May 2023 8 Min Read

The Origins of Sylvain Pinaud

By Russell Sheldrake

Sylvain Pinaud has seemingly come out of nowhere. After first appearing on the scene at the Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants (AHCI) exhibition last year, his arrival has made quite a splash with the press and among those who closely follow independent watchmaking. His first creation, a chronograph, won him a prestigious award in his home country of France and now his first truly commercial release, the perfectly balanced Origine, has been flooded with orders.

But how does a boy from the south of France find his way into the ever more crowded independent space in his 40s after working for some of the more impressive names of Swiss watchmaking? His endless energy and wickedly creative mind must be part of his secret. But the level of skill that is on display in construction, finishing and understated design show that Pinaud is a rising star to keep an eye on. This was formally recognised when he won the Horological Revelation prize at last year’s Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (GPHG).

Pinaud’s Origine, the first watch commercially released under his name.

We wanted to get to the bottom of Pinaud backstory and understand a little better how his creative flair has led to him setting up his own brand. Visiting him in his Sainte-Croix workshop, you quickly get the feeling that he is not like every other watchmaker. There is a sense that he does things his own way, and always has. This free-spirited approach to horology has produced some fantastic results and has led to him attracting more talented artisans to work alongside him with the aim of fulfilling the flurry of orders that has built up.

ACM: What was it like growing up in and around your father’s workshop?

SP: When I was a child, he was working a lot as a watchmaker, so he spent all his days behind the bench. When I was little he would give me small alarm clocks to play with and they were basically like my Lego. I would be playing with the screws and springs, dismantling them and trying to imagine how it all worked. Once I got old enough, I had to decide what I wanted to do for a job and naturally I liked working with my hands. I always felt like there was a certain amount of creativity in watchmaking, so it felt like the best fit for me.

Before you started at watchmaking school, did you enjoy your time in standard education? Or were you keen to leave it and start your journey in watchmaking?

No, I was like [any] teenager. I liked to draw and play music, and I was always playing lots of sports like skateboarding – very creative sports. I wasn’t very involved in normal school as I was so active and I had to choose my career quite early. The watchmaking school looked so interesting to me because you learn so many different skills there – you’re in the workshop, you learn some science, and also some art history. That is really what interested me the most.

I wasn’t very involved in normal school as I was so active and I had to choose my career quite early. The watchmaking school looked so interesting to me because you learn so many different skills there – you’re in the workshop, you learn some science, and also some art history. That is really what interested me the most.

While Pinaud didn’t naturally gravitate toward watchmaking in his youth, he enjoys the freedom and creativity it allows him.

So when you were deciding which watchmaking school to attend, why did you choose Morteau over one in Switzerland?

It wasn’t too easy to get into a Swiss school at this time, or at least, not [if you were] coming from outside Switzerland. I had to choose between three different ones in France and Morteau looked like the most active school, but it was so different from where I grew up. It was on a windy, rainy mountain in a small town, whereas I grew up in the south of France with the sun, so it was a little bit difficult at first. And we would go to school for two months at a time, day and night, only going home for the holidays. So it was a hard choice, but you make many, many friends, and a lot of them are now famous watchmakers. We are a little bit like a family, you know?

Because you were this creative kid from the sunny south of France, do you feel like you stood out a bit compared to the rest of your classmates in this rainy, mountainside school?

We were all different, and that was so fun at that school. People came from everywhere in France and all their different cultures and experiences fed all of our experience. It was a great melting pot. I was a skateboarder, listened to punk rock and hip-hop, and loved football and drawing, and others were completely different. It was fun.

Once you had graduated, you worked for a short while and then you went off travelling. How did you come to that decision to leave your young career behind so quickly?

So I was offered my first job before I had even left school. The company came to my school and asked who wanted to work for them. I stayed there for two years but it was very industrial; it wasn’t the watchmaking that I had dreamed of. I told myself that if I continued like this I would get too old to see the world and so my girlfriend, now my wife, and I decided to leave our jobs and travel around South-East Asia. This was around the millennium, and we did about eight months discovering that whole area – Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia – like proper backpackers.

What was the main thing you felt you gained from this experience?

