THE MASK There are the inner visages we possess and there are the faces that we show the outside world. Faces that exude serenity when our hearts race; faces that express calm when all that’s within is not. The face we show the outside world is our mask. Our extrapolated representation of codified behavior filled with the poised equanimity of the Japanese Noh stage mask and the inscrutability of Batman’s horned helmet. Masks evoke arousing images of the erotic bacchanal of the annual Venice Carnival and act as the connective tissue that links the schizoid personas of bi-polar superheroes. Masks have also made countless appearances in literature. In Alexandre Dumas’s The Man in the Iron Mask, it is the mask that becomes the central narrative device and an embodiment of the oppression of the innocent by an unjust regime.
But in primitive cultures, masks had a more awe-inspiring, archetypal meaning. Masks were used to commune with the spirits of ancestors and to tap into the deep churning metaphysical unconscious in Africa and Southeast Asia. Masks gave transformative powers to the animist cultures of the Native Americans, and funeral masks were the definitive act of finality in Chinese culture. Masks had the ability to transform and act as a bridge between two states of liminality to help usher man from one period of life into the next. So it was that as Vacheron Constantin’s CEO Juan Carlos Torres, marketing and production leader Christian Selmoni and designer Vincent Kauffmann searched for a theme to reconnect their vision of high watchmaking with the roots of human culture, they chanced upon the theme of primitive masks.

THE RISE OF PRIMITIVE ART Primitive art only came into vogue at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. It was ultimately modern artists, in particular Cubists like Picasso and Surrealists like Max Ernst, who were most influenced by this raw, archetypal imagery. Searching for ways to express the inner life of individuals stripped and bereft of the façade of beauty, Picasso attempted to capture inner emotional moods in his fractured vision of heightened reality. He wanted to show mankind raw and base. To this day, the left two faces of the “ladies” depicted in Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon are still believed to be directly influenced by masks from Africa’s Congo. From the 1940s through the end of the past millennium, primitive art — in particular, masks — continued to become increasingly collectable, culminating in the June 2006 sale of a Fang mask for 5.9 million euros. Masks were of particular interest to collectors as they were not created purely as art works, but to serve purposes in religious rites or theater. It was this quality of having been used by the cultures that gave life to them that added a deeper meaning for collectors.
So, it dawned on Torres that primitive masks could be the perfect theme for a series of extraordinary watches. Fortunately for Vacheron Constantin’s creative team, their birthplace of Geneva is also home to one of the world’s most renowned collections of primitive masks: the Barbier-Mueller museum, founded by world-renowned collector, Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller.
Intrigued by Torres’s idea, Barbier-Mueller allowed Vacheron Constantin full access to his priceless collection on the condition that any watch inspired by his art works would have to remain extremely faithful to the original masks. But the question remained: how do you place a mask on the dial of a watch and still read the time?

MÉTIERS D’ART In 2005, to commemorate its 250th anniversary, Vacheron Constantin created a watch named Métiers d’Art.
This watch utilized four rotating discs, each placed to the outer edge of the dial with indications for hour, minute, month and date, read off the perimeter. This resulted in a timepiece where the majority of the dial became a blank canvas for artistic expression in the form of miniatures engraved to represent the four seasons. Torres realized that this horological platform would be the perfect home for miniature engraved masks inspired by the Barbier-Mueller collection.
Métiers d’ Art Les Masques will be made over three years, each series of four watches, bearing four different masks from the Barbier-Mueller museum, will come in a set of all four watches. 25 sets will be made each year. In selecting the very first masks, Torres was adamant about finding examples that collectively expressed Vacheron Constantin’s explorative global view of the world. Even in the early 1800s, Francois Constantin traveled the world to bring Geneva high watchmaking to new cultures. Torres ultimately selected a Chinese Liao Dynasty funeral mask, an Alaskan Tlingit Indian mask, a mask from Congo (Brazzaville) that was once believed to have inspired Picasso, and an Indonesian Wayang Topeng theatrical mask. Collectively, these masks were representative of the world’s oldest cultures. Says Torres, “It was important that the first series of watches began to tell the very early story of mankind.”

