Grail Watch 1: Ressence × Alain Silberstein “Carpe Diem”By Wei Koh
You know you’ve done something right when Max Büsser, the founder of MB&F and the man I consider the grand architect of independent watchmaking culture, wants to buy your watch. It happened as Max and I were on the escalator in Geneva’s Globus department store. We’d just had lunch, and Max was there to purchase a plant for his office. I was there to buy pillows, as the ones in my friend Eleonor Picciotto’s apartment where I was ensconced, were not adequately fluffy for Shanghainese princess-like sensitivity. I showed Max the design of my very first Grail Watch, a collaboration between Alain Silberstein and Ressence in a 36-piece limited edition. He scrutinized it for a moment, then turned to me and said, “Save piece number one for me.”
Wait. Freeze frame. What did he just say? Holy shit. Mind blown. In order to understand how massive a moment this was for me, you need to know just exactly who Max Büsser is. And unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past 20 years, lifting rocks with your balls, howling at the moon engaged in transcendental meditation, you’ll know that when it comes to independent watchmaking, Max Büsser is THE mother**cking man.
Like Malcom McLaren did with the Sex Pistols, Büsser assembled a group of quirky, insular rebels and made them stars. In his capacity as CEO of Harry Winston Timepieces, he put them on stage, shined a spotlight on them with his Opus Project and changed the world forever. You could say that the success today of the entire independent watch industry would not have happened without Max and Opus. But that was just Part One of the magnum opus that is Büsser’s life. Because, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, he contains multitudes. In Parte Deux, he created his own brand, MB&F, which has since become one of the hottest independent watch brands on the planet. And I mean scorching. Seriously. Want empirical evidence? Last year, Büsser released the M.A.D. Edition 1, a 2,000-Swiss-franc watch that was meant to be a thank you to his friends and family. Despite its modest original price tag, in November, a unique piece that Büsser had donated to my breast cancer charity auction, The Pink Dial Project, fetched USD 172,000. Today, a standard M.A.D. 1 retails for around USD 30,000 on the secondary market. Perhaps most impressive of all, MB&F is the only brand I know that has two totally legit polar identities: ultra modern and avant-garde as represented by his Horological Machines, and sublimely old school as expressed by his Legacy Machines. This is what I mean by multitudes.
Anyway, the point is, I was so overwhelmed with gratitude that one of the individuals I admired most wanted to buy my watch. All I could do was stammer, “Yes, of course.” Which brings me to the watch itself. I knew that for the very first Grail Watch, I had to give you guys something unique, different and hopefully very cool. Some of the very first words on the Grail Watch website are, “Today, there is a stigma that limited edition watches are facile and opportunistic.” And I had to demonstrate that our first watch was neither. Or I might as well smear myself with barbeque sauce, sew myself into a sack with a rabid badger and fling myself off a cliff, as was the ancient Roman punishmentfor talking out of one’s ass. But somehow, I knew I couldn’t go wrong if I worked with two people that each brought a totally unique and visionary take to high watchmaking. These were Benoît Mintiens, the founder of Ressence Watches, and the iconic Alain Silberstein, the first man to bring art, architecture and playfulness to modern horology.
Ressence and Benoît Mintiens
I had long admired Ressence from afar. I vividly recall at the 2010 Basel fair, returning time and again to the “Palace” — the fancy name for the independent watchmakers’ tent — to look at one of the three functional prototypes that Mintiens was demonstrating. The buzz around him was incredible. I mean, everywhere I went, people would ask, “Have you seen Ressence? Who is this guy Benoît?” The baffling thing was that Mintiens was not from the Swiss watch industry; instead, he was an industrial designer from Antwerp, Belgium. But the thing about what he had created was that it went so far beyond a superficial reimagination of time telling that you would expect from an outsider. His watch was devastatingly original, utterly captivating and yet, at the same time, deeply horological. Why? OK, let me explain Ressence to you.
A traditional watch features a fixed dial with pinions where you place the hour, minute and seconds hand. Each of these revolves on its own axis at a different pace and is read off a fixed track. Now, in the period between 2000 and 2008, we saw the rise of a multitude of innovative and different ways to read the time, from Ulysse Nardin’s Freak which used the barrel cover to indicate the hours and a bridge bearing the balance wheel to read the minutes, to the three-dimensional spinning hour satellites in Urwerk’s Opus V. These are great watches, but by 2008, we were beginning to suffer fatigue from an opportunistic overabundance of whirling, spinning, alternative methods of telling time. There were even watches with floating magnets instead of hands. It was all a bit too much. So much so that with the onset of the 2009 financial crisis, the world instantly retreated back to classical watchmaking, leaving these kinds of watches in the dust, at least for a while. So, in 2010, when Mintiens presented Ressence, it was a total anomaly to have someone trying to present a totally novel way of representing time.
