The History of Vacheron Constantin's Alternative Time Displays: Part 2

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In 2001 Vacheron Constantin started working on a new project highly inspired by the Mercator and which it was to replace: an alternative time display (this time with wandering hours) watch with a polychrome enamel dial as a tribute to human adventures.

With the Tribute to the Great Explorers the cartographer gave way to the seafarers and heroes of the past who explored far and exotic lands. The dials remain in enamel but the time reading is done via rotating hour numerals.

Vacheron Constantin upped the dial difficulty in not only making it in champlevé enamel (once again supported to the dexterous hands of Jean and Lucie Genbrugge) but also having it stand on two levels, one overhanging the other. The upper part shows lands associated with the particular explorer’s exploits. The lower one is a 132° strip forming the dial’s bottom arc; it bears the minute track over which the rotating hour numeral travels clockwise in turn.

The enamelling technique used here is the champlevé one. The outline of the subject is first traced with a sharp metal point on a sheet of 22K gold barely half a millimeter thick and a little more than two dozen millimeters across. Under strong binocular magnification, using a paintbrush made of one or two marten hairs, a few droplets of enamel are deposited. Colors must imperatively be applied in a strict, predetermined order as to obtain the requested result.

That done, the workpiece is fired in a kiln at 700° - 800°C (1290° to 1470° F). After cooling, it is smoothed, in some cases with powdered corundum, and then meticulously polished. More enamel is then applied, fired, smoothed, polished and so on – up to thirty times per dial. Firing times must be calculated with great exactness according to the type and quantity of enamel applied, firing times are not rocket science and can vary between each work piece depending on the impressions of the enameller. At the end of this elaborate process, a coating of transparent flux is applied and the workpiece is fired yet again, this time to 900° C (1650° F). After cooling, the dial is smoothed and polished one last time.

This lengthy and meticulous procedure is hard on the nerves. Brittle and quirky, cooling enamel may unexpectedly shatter as it leaves the kiln. The heat-loss process must perforce be slow, careful and regular since sudden temperature changes can, in an instant, destroy countless hours of painstaking work.

This model’s two-part dial posed a further challenge inasmuch as to ensure a perfect match both parts had to be enamelled, fired and finished in tandem – doubling the risk! 


The movement used in the TTGE is the tried and tested automatic cal 1126AT with an extra wandering hour module developed inhouse.

The hour “crown” wheel’s three arms are each fitted with a satellite carrying four hour numerals whose position is controlled by a cam shaped like a Maltese cross. The “crown” wheel rotates so as to position in turn each of the satellites bearing the appropriate hour figure at the gap between the two parts of the dial. After the Maltese cross cam has caused the satellite to insert the correct hour figure in the dial gap, the hour “crown” wheel drives it clockwise during precisely one hour over the minute figures and guide marks inscribed on the lower part of the dial. 


The dials represent the roads travelled and discovered by the chosen explorers. The first two dials were launched in 2004 and represented Zeng He and Magellan. Two new and final dials will be launched this year representing Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus. The Tribute to the Great Explorers even though not marketed as a limited edition will be made in only 60 pieces for each dial for a total of 240 all housed in a beautifully curvaceous yellow gold case. The case back is solid and engraved in a very à propos manner with a wind rose. 


ZHENG HE (1371 -1434): The Indian Ocean


In the early years of the 14th century, Chinese maritime expeditions began in earnest. The Ming dynasty built one of the most powerful fleets in history. It comprised 62 huge multimasted junks and 100 lesser vessels, carrying nearly 30,000 men. This impressive armada was commanded by a towering figure of seafaring, Admiral Zheng He (Cheng Ho). Captured and castrated when still a youth, he was placed in the service of a ranking member of the imperial family and given the name San Bao, meaning “Three Jewels”. In addition to the crew, the fleet included scientists, state officials and interpreters in all the languages spoken along the coastline of the Indian Ocean, from Vietnamese to Arabic. A full century before the first Europeans navigators explored this part of the world; Zheng He’s fleet had already been there seven times, making something like forty contacts with local powers from south-east Asia to Africa to the Arab world. Among other wonders, Zheng He once returned to China with a giraffe, a gift from the sultan of Malindi, in what is today Kenya, to the emperor. The presence of this “Celestial Unicorn”, as court officials called this strange beast, in the imperial zoo was considered a sign of auspicious fortune. From Indochina, Malaysia, Ceylon and India to the Persian Gulf, Somalia and even faraway Mecca, Zheng He is remembered as an unusually talented navigator and an inspired explorer. A recent theory grants Zeng He the discovery of America, 70 years before Columbus! 



