The Hour Lounge Exclusive: Métiers d'Art-Les Masques 2008 models

Here they are, the 2nd set (out of 3) of the talk of the watch industry in 2007 when Vacheron Constantin baffeled us with timpepieces halfway between horology, sculpture, poetry, culture and cutting edge design techniques.

Here's the press release (I'll post my thoughts on these in the Alternative Time Displays article Part 2)

                                     Métiers d’Art “Les Masques”

Some partnerships, like the one between the Manufacture Vacheron Constantin and the Barbier-Mueller Museum, seem to be written in the stars.

Both share the same values, philosophy and passions, each guided by a quest for constant renewal.
Although applied in two different worlds, this quest always leads to the same inescapable conclusion:

Time is an art, an art that is sublimated with time. 
Out of this quest grew the Métiers d’Art “Les Masques” collection, which has drawn on the treasures of Jean-Paul Barbier-Mueller’s private collection and the Métiers d’Art watchmaking tradition that Vacheron Constantin has upheld for over 250 years.

At the time of its presentation in 2007, the project aroused great excitement in the world of Haute Horlogerie. Every year, over a three-year period until 2009, a boxed set of four new masks (each representing one of the four continents of Asia, the Americas, Africa and Oceania) is being produced in a limited series of 25 watches each, for a grand total of 300.

Amazingly lifelike, the first four masks reproduced on the dials of these collectors’ timepieces – from China, Alaska, the Congo and Indonesia – embody an exceptional kind of savoir-faire, combining 21st-century techniques with the rigour of traditional craftsmanship, the only combination that could preserve the authenticity of these masterpieces and portray them so realistically.

2008 models – Second set
4 masks: from Mexico, Japan, Gabon and Papua New Guinea

In its ongoing pursuit of truth, Vacheron Constantin has surpassed itself with the second boxed set of timepieces, which again contains reproductions of four primitive masks, but this time from Mexico, Japan, Gabon and Papua New Guinea.

Pushing its research and creativity to the very limits, the Geneva-based Manufacture has drawn again on the techniques of the past and taken the technology of engraving to a higher plane, enhancing precision and exactitude in the miniature reproduction of tribal art on timepieces that have become works of art in their own right.

Paying tribute to Man by transcending the limits imposed by time: this is the challenge facing Vacheron Constantin with its Métiers d’Art collection. Such a challenge entails endless questioning and dealing with numerous demands and constraints, but in the end there is a sense of pride in having travelled further towards the impossible. The ultimate reward for any human being.

                                                                  The art of engraving poetry 

To do better, to be even closer to reality. This was the demanding challenge facing Vacheron Constantin after the masks on the first Métiers d’Art “Les Masques” timepieces bore such a remarkable resemblance to the originals from the Barbier-Mueller Museum. 

But it is when facing the impossible that the greatest projects are realised. After an in-depth study of the situation, the engraving specialists for Vacheron Constantin decided to focus their attention on subtlety. 

Miniaturising a tribal mask can sometimes over-accentuate the power it emanates, thereby distorting its character and identity. Using their expertise, a blend of craftsmanship and modern technologies, the engravers sought to reproduce the poetic sensibility of the masks, concentrating on the softness of the contrasts and the delicacy of the finishing.

The hair of Buddha: each curl is drawn as a tiny spiral in line-engraving 

Manual skills are therefore central to Vacheron Constantin’s undertaking; stressing the harmony of form, the engraving work was given a lighter touch. 

The complexity of this approach is revealed in the Japan mask, which demanded a level of skill beyond most engraving experts today. First, the mask’s volumes were reproduced three-dimensionally, then transferred to the miniature using the most advanced laser techniques. The next step was to delicately enhance the tiniest details through the art of engraving, as can be seen in the hair of Buddha, each curl of which is drawn as a tiny spiral in line-engraving. The softness of the facial features is brought out by flame-gilding, while the signs of aging on the mask – an irreversible effect of time – have been delicately reproduced by hand so as to capture the essence of the original. 

Each mask in turn required special attention and expertise. The Gabon mask, for example, highlights the art of chasing, with each touch delicately struck to give it a smooth finish. 

With the Mexico mask, special interest was paid to the surface work: determined to recreate as closely as possible the “pottery” effect – clay being the basic material used in the original mask – the Vacheron Constantin team decided to use matt pumice-stone powders of different granularity. When mixed and smeared on with an ear-swab, they reproduce the rough aspect of pottery more realistically than nature itself! 

In the same spirit, the painted wood of the Papua-New-Guinea mask has been replicated on red gold that has undergone a very special chemical treatment to accentuate its colour and has then been hand-patinated to bring out the nuances of the painting. Fluted engraving is also much in evidence, with the circumference of the mask meticulously chiselled with a hand-held graver. 