The reason that Ressence was such a critical success was that it was elegant, meaningful, intelligent and joyful at the same time. Firstly, rather than the massive oversized behemoths, Mintiens’ prototype, which would become the Type 1, was wearable and relatively slim. Secondly, the way time was represented was just so damn clever! Mintiens used a planetary gearing system to create a display that worked like this: the hour, running seconds and days of the week all appeared in small subdials that sat inside the main dial, which bore the minute indicator and completed a revolution each hour. This assured that all subdials would revolve around the main dial once every hour. But then, indicators on each of the subdials revolved around their respective axes at different speeds. Imagine one of those amusement park fun rides where every car is not only fixed to a rotating platform, but also rotates on its own axis at a different speed. Meaning, the hour would advance serenely when the minute hand on the main dial completes a full revolution. In contrast, the seconds indicator would blaze away a full 3,600 times and complete 60 full revolutions with each full one-hour revolution of the main dial. And of course, the day of the week would change each time the minute hand completed 24 full revolutions.
Most importantly, the system was visually stunning and totally intuitive. Says Mintiens, “That was the idea behind Ressence — to provide a totally different and intriguing artist’s interpretation for reading time. But at the same time, it had to be totally intuitive. You had to be able to hand it to someone for the first time, and they could read it immediately. In industrial design, I always believed that the best work reflects the human thought process, and so I wanted to express this in my watch. It would have been meaningless to create something that was beautiful and different but also confusing.”
Indeed, you could even call Ressence’s signature display pragmatic, as depending on which sector the day of the week indicator is in, you can distinguish AM from PM. The brilliance of Mintiens is that he incorporated the stunningly different, yet somehow brilliantly logical system for reading time that he calls the ROCS or Ressence Orbital Convex System into a 107-part module that sits on top of a base caliber. This was originally an ETA-2824 in the first series of his Type 1 watches. He then switched over to a slimmer 2892, which in combination with a closed caseback, enabled him to make the Type 1 significantly slimmer, reduced from 13mm to 11mm in the latest version.
Then there’s the execution of the entire watch, which is a masterpiece of formed art. The dial itself is convex following a 125mm radius, which makes it easy to read from all angles and wonderfully sculptural. Arching over it is a boxed sapphire crystal that is curved on two axes and treated with a double anti-reflective coating. So as not to compromise the perfect round shape of his watch, Mintiens refused to add a traditional crown and instead used a lever system like that found on old alarm clocks on the back of his wonderfully finished grade 5 titanium case. The lever system can be used to set the time, and then also by winding it back and forth over a prescribed area, you can actually feel the barrel engaging with a “crunchy” sensation. The size of the watch is 42mm, but as it is actually almost lugless, it wears like a smaller 40mm watch. One beautiful thing about the Ressence is the way in which all the luminous indications have been excavated and filled to the maximum. The result is that in dark or ambient environments, it glows like a UFO landing on a cornfield.
The second individual involved in this first Grail Watch is none other than the legendary Alain Silberstein, who is our very first artist in residence. In 1987, the watch world was still struggling back to its feet following the ravages of the Quartz Crisis. Whether a long established brand like Patek Philippe or a new upstart like Blancpain, everyone was still looking back at 19th century watch history for inspiration. Into this world, like a lightning bolt of contemporary electricity, came Alain Silberstein. He was French. He didn’t come from the watch industry but was an interior architect. But he injected into the industry the sense of renewal, energy and joy that it was badly in need of. Obsessed with a love for Picasso, Miró and Kandinsky, Silberstein created a design language that consisted of vivid primary colors and striking geometric forms.
He explains, “My logo with the colored square, circle and triangle all come from the Kandinsky Questionnaire.” Silberstein became an instant smash hit, rising with incredible velocity through the ’80s and ’90s. Amongst the various individuals irrevocably affected by his work was Max Büsser.
Says Büsser, “As a young man, I was absolutely enamored with Alain’s watches. They were so daring and new, but at the same time, created a new design language of their own that endured.” Silberstein is experiencing a current wave of adulations with an all-new audience connecting viscerally with his designs. This is thanks to two collaborations. The first is with Max Büsser who created two watches with him — the MB&F Horological Machine 2.2 Black Box in 2009 and the Legacy Machine 1 Alain Silberstein in 2016. Says Büsser, “When I started thinking of my very first collaboration, I immediately thought of Alain Silberstein. What can be better than to create something together with your childhood hero?” The second collaboration that placed Silberstein emphatically back on the map are his watches with Louis Erard and Manuel Emch. These consist of a black PVD-treated Le Régulateur model from 2020 that won the 2021 Red Dot Award for Product Design. And the amazing Le Triptyque, a collection of three watches — a regulator, a chronograph and a day of the week watch — each in a new titanium case designed by Silberstein. All of these watches are now trading for massive premiums on the secondary market.