MODERN ARTISAN TECHNIQUES As ancient as the masks were, Vacheron Constantin embraced innovative modern technology to render them in all their detailed glory. It was first decided that each mask would be crafted entirely from gold. To achieve this with perfect, proportional replication, a three-dimensional image of each mask was placed inside a computer. The image was then manipulated to find the perfect positioning for the mask on the dial. Laser engraving was employed to render the basic form of each mask. After which, engravers used their burins to add details such as eyes and also to perfectly replicate the marks left by the sculptors of the original masks. In addition, the varying colors and textures found on the masks were duplicated using chemical coloring techniques. Even oxidation was replicated using deposits of oxidized copper placed on the Fang mask. Each mask was placed onto a special sapphire dial that obscured the inner workings of the movement so as to make a bold statement that, here, the art works were of primary importance. Finally, the sapphire dials are decorated with poems written by Michel Butor in tribute to each mask.

The beauty of Vacheron Constantin’s Les Masques collection is that in a world increasingly populated by the hyperbolic sensory overload of marketing, one brand has demonstrated that it is possible to awe collectors by creating a truly emotionally expressive series of special watches that reconnect us with the very roots of our culture. In many ways, this path is the most audaciously creative and intellectually challenging to tread, but Vacheron Constantin has done so with a precision and artistic passion that is nothing short of inspiring.


CHINA Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller came across this Liao Dynasty funeral mask at the Biennale des Antiquaires in Paris. He explains, “I stopped dead in my tracks. There in front of me, in a display case, was a gilded Liao mask… watching me through its malevolent eyes, narrow sinuous slits.”

The Liao Dynasty was founded in 907 by the Inner Mongolian Quidan Chief, Yelü Deguang — later renamed the Emperor Taizong. Although the Quidan adopted Chinese customs and were influenced by Buddhism, they also preserved their own shamanistic culture. This mask is representative of this culture. Liao Dynasty funeral masks were gilded in silver for nobility, and in gold for royalty.
Says Barbier-Mueller “I don’t collect the art of Imperial China… I am only interested in ancient civilizations when sculptors and metal workers were craftsmen who made things that were necessary — by that, I mean things used for magical, religious and funerary purposes.”

ALASKA The Tlingit are native Americans who are the neighbors of the Inuit from Alaska. They have a shamanistic culture, where masks are used to cure the sick and protect villages from outside aggression.
Young men who desire to become shamans spend eight days in the wilderness searching for their vision. One integral part of Tlingit culture was a shamanistic ritual called the “Mask Dance”, where a whirling Shaman would transform himself into the various creatures encountered during his vision quest, using masks.

CONGO This mask once belonged to the collection at the Museum of Modern Art and was purchased in the belief that it inspired some of the figures in Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon. This painting’s theme of prostitutes in repose gained its significance as one of the first works in which we see Picasso’s move into the Cubist style that would define his most famous artistic period. Such has been the influence of primitive art on modern art that William Rubin, the director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA wrote a famous two-volume catalogue for the legendary exhibition “Primitivism in 20th Century Art”.
It was later discovered that this Congolese mask arrived in France after Picasso had already completed his famous painting, but the mask still gained significance from this famous connection. From the Kota culture of Gabon in Northwest Congo, this mask is distinguished by the three decorative scars on its left cheek, which were at one time believed to be the inspiration for the aggressive shading used on the faces in Picasso’s famous painting.

INDONESIA While Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller was not fond of modern Topeng masks of Javanese theater, this ancient Wayang Topeng mask had an immediate emotional effect on him. He explains, “You only have to look at it: the distinction of the face, the elegance of its features, the sophistication of its hairstyle, the richness of its ornaments, the subtlety of its beard, the refinement of the make-up, the delicacy of the arabesques — everything points to the noble character of the person represented by the mask.”
Wayang Topeng is an indigenous form of Javanese theatre where performers grip masks with their teeth using a rubber strip. Narrators and singers develop the plot as actors perform the accompanying physical gestures. H

Also Read