FERNAND DE MAGELLAN (1480 - 1521): Patagonia



September 20, 1519. Commanding a fleet of five ships manned by 300 men, Fernand de Magellan sailed from the port of Seville, westward bound for the Spice Islands (today the Moluccas, part of Indonesia). Spurred by his studies and early experience, Magellan dreamed of reaching far-off Asia by sailing to the south of the landmass discovered by Christopher Colombus – no mean feat at the time. The ships reached Brazil, anchoring off what is today Rio de Janeiro, then travelled south to Patagonia. Surviving mutinies, quarrels, shipwrecks and disease, Magellan sailed on, buoyed by his enthusiasm and determination. He eventually discovered and navigated the straits that today bear his name, sailing along a coast dotted by native campsites which he called Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire). He again reached the open sea, so marvelling at its calm expanses that he named it Pacific Ocean. Having reached the Philippines in 1521, he died during a battle with a local tribe. Only one of the five ships, with eighteen men and a hold full of spices, was to complete the journey back to Spain. It was the first vessel ever to have sailed all the way around the world. Over and above his dreams of exotic treasures, Magellan’s voyage demonstrated conclusively that the earth was indeed a sphere. 




Marco Polo (1254-1324) the Silk Route 




Marco Polo was 15 when his father and uncle returned from a long journey on the Silk Route, which linked Constantinople to China. The two traders had managed to reach China in relative safety due to the fact that continental Asia had been unified some years earlier by Gengis Khan and his terrifying Mongol warriors.

The Polo brothers set off again for china in 1271 with a message from the Pope Gregory X to Emperor Kublai Khan, grandson of Gengis Khan and they took 17 year old Marco with them. 

Kublai Khan received and honored the 3 travelers in Cambuc, his capital (today Beijing). Marco and the Emperor became good friends and he was even made governor of a town. 

He collected information on regions totally unknown to the Europeans of his time; he also discovered durum wheat noodles, which were so enthusiastically embraced by his fellow compatriots. The Polos returned to Venice 24 years after their departure. Marco published the accounts of his journeys in his “Travels of Marco Polo” a book describing a world of marvels that abounded in precious stones, spices, silks, beautiful women, shiny palaces and monstrous creatures.

By the time Marco Polo died at age 70 his journeys had made him famous throughout Europe. Later, other adventurers like Vasco de Gama and Christopher Columbus followed his footsteps but they went by sea and not land. 




Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) – Discovery of America 



On August 3, 1492, two caravels, the Pinta and the Nina, and a third vessel, the Santa Maria, left the port of Palos de Moguer in Spain and set sail upon the Ocean Sea (the Atlantic). The fleet was commanded by the Great Admiral of the Ocean Sea: Christopher Columbus. He had spent 10 years of his life in obtaining this title as well as the royal support needed for this expedition. After being turned down by the King of Portugal he managed to convince Isabel of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon to finance his trip, an attempt to prove that it was possible to reach India by navigating westwards.

The voyage took 70 long days and after several attempts at mutiny land was sighted on Oct 12, 1492. Christopher Columbus and a few sailors went ashore on the island of Guanahani which Columbus renamed San Salvador, he then explored another island and named it Hispaniola (Santo Domingo).

During 3 other voyages he discovered and named many other islands (Marie Galante, Dominica, Guadeloupe, Saint-Martin, Puerto Rico, Jamaica…) and finally set foot on the American continent at the mouth of the Orinoco.

He remained convinced until his last breath that he had discovered the route to the Indies. After his death, it was the Florentine Amerigo Vespucci that the geographer Waldessemüller attributed the discovery of the continent that he called Americi Terra. 




