Sometimes, a watch is no longer merely a watch. You may wonder what I’m on to come out with such a cryptic opening sentence so please bear with me until I explain. What is the original function of a watch? To tell time, right? Then what about a wristwatch so unconventional, stirring and exquisite that time telling is totally secondary and where the timepiece is no longer just a watch but an objet d’art which happens to tell time? That’s how I perceive the jaw dropping, awe inspiring Metiers d’Art - Les Masques collection from Vacheron Constantin.
Les Masques was launched at SIHH 2007 and THE conversation piece of the fair. A set of 4 timepieces with miniature 3 dimensional primitive masks taking centre stage with the time functions consisting of hours, minutes, day and date pushed to the periphery and read via rotating discs.
Early 2006 the product development team at Vacheron Constantin started thinking of a project where the movement of the Four Seasons (models specially made for the brands 250th anniversary) would be used. The idea was to find an object of universal appeal which would take centre stage on the dial.
In the past, Vacheron Constantin had created timepieces inspired by human adventure, may it be the Mercator dedicated to the famous Dutch cartographer (launched in 1994) or the Hommage Aux Grands Explorateurs (launched in 2004) and a tribute to great explorers such as Magellan and Zeng He.
The team at Vacheron Constantin wanted to continue exploring this multi cultural dimension 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”.
The dial is not only a stage for the mask but a window into the underdial works finished with the utmost care, adding an element of movement to the overall design.
The designers decided to take the dial construction one step further and to breathe life into the masks via original poems written by Michel Butor, one of France’s greatest contemporary poets (and father of the “nouveau roman”), written for each mask at the occasion of an exhibition.
The team finding the poems emotionally evocative and depicting perfectly the expressions and emotions that each mask was conveying decided to discretely surround each miniature with the poems. Michel Butor was so inspired by Vacheron Constantin’s Masques that he actually accepted to modify certain poems for the needs of the project!
At first printed letters were tested but rapidly abandoned for the use of gold letters sprayed on the dial for a more discreet and original effect.
“In museums the objects on display are always presented in a certain manner, they are never isolated from their surroundings. That’s what we tried to do with the Masques with the transparent tinted dials and golden lettering. I approached the Masques less as a designer than that of one staging an object and giving it life” says Kaufmann.
Ideas came gushing out and the design team knew exactly where and how far they wanted to go. Only two months had passed between the first brain storming sessions and the final drawings which would launch the project, but what is perfect in the virtual world of Photoshop may be a headache to produce in real life. Thus commences the difficult creation process.
The Masques are one of the rare watches which cumulate unconventional design, art, poetry (literally- with Michel Butor’s poems), crafts and cutting edge modern techniques.
Let’s not forget that Vacheron Cosntantin is first and foremost a watchmaker and the greatest attention has been given to the movement. Each timepiece is equipped with the in-house automatic calibre 2460G4 (bearing the Geneva Seal) which was first used in the Metiers d’Art Four Seasons launched in 2005 in celebration of the brand’s quarter millennium anniversary. You can see the flawless finish of the movement on the back, with perfectly applied Geneva waves, bevelling of plates and bridges as well as the beautiful guillochage of the rotor. To be totally honest Vacheron Constantin has made huge leap in terms of finish and has reached a stage where extremely few can now compete. What is even more interesting is that the sapphire dial enables one to see the finish of the underdial works. Vacheron Constantin has decided to go the route few brands take and that is to apply the same finish to the visible and non visible parts. You can see this in the Masques but if you have a recent Vacheron Constantin you can take the dial away and still see the same impeccable finishing as on the back side.
The time indications are given in a very original manner via rotating discs: hours on the top left, minutes on the top right, day on bottom left and date on bottom right, each disc being of the same tint as the sapphire crystal. .
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: green for the Chinese mask, blue for the Alaskan mask, purple for the Indonesian mask and brown for the Congolese mask.
But just a transparent tinted sapphire crystal dial would be too easy! I mentioned poetry earlier on and Michel Butor’s words bring life to the masks. Short poems circle the dial in gold letters in a whirl winding spiral of a mysterious message of true beauty and harmony.
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.