Each mask required around one hundred hours of work and perseverance, coupled with unwavering patience and total dedication. A colossal responsibility, but indispensable if Vacheron Constantin wanted to achieve its mission of conveying an emotion. 

                                                          Métiers d’Art « Les Masques » - 2008 models  

Japan Mask

The Hour Lounge Exclusive: Métiers d'Art-Les Masques 2008 models

From the unimaginable distance
where I savour eternity
I hear the echo of your cries
to console you I send
the reverberations of my gongs
the hope of re-finding your kin
after so many metamorphoses
on the paths of my bounty 
Michel Butor 

Ritual Buddha Mask Japan, end of the Edo period, second half of 19th century
Lacquered wood, gilded and blue pigments
Height: 27 cm
Inv. 229-5

This mask emanates gentleness and serenity with its moonlike face, lowered eyes and full cheeks framed with long curved, stylized ears. The nose and mouth are realistically drawn. The intense blue of the chignon coiffure, comprising a multitude of small embossed curls sculpted in wood, contrasts with the gilded face. On the back of the mask is a piece of felt to protect the wearer’s chin. 

The mask appears to represent Amida Nyorai, which means “infinite light” or “infinite life”; he is one of the five great Buddhas of wisdom who guide believers to a second life after death. The profile of this particular figure, dating from the 19th century, brings to mind the face of the famous great Buddha statue in the Kamakura sanctuary in Japan.
The creation of such a ritual piece was generally entrusted to Buddhist image-makers rather than mask-makers. 

The Hour Lounge Exclusive: Métiers d'Art-Les Masques 2008 models

The Hour Lounge Exclusive: Métiers d'Art-Les Masques 2008 models

 Mexico Mask 

The Hour Lounge Exclusive: Métiers d'Art-Les Masques 2008 models

My nostrils feel the incense
that will rise on the steps
restoring life to my old age
so I may distribute
my benedictions on the town
whose pyramids rise above
the singing trees
in the lands of the wind 
Michel Butor 

Fragment of a mask-shaped censer
Mexico, Maya civilisation. 550-950 AD
(According to the thermoluminescence test: 100-800 AD)
Height: 25.5 cm
Former John Huston collection
Inv. 502-6

Believed to be a piece of the chimney of an “incense burner”, this fragment is not so much a “mask” as an extremely sensitive portrait. The features of the bearded face, sculpted with considerable attention to proportion and volume, suggest the artist’s deliberate attempt at naturalism. This portrait seems to be of a Maya noble with a pearl fixed to the cartilage of his nose. The ornament is characteristic of the old classical period. 

The Hour Lounge Exclusive: Métiers d'Art-Les Masques 2008 models

The Hour Lounge Exclusive: Métiers d'Art-Les Masques 2008 models

Gabon Mask 

The Hour Lounge Exclusive: Métiers d'Art-Les Masques 2008 models

I have stored in my heart
all the phases of the Moon
my mouth has been effaced
only my eyes can express themselves
in the incense of the nights of waiting
to show the Sun
and all its lost children
the road of their deliverance
Michel Butor

Pibibuze mask
Gabon, Kwélé people
Polychrome semi-hard wood, aged patina
Height: 25.4 cm
Collected before 1930. Former Tristan Tzara collection
Inv. 1019-80 

This mask, from the celebrated collection belonging to the poet Tristan Tzara, was exhibited in 1931 by Charles Ratton in Paris, then in 1935 at the prestigious Museum of Modern Art in New York where it was hailed as one of the “revelations” of “negro art”. There has always been a disturbing quality about its plastic and pictorial qualities, which in some ways reflect the aesthetic sense of a period in turmoil. 

Known as pibibuze, “man”, it belongs to a group of four different masks, three of which represent animals (a gorilla, an elephant and an antelope). Without horns or appendages, the fourth kind, “man”, is rarer. These four different masks would have been ordered at the birth of a boy and embody a spirit of nature that would accompany him during various rites of passage throughout his life. Most often blind, these masks were probably not intended to be worn on the face of a dancer, but rather to be displayed in houses consecrated to the cult or held during ceremonies.
The “Tzara mask” has a beautiful aged, regular patina, suggesting ritual functions. This does not imply that it naturally hid the face of the person wearing it. 

The Hour Lounge Exclusive: Métiers d'Art-Les Masques 2008 models

The Hour Lounge Exclusive: Métiers d'Art-Les Masques 2008 models

Papua New Guinea Mask 
The Hour Lounge Exclusive: Métiers d'Art-Les Masques 2008 models

Your astonishment at existing
amidst so much fortune
is given shape by me questioning
the sound of the rain on the leaves
to murmur secrets to you
that will help you last
a few months or a few years
to tell your adventures
Michel Butor

Brag mask
Papua-New-Guinea. Province of East Sepik, mouth of the Sepik river, Murik – Watam area, region of Karau ( ?)
Wood, pigments, Conus sp. shells. Light restoration of the jagged beard under the left ear
Height: 40.8 cm
Inv. 4099-32

This mask has both the zoomorphic and anthropomorphic characteristics of masks from the mouth of the Sepik river; its very diverse forms all have a long nose evoking a bird’s beak or an insect’s proboscis. Two protuberances pierced with holes, probably representing the ears, could have been used to secure the mask to the face. 