You experience pure freedom. I really understood that I am attached to freedom and to adventure. You understand that some parts of the world don’t work and live the same way you do. People don’t have the same needs, and [have] different priorities. I like to try and remind myself of this and take holidays in unexpected parts of the world. I’m not going to travel to Dubai or the Maldives – I prefer to go somewhere like Morocco.

Making watches sometimes requires delicacy – but also at times force.

In your time travelling around South-East Asia, did you miss watchmaking?

No. I have to be honest; no, I didn’t. Mainly because my first experience – the two years in the industry – was not fun and not creative. That’s not my kind of watchmaking, so I really put it to one side. When we got back it was October, so we decided to work a ski season in Chamonix, working a little bit in a restaurant. The rest of the day I was skiing and snowboarding. I love the mountains, so it was a great experience. But after the season I started to send out my CV and make calls to my friends in Geneva for a watchmaker role and I managed to find one at Franck Muller.

Tell us about your time at Franck Muller. What were you working on when you were there? I assume it was completely different to the two years you had spent in industrial watchmaking.

Yes, Franck Muller was fun. There were a lot of young watchmakers there and some very skilled ones. At this time they were making unique pieces, chronographs, tourbillons, and it was fun that all of this was taking place in lots of little workshops inside this big workshop. You would have a little team of six people working on one product; you would begin with a simple complication and once you get good with that, they would say you could go further. You might move on to perpetual calendars and after that maybe tourbillons. So every six to eight months, if you were good enough you could change and learn a new skill. It felt a lot like a start-up. I finally decided to move into the after-sales service there and worked in that department for a year after I had moved around the other workshops.

The finer details of watchmaking - fine metal shavings, parts made on a minuscule scale.

After Franck Muller you went on to work for a clock restorer – correct?

I did, yes. What was really killing me at the time, working at Franck Muller, was the Geneva traffic. Luckily, a friend called me and said there was a famous clock restorer up in the mountains in Sainte-Croix who was looking for one watchmaker to work with him. I thought it looked interesting as I wanted to learn more about machining and the process of making each piece, and you have to do a lot of this in restoration. So I thought, let’s do it, go to the mountains where it will be quieter and we will see what happens. I ended up staying there for five years.

And while you were working for this clock restorer, were you also in contact with the team at Techniques Horlogères Appliquées (THA)?

Yes, the clock restorer was actually there at the very beginning of THA. He was a close friend of François-Paul Journe and those guys, so our little workshop was in THA, but a different factory. But when THA was bought by Carl F. Bucherer we had to leave and find another place to work. Then, two years later, Carl F. Bucherer called me and said they were looking for someone to come in and work on prototypes. I ended up working there for about five years – maybe more, I can’t really remember. But I was involved in the creative process, imagining complications, new devices and also improving those they already had. It was a great experience, because you can make a nice watch, but the purpose of a watch is for it to work well for centuries and getting to understand that was really valuable.

Going back to your time at the clock restorer and THA, was this where you first met Vianney Halter?

Yes, Vianney was working at THA a long time ago, but when he left he set up his workshop in Sainte-Croix where all the watchmakers are very close, we all know one another and meet up and help each other out. So when I first arrived in Sainte-Croix, I was introduced to Vianney and found someone who was like me: willing to share and be open with ideas and help other people. Now he is my godfather for my application to the AHCI.

Was it this meeting with Vianney and sharing ideas that motivated you to become an independent watchmaker?

Actually, I had been thinking about it since I was in school.

A specific type of wood used to polish watch parts to a mirror-like finish, which are trimmed by hand in Pinaud's workshop


Yes, when I left school, I remember saying to my friend: “One day I want to create my own watch; I want to be independent.” But life takes you and it’s hard to imagine [leaving] the security of a good job. But finally meeting people like Vianney or Denis Flageollet, or my boss when I was in clock restoration, as he made the decision to become independent in clock restoration – all of these people made me understand that maybe it’s possible. It will be hard, but it’s possible. I was a little bit worn down by the industry as nothing would move very fast and it made me a little frustrated. I was getting on for 40 years old and I thought I needed a change, I discussed it with my wife, and we finally decided to sell the house to get a little bit of money to get a teeny house workshop where I had all the tools I had acquired during my career, all in a 20-25 metres-square space.