Les Metiers d'Art: Four Seasons 
Launched in 2005 as a 4 piece set in celebration of the brand’s 250th anniversary, the Métiers d’Art Four Seasons is a tentative in displaying at the same time both the brand’s technical mastery, with an all new inhouse cal 2460, as well as the artistic crafts of enamelling, sculpture and gem setting.

The time and calendar functions are visible via four apertures respectively revealing the hour, the minute, the day and the date. These indications, wandering for the first two and jumping for the latter two, appear through four openings arranged around the central dial motif.



The dial represents in its centre, Apollo’s chariot (Apollo was chosen since in Greek mythology he is the God of the arts but also of passing time) pulled by four horses, depicted on a raised hand-engraving in 18K gold, applied to the two-part dial decorated in the colours of each of the seasons. The finest and most meticulous craftsmanship techniques are implemented in this model, associating a base coated with translucent enamel and featuring a gold sun and moon in its lower and upper parts. On either side of the chariot are plant-life motifs painted in accordance with the seasons and delicately applied with a fine brush. 

The dials are of engraved 18 k yellow gold (winter has a 18k white gold dial), filled with enamel powder and heated in an oven at 840° C for periods of 10 seconds to one minute as to allow the enamel to set. Each time a new color is added and the process is renewed. Depending on the colors each dial needed between 6 and 15 passages into the oven. 


Winter Spring Spring






  The enameller has before her different color essays and sees the different tints of enalem which can be obtained depending on the different mixes. She uses this to determine the amounts and mixes of powder to be used to obtain the best results.


The Four Seasons were produced in a limited edition of 48, meaning 12 sets comprising four watches each.

Looking closely at the dials there is no denying that an intense amount of work has gone in their making, may it be the subtle details of the engraving or the amazing translucent enamel dials (which we owe to wonder enameller Anita Porchet) but sometimes you can have a dream team on the field and still not win the game. This is my feeling for the 4 Seasons; I truly love and am amazed by each individual detail: the case, the dial layout and time reading, the enamelling, the engraving, the gemsetting but put together I cannot suppress a feeling of weight and gaudiness. 







However, this time reading display with a central engraved character lead its way 2 years later to what I consider to be one of the most audacious watches to come out of the watch industry in recent times: a true mixture of arts, horology and most of all emotion: The Métiers d’Art Les Masques. 

Métiers d'Art Les Masques

For a full review of the 1st set click here

Early 2006 the product development team at Vacheron Constantin started thinking of a project where the movement of the Four Seasons would be used. The idea was to find an object of universal appeal which would take centre stage on the dial.



The team at Vacheron Constantin wanted to continue exploring the multi cultural dimension of models such as the Mercator and Hommage aux Grands Explorateurs and to apply it in a manner where it would be not only decorative but with a more profound and human approach.

Different symbolical subjects were first tested, such as arms, traditional dress or totems and it is the latter that lead the way to the masks. Primitive or tribal arts may seem exotic to many, but in Geneva the Barbier-Muller museum is somewhat of an institution and houses the oldest (from 1907) and most important private collection of primitive arts. It was therefore a natural step for the designers at Vacheron Constantin to take a closer look at the museum’s offerings.

They were immediately seduced by what they saw: Arts which brought men back to their roots and to the history of humanity. Arts which were not only decorative but functional (and sometimes spiritual) objects part of the lives of those who used them. Arts which are not “obvious” and request a certain open mindedness to fully embrace and appreciate.

The Liao Dynasty mask (circa 907 AD) immediately struck a cord with the designers who literally dived into the project with overflowing ideas. They first scanned a miniaturised version of the mask and placed it in the centre of a dial, the time and calendar functions being pushed to the periphery. 



The first drawings depicted a mask on engraved or enamel backgrounds but the results did not meet the design team’s aesthetic aspirations. The background was not only taking attention away from the mask but was overloading the dial making it look burdened.