This mask is a masculine representation of aggressive ancestor-spirits, one of whose basic functions was to devour young adolescents during their initiations before returning them to their mothers by vomiting them up whole, transformed into young adults. Until the white man arrived, each male was integrated into society through initiation rites at which he learned how to separate himself from the world of women and mothers and forged a very personal relationship with his brag ancestor, a powerful masculine ancestor, through images of the latter. 

The Hour Lounge Exclusive: Métiers d'Art-Les Masques 2008 models

The Hour Lounge Exclusive: Métiers d'Art-Les Masques 2008 models

Many thanks Alex!
08/19/2008 - 14:52
I continue to be awed by the artistry of these pieces.  For me, they are a remarkable blend of a recognized artform and fine watchmaking.  In fact, I probably consider them to be more "works of art" as opposed to being haute horlogerie.  No matter how you regard them, the craftsmanship is outstanding and clearly evident.  Congratulations to VC for another stunning set of timepieces. Duncan
This is really pieces of Art!!!
08/19/2008 - 15:32
VC shows, if necessary, their great management of different skills and craftmanship. They are all outstanding watches, and if I dared, I would say prefer Mexico and Gabon masks. But without minimizing the others. Thanks Alex for the review.
Truly a piece of art!
08/19/2008 - 16:02

Kudos to VC for producing such a wonderful piece of art... This is haute horologie with a twist!

Fascinating.....Stunning.....Again. I am very, very impressed. nt
08/19/2008 - 17:19
08/19/2008 - 18:26
These are even better than the first four, Alex! The artistry is fantastic. The execution is marvellous and the choice could not have been better. A really intriguing collection that makes you pause at every mask and absorb it - the meaning, the history and the artwork, original and the re-creation. VC has really created a wonderful set of watches, congratulations to them! ... and now if I can find where I put that spare $750,000+ Joseph
Les Masques 2008 models - breathtaking!!!
08/19/2008 - 20:15
I am stunned. VC has outdone itself the second time around. Although I haven't been a big fan of the Masks so far, now I am pretty sure I will get either the Gabon or Papua New Guinea model for sure. Once they will be split into seperate pieces and sold from the second hand of course... WOW, BRAVO VC!!!
YEAAAHH! I knew it!!!
08/19/2008 - 22:52
Ah Ah! I was right with the maya mask It is mesmerizing! It's definitively my favourite one! I can't stop looking at this face which seems to be whispering some hidden secret from afterlife...
Sorry for being the party pooper
08/19/2008 - 23:28
but I am a little bit disappointed with the 2nd lot of Les Masques. I really like the Japan watch, but I'm not too keen on the other 3... Hopefully they will grow on me the same way the first 4 did! Thank you Alex for the news flash anyway Cheers, Francois
Thanks Alex !
08/20/2008 - 00:55
Thanks a lot for this report. I really love the Gabon mask, it's absolutely beautiful.
Thanks, Alex.
08/20/2008 - 03:07

Although I knew from our last SIHH get together that Japan would be included in this installment of the masques, I had no idea of the particular mask to be featured.  To be honest, I imagined something like those that came out in the traditional Japanese Noh theater as they were probably had a stronger visual impact.  I didn't expect it to be quite this serene (on the other hand, the Gabon and New Zealand masks have an almost comical touch to them). Nevertheless, I have to commend you for the superb photos.  Not only do they show how detailed these individual pieces are, they also give us an idea of how the mini sculptures are made to "float" inside the watches.  Its hard to explain but they really look like they are floating or sitting atop the watches. It was good that I got to see the first batch in Geneva because these watches really have to be seen to be fully appreciated!! Thanks again, Chief. Cheers! Kazumi

08/20/2008 - 18:42

These artistic designs, married with innovative technical features, are truly groundbreaking in the field of horology.  VC is really on to something with their current direction

Re: Beautifull,
08/21/2008 - 19:07
I especcialy love the Japan mask, although i thought that that hair and ears of the Buddha, is  more Birmese then Japanese, would love to see them in the flesh. Cheers, Michel
Marvelous!!!!! ....
08/22/2008 - 03:17
.... especialy the Gabon Mask!! I don't know if it s an optical effect, but the Mask of the Japan Mask seems to be reall really small and swimming in the dial