Here is an English translation (from French) of the poems:
|The Chinese funeral mask|
The light is concentrated
in the gold where I close my eyes
through my eyelids I see
the sleep of my descendants
I slip into their dreams
to give them my news
and light up the impasses
where adversity lies in wait
|The Alaskan Frontal Mask|
If I stick out my tongue
it is to show the trust I have in you
following your movements
on the sea between storms and in forests between
vast conifers on which your
genealogical myths will be inscribed
|The Indonesian Mask Wayang Topeng theatre|
Bewitcher I observe
the shapes of girls who pass
my eyebrows are like a bird ready to take wing
and circle its prey
my moustache like a serpent
A mask is difficult to approach. It is an inanimate object which represents most often a human face and the challenge was to reinterpret what the original artisan had crafted and to transform that piece of art not just into a reproduction but yet another objet d’art which would proudly sit on the dial and become an integral part (in some way the face) of an greater whole.
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 which enchants all those who set their eyes on them.
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 Congo and Alaska 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?
The masks had been miniaturised using laser technology, engraved using ancient know how of skilled craftsmen, what could the Vacheron Constantin team turn to for color?
Alchemy of course!
First different types of gold were tried (for example a 3N yellow gold with a warm color for the Chinese mask) then chemical and galvanic formulae were used and a chemists 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!
Les Masques are presented as a set of four in different metals: yellow gold for the Chinese mask, rose gold for the Indonesian mask, white gold for the Alaskan mask and finally platinum for the Congolese mask. The reason behind a set of 4 is that Primitive arts find their origins in 4 regions of the world: Asia, Oceania, Americas and Africa thus the idea to unite these continents in a set.
Twelve masks have been selected from the Barbier-Muller Museum collection. Every year, for 3 years, a boxed set of four different masks will be presented in a limited series of 25. By the end, the complete collection will comprise 12 masks for a total of only 300 watches.
In a period where motorsports, aviation or sailing co-branding is de rigueur, it is refreshing to see Vacheron Cosntantin going the opposite direction by not only supporting the arts and crafts in their various forms but also by creating an object which appeals to our emotions and sensitivity.
Some objects have soul. By looking at them you can sense the love and passion they inspired and the Masques is a perfect example. The enthusiasm, intensity and dexterity put in their creation by each artisan may it be the designers, watchmakers and engravers literally grab you and you can almost feel their heart beats just by holding their creation!
Often (and sometimes unrightly) we refer to timepieces as masterpieces or works of art. However, other than objet d’art, there is no word more fitting for the Masques. What is lauded today by almost all was a risky project: in an epoch of titanium / black PVD /carbon fibre cum fusion gimmick overkill it is an audacious move to dare to dream and to make such a dream come true in an object as evocative, daring and bold as the Masques. The team at Vacheron Constantin had a vision of beauty and grace and transformed it into reality.
In a recent article Max Büsser quotes designer Eric Giroud: “Real art is about transcribing and creating emotion, not about pleasing the larger masses”. With the Masques collection Vacheron Constantin has not only succeeded in obtaining critical acclaim but also transforming gold and glass into emotions and poetry...and that’s magic... horological magic!
Addendum February 2011: 2nd and 3rd Series (2008 and 2009)
2nd Series (2008)
Japan Mask: Ritual Budha Mask (2nd half of the 19th century)
Mexico Mask: Fragment of a mask shaped Censer (100-800 AD)
Gabon Mask: Pibubuze Mask (collected before 1930)
Papua New Guinea Mask
3rd Series (2009)
Indonesia Mask: Facial Mask
China Mask: Zangs-Bag Facial Mask (16th-17th century)
Mexico Mask: Pendant Mask (300-100BC)
Gabon Mask: Ngontang Mask
Les Masques were by far my favorite watches of the SIHH.
Specially, the Chinese and Indonesian ones.
I can't hide from the fact that the Chinese mask is just pure art.
The others I have more difficulties with,
but it's always so with me,
it takes time.
What ever you say or think,
unique they are.
And the Chinese funeral mask is a piece of art,
inside or outside a watch !
Thanks again for showing,
and telling about the process !
Very nice and complete report!! Thanks Alex!!!