The idea of a transparent dial came once the team decided to abandon the engraved or enamel dials. Says Vincent Kaufmann, head of design at Vacheron Constantin “In the Barbier Muller Museum the masks are placed within a glass cabinet and that’s the atmosphere we wanted to create, thus the idea of a transparent crystal where the mask seems to be floating above the dial”.
With reason, most of the talk has been focused on the engraved masks but the dial is a true feat and a visually enchanting artwork. A clever technique using transparency and special treated glass creates the impression that the masks are floating atop the movement. Each sapphire crystal has a different tint, obtained by a unique metallisation process, so that it sets off the color of the mask. 


But just a transparent tinted sapphire crystal dial would be too easy! I mentioned poetry earlier on and short poems by Michel Butor, written specially for each mask circle the dial in gold letters. 



The poem is placed on the dial via vacuum metallisation, a sophisticated technological process in which the gold letters are sprayed onto the sapphire crystal. The tint of the sapphire crystal changes depending on the light shining on it and the poem can only be read when the light hits the dial at a particular angle giving the watch a different aspect each time you look at it.

The objects having centre stage and giving their name to the collection are the masks, and the utmost attention has been given to their execution. It is difficult to imagine the painstaking process the designers and engravers at Vacheron Constantin went through to achieve the final results.

Two major obstacles needed to be surpassed: creating a faithful reproduction of the mask and obtaining the original (and priceless, may I add) mask from the Barbier-Muller museum of Geneva on loan for a few months. The museum accepted the partnership upon the sole condition that the resemblance to the original masks be identical.

Miniaturising a 25-30cm mask to only a few millimetres (each miniature measures about 20mm and 2mm thick!) is already a difficult task but imagine having to respect not only the proportions but the traces made by the original sculptor’s tools as well as those left by time, giving a whole new meaning to the world arduous.

Different attempts were made at such miniaturisation, each unsatisfactory. To create a mask showing the signs of passing time cutting edge technology was required. Vacheron Constantin seeked the expertise in laser technology of the Geneva Engineering School in making three dimensional images of each mask. By putting the plans together on a computer, they were able to modify the volumes point by point to find the best angle for fitting the mask onto the dial while safeguarding the harmony of its forms and proportions. 



Another question arose in the materials to use for the masks. Should the original materials such as wood, copper, shell or even hair be used? Some of them had to be rejected right away because impracticable: for example the structure of wood makes it unsuitable for such small sculptures, using real hair was considered gimmicky and copper oxidises. Gold seemed to be the best solution and not only because it is a precious metal: it can be finely worked, colored, treated and it stands the test of time.

Modern technology was also used via laser to cut the gold in a form the engraver could work on. Once the base ready, the engraver’s painstaking partition could begin. It was his responsibility to give life and expression to the masks by delicately working on the reliefs, embossments and hollows, chiselling away at the rough patches for example to reproduce the effects of wood on the mask from Gabon and Congo and recreating what really do look like hair sprouting from the top of the polychrome wooden mask from Alaska! 




The final challenge was the treatment of color: how to respect the appearance of the mask with its fine polychromy without falling into the trap of creating a simple painted reproduction?

First different types of gold were tried then chemical and galvanic formulae were used and a chemist’s bench was recreated with alembics, powders and secret potions which would be quite at home at Hogwarts School of Magic!

For example, to reproduce the effect of copper covered with verdigris on the Chinese mask the engraver developed a novel system of protective coating: small deposits of copper on gold, which were then oxidised (by hanging the mask above acid fumes!) giving the mask its ancient appearance, then lacquered to prevent further oxidisation! The softness of the facial features of the Japanese mask is brought out by flame-gilding and matt pumice-stone powders of different granularity were used and applied using and ear-swab as to reproduce the rough aspect of pottery in the Mexican mask! 







In 2007 the first set of masks were presented: 

China Death Mask: Quidan people, Liao Dynasty (907-1125) – Yellow gold

It testifies to the extreme sophistication of the Liao Dynasty, founded in 907 by the Quidan chief Yelu Abaoki – later the Emperor Taizong – and totally destroyed two centuries later. 