About a year ago, I asked Silberstein if there was anyone in particular that he wanted to collaborate with. He immediately replied, “There is this designer from Belgium, Benoît Mintiens. He created this amazing brand, Ressence. I would love to do something with him because, like myself, he comes from outside of watchmaking and is open to new ideas. I love the watch that he created, and I would love to work with him on a project.” Thus inspired, I picked up the phone and called Mintiens, who replied, “Alain has always been so kind when I was launching Ressence, with advice and help. Of course, it would be a pleasure to collaborate on a watch.” And that was how the Grail Watch 1: Ressence × Alain Silberstein was born.
Grail Watch 1
A year ago, I started with the idea to create Grail Watch as a company that was dedicated to the most ambitious collaborative limited edition watches in the world. When I understood the power of a Ressence and Alain Silberstein project, I knew that this had to be the watch that would launch Grail. It was everything that I wanted to achieve. It pushed boundaries, it was ambitious, and it allowed me to work with people I genuinely liked and sincerely admired. When Alain Silberstein sent me the first drawings he had made for the watch, I actually stood before it in slack-jawed awe. I had, of course, been expecting him to use Mintiens’ Type 1 and add his signature geometric-shaped hands in different primary colors. Already that idea was incredibly compelling. To be honest, I was sold on it. But what Silberstein designed was entirely different, so much better and — if you will allow me — insanely cool.
“Alain, this is devastatingly cool. But what the hell is it I’m looking at?” I asked.
He chuckled and replied, “One of my favorite paintings is the still life by French artist Philippe de Champaigne. In English, it is known as Vanitas, Still Life with Tulip, Skull and Hour Glass, though in French, it has the much more poetic title, Vanité, ou Allégorie de la vie Humaine. You see on the table a tulip that will wither with time, a skull reminding us of our mortality and an hour glass that shows us that time is passing. This is what is called in classical art a ‘memento mori,’ a reminder that time is fleeting and that the passing of each second is something we never get back. So how shall we react? What shall we do when faced with a reminder of our own mortality?
“Wei, I like this idea of carpe diem or ‘seizing the day,’ proposed by the Roman poet, Horace. To act courageously and fearlessly as if each day is your last. So I have taken the elements of the memento mori and incorporated them into the design. The tulip has become the hour indicator. The skull is the running seconds. Instead of the hour glass, I have used my yellow triangle on the day of the week indicator as a reminder to seize each day and make it yours.” All of this Silberstein placed on a stunning blue background.
When I asked Silberstein about the number of watches we should make, he had a very specific idea. He explained, “I would like to make 36 pieces as a tribute to the concept Lamed Vav Tzadikim or the 36 righteous individuals. In my religion, Judaism, we believe that there are 36 righteous individuals alive in every generation, and because of their merit, the world continues to exist. But they are anonymous; neither they nor we know who they are. They could be anyone, your neighbor, your friend and even you.”
Gob-smacked and head reeling, I showed the design to Mintiens who replied, “I love the poetic message that underlies the design. It is in some way unconventional because Ressence was created to be a minimalistic brand, one that expressed the Japanese concept of shibui, which is apparent simplicity created by underlying complexity. But the iconography he’s created works within the design of the Type 1, because everything is thought out and is meaningful. It is by far the most extroverted and visually daring watch we’ve created, but I love the message. Because if it was not for my belief in seizing the day, I would never have had the courage to start Ressence. So let’s do it!”
When I launched Grail Watch, my deepest ambition was to create watches that somehow had meaning. That were totems of positivity that imbued their owners with strength and courage. And although this has nothing to do with me and everything to do with the genius of Alain Silberstein and Benoît Mintiens, this is exactly what Grail Watch 1 represents to me. It is a reminder to you to seize every moment in life.
Said Silberstein when I told him about Max Büsser buying piece Number One: “It gives me great pleasure to know that Max is the owner of the first piece of our collaboration. Firstly, I owe him a debt of gratitude for reminding the world about me with our collaborations in 2009. Secondly, I cannot think of a person that represents the aphorism of ‘Carpe Diem’ better. I hope that every person that wears this watch will, like Max, feel emboldened to ‘seize the day,’ to live every day, every hour and every second to its very fullest, to never be defeated by challenges, and to love with all your heart. This is a watch to uplift and to inspire you all your life.”
Grail Watch 1 Ressence x Alain Silberstein “Carpe Diem” is available for purchase exclusively on GrailWatch.com on 1 May 2022, 10pm SGT / 10am EST.
Grail Watch 1: Ressence × Alain Silberstein “Carpe Diem”
Movement: Self-winding caliber with ROCS 1 module; 36-hour power reserve
Functions:Hours, minutes, seconds and day of the week
Case: 41.5mm; titanium with closed caseback
Dial: Blue with matte finishing; block indexes
Strap: Calf leather; titanium pin buckle
Price: CHF 22,500
Availability: Limited and numbered edition of 36 pieces