I do not like these watches because of the masks. But technical performances asked to accomplish these watches are really impressive.
hate but it can't keep you cold!
the work that has gone into its conception and creation. This just shows how much in advance VC is compared to its competition. No complication overkill here but pure art.
brands are doing.
A wonderful article, Alex.
Thanks for all the insight into the production of these Objets d'Art.
Thanks for the wonderful report..very informative and a great read.
I must admit that not everyone might actually want one, or have the courage to wear one, but I think most of us can appreciate the concept, the technical and artistic challenges, and the effort that have gone behind such an audacious project. With most rivals coming up with LE's for every yatch and F1 race out there (nothing wrong about that, of course), VC should at least be lauded for its courage and flair for innovative design concepts. It takes guts to stray away from the well trodden commercial path.
What is even better is that this newfound spirit is not limited to the special showpieces, and is surely making its way to the new regular production models too.
Thank's to Vacheron to make us dream, thank you Alex for this report. Your page is very elegant, completely in accordance with the spirit of these wonderful pieces
as a set and not as individial pieces.
It seems to me that they will be frustrating many who could afford one but not the whole set.
set of 4 instead of being individually available.
I know of people who are teaming up to split the set..
watch would have become kitch (like the 250th anniversary 4 seasons models) but they managed to make a watch into not only a work of art but to a piece which emotionally appeals. It's something unseen and truely lovely. Kudos should be given to the whole team at Vacheron for having had the daring of producing such an innovative watch.
I find these timepieces interesting because the main focus is on the beautifully executed mask. Telling the time on these exquisite timepieces appears to be secondary... something which may appear odd for someone buying a watch! Cheers, Vernon
focus on time when you're mesmerized by the whle appearance!
Assuming I have the means and privilege to own the set, I will not buy it because of the Chinese Funeral Mask. To me, it symbolizes unfortunate, grief and darkness. There are so many type of Chinese masks can be chosen, especially the world famous art of "changing face" - a master is able to change approximately 48 different type of masks in one minute. I am curious as to the reason why the Funeral Chinese Mask is chosen. Probably, Alex, you can enlighten me. Thanks. Regards Ling
mask results in the intrinsic beauty of the object which goes beyond its original use but also a form of tribute to a dynasty which lasted only 2 ceturies but leaves behind it marvels of primitive arts.
Some objects or monuments, with the passing of time, outgrow their original purpose to be considered only as an art work. For example lets take the pyramids in Egypt which are marveled by all, they are nothing else than tombs! But are no longer accompanied by the grief and unhappiness which could have surrounded them (after the Pharao's death his wifes and servants were bricked in the pyramid..alive) to become an archtectual wonder. Same as the Coleseum in Rome where the Christians were fed to the lions!
To quote Jean Paul Barbier-Muller to whom this mask belongs: “I don’t collect the art of imperial China, or of Islamised kingdoms, or of India, or of feudal Japan, I am only interested in ancient civilisations, when sculptors and metal workers were craftsmen and made things that were “necessary” – by that I mean things used for magical, religious or funerary purposes - and didn’t think of themselves as "artists". Some of them were naturally gifted and had special skills. They handed down not ordinary objects, but genuine works of art, which we can imagine were recognised as such in their day since the pieces we consider to be highly artistic were found, not surprisingly, in the most sumptuous tombs.” The Liao mask is one of these.
The mask also testifies 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.”
Maybe the mask can be looked at less as an object of greif and darkness but one of a tribute to a loved king?
Alex, thank you for your answer. Your explanation has cleared some doubt. But I need to do more research about Liao Dynasty. To be honest, I have studied about the history of approximately 15 chinese dynasties when I was a student. I can't recall Liao Dynasty but I remember Emperor Taizong.
Most chinese are very sentitive about the word "funeral". Perhaps, it is NOT a wrong choice of mask but a wrong choice of word. How about "The Liao Dynasty Mask?" I do like the mask because of its profound expression. It is the best among all, IMHO.
name of the mask was somewhat lost in translation?
I'm interested to learn more if you find more information. The Chinese mask is also my favotite it is the most moving.
being nomads travelled south and settled in China.