Although they adopted a number of Chinese customs, and despite the strong influence of Buddhism, the Quidan, who came from Inner Mongolia, preserved their own culture and Shamanistic beliefs. According to Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller, “their most original and remarkable creations were their death masks, silver for the nobility, and gilded bronze for those of royal blood.” 




Alaska Frontal mask: Alaska, north-west coast of the United States, Tlingit Indians. 19th century – white gold

According to tradition, young men training to be shamans had to leave their community and spend eight days searching for their vision. At their approach, animals stuck out their tongues, which were believed to contain the power of their spirit.

The most spectacular moment of a shamanistic ritual was the masked dance. Donning in turn about eight different masks, the shaman transformed himself into each creature represented, whether human or animal. In this way, he asserted his power over beings in this world and the next. 




Congo: Etoumbi-Mahongwe - platinum

This is one of the most celebrated masks of African art and a prime example of Central African sculpture. “It has been reproduced umpteen times since 1939 in the form of a detail from Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, nearly always the young lady in the top right corner,” Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller pointed out. The painting, finished in 1907, belongs to the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) and the mask was part of the collections of this famous institution, which had bought it in the belief that it had inspired Picasso. Stylistically, little is known about this mask, which is unique in its genre. Even though it is generally acknowledged to be part of the Kota culture of Gabon, nobody knows which people in north-western Congo – the Mboko, Ngare or Mahongwe – actually made it. According to Louis Perrois, a specialist of the Gabon-Congo region, “it is still impossible to define these objects stylistically and historically, which, in their present state, are among the most remarkable works of the region.” 




Indonesia Facial mask: Wayang Topeng theatre 19th century – rose gold

Traditionally, performers of Wayang Topeng hold their masks by gripping a rubber strip between their teeth. As they say nothing, it is left to the narrators and singers to develop the plot and recount the adventures of the heroes.

Wayang Topeng has no religious dimension, even though it preserves the ritual and sacred character of the Hindu origins of its tradition. 




In 2008 the second set was presented. Either because the surprise effect linked to the first series doesn’t come in play here or maybe these four new masks are intellectually more difficult to approach but to my eyes this set has had a less strong impact.

Japan Ritual Buddha Mask: 2nd half of the 19th Century – yellow gold

The mask represents Amida Nyorai meaning “infinite life” or “infinite light” one of the 5 great Buddhas of wisdom. Regarded as the savior of souls, Amida guides believers to a second life after death. 




Papua New Guinea Ceremonial Mask - platinum

This mask has both the zoomorphic and anthromorphic characteristics of masks from the mouth of the Sepik River; their very diverse forms all have long noses evoking a bird’s beak or an insect’s proboscis. The mask is made of painted wood with incrustations of shell 




Gabon Kwelé Ritual Mask: collected before 1930  - white gold

This stylized face is characteristic of the work of Kwélé artists. The heart shaped face stands out from the darker grounds by its whiteness. Exhibited in 1931 and then in 1935 at the Museum of Modern art of New York, this mask was one of the objects that revealed the existence of African art to the world. 




Mexico Fragment of Maya Censer: between AD 550 and 950 - rose gold

This ceramic portrait is of a Maya noble with a pearl fixed to the cartilage of his nose. The features of the bearded face, sculpted with great attention to proportion and volume, suggest the artists deliberate attempt at naturalism. 






Vacheron Constantin truly has a fine history in alternative time displays with achingly gorgeous vintage pieces and not less interesting and varied modern ones. They are probably the only haute horlogerie brand to have continuously offered alternative time displays since the early 90s and the post quartz mechanical watch revival. At SIHH 2009 (to take place in January) Vacheron Cosntantin will be introducing the last set of the Masks collection and I genuinely hope that they will continue offering novel time display pieces after that.

The recent models of alternative time displays offered by Vacheron Constantin are difficult to obtain as they are both limited editions AND have highly artistic dials making the prices rather steep. As an aficionado of such time displays I would love to see Vacheron Constantin offer those who do not have Wall Street investment bank bonuses (pre-Subprime that is) a more affordable jump or wandering hour timepiece as a regular production model.







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