It was hard work. In my first year [producing] this chronograph I had the support of my colleagues, giving me advice and tools. But everything starts like that: the need for change, a need to live my dream and see what happens.

Pinaud’s experience is extensive, having worked with illustrious names such as Franck Muller, Vianney Halter, and others.

You managed to learn CAD (computer-aided design) to make that chronograph, is that right?

It was hard, but it was a strange period. I decided to create my first watch for this contest, the Meilleur Ouvrier de France, that a friend had told me about. I had two weeks learning CAD but I was learning it on a course alongside house builders and people like that. I was the only one there drawing watches. After that I took another six months on my computer at home to draw out this chronograph using tutorials and things like that. After that, the next six months was [was spent building] all the pieces for it. So the entire first year of my career was taken up just making one chronograph. Now in the industry, if you ask for a new chronograph, they will probably say they need 10 years!

Are you still using CAD to design your future projects?

Yes, but I’m not an engineer; I didn’t go to school for that and I draw in a special way. For some components you have to make mathematical drawings and respect the exact measurements, like the wheels or the balance. But for the bridges I always start with sketches and I’m really focusing on form. So I find the architecture of the piece at the beginning and after I make the sketches I find the exact form and technical elements. I like to draw by hand and any problems that come out from this I can fix along the way. For the Origine I worked on paper sketches by hand for three months to find the right proportions. I have always loved sketching by hand as I can make tonnes of iterations quickly. Sometimes it can take me four hours to draw a dial in 3D by hand, but it’s fun.

It seems like a lot of watchmakers today feel a need to pay homage to the past with historical designs and technical innovations in horology. Do you feel this same pressure when designing?

I think I have seen all of these things in my career, in restoration or in books. They are of course an influence – I don’t know how to explain it, but it is natural to look back at these things. But I couldn’t imagine making something too futuristic, because of what I see in the restoration world, and I want to make things that can be made easily and can be made completely by hand by a watchmaker with simple tools. When you look at some modern watches that need a CNC machine to make certain parts, I don’t want that; I want to keep things simple. I try to find some sort of purity when I first draw a watch, finding the right proportions, the right shape dial, and that’s what I’m really focused on. Maybe a little bit classic, but only because of what I have seen before and how I work.

So how much time are you spending today developing future models, and how much time are you spending on constructing physical watches?

Well, this year was a little bit tricky. One year ago when I first presented the Origine, I could not imagine the success that I have had. I thought I might have three or four orders and that would be great, but now with the level of interest people have shown I have to find a way to make people happy, so it’s difficult to work on new projects. But I have started sketching – by hand, of course – and I take my little sketch book and my pencil and I have fun. So far I have started two new projects, but my goal is to have 30 percent of my time to create and imagine new things, new designs, new watches. I have tonnes of books and I draw from these and imagine ideas. I have a full archive of ideas that I could probably have enough for the next century!

In my first year [producing] this chronograph I had the support of my colleagues, giving me advice and tools. But everything starts like that: the need for change, a need to live my dream and see what happens.

Fueled by a desire to create, there is a lot in store for Pinaud’s future watches.

Well, I think we are all looking forward to the next century of Sylvain Pinaud watches. I understand you have grown your team quite a bit in the last year as well. What’s it been like going from being an employee to being a solo watchmaker and now a manager?

I have always dreamt of being independent, and for me independence was to be alone and to do what you want – to have total freedom. But this year I understand that I cannot be free; I cannot create alone. I need help to achieve what I want, but I am not a manager. I would call myself a collaborator. We work more like a family. The people who come to work with me are very passionate and they don’t come for money, or the perks of the job – they come to make things fun and push the limits. Every day we try and improve what we do, and that’s our purpose. So I don’t have the feeling of working like a boss – I work with colleagues and everybody involved is having fun. But my goal is not to have a big workshop – I think five or six people maximum is what I can manage and still keep it fun.

Our thanks to Sylvain Pinaud for sharing his experiences and taking us through his workshop.