design language. Or maybe this design has been in front of my face this entire time and I have been geographically too far away to see it.


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