Face Value

Intriguing masks take center stage at Vacheron Constantin


It’s not often that primitive art shows its face in the watch world. But Vacheron Constantin stood out from the packs of floral and sports-theme timepieces at the Swiss watch shows this year to debut Métiers d’Art Les Masques, the first in a series of three collections to celebrate the savage beauty of antique masks. Over the next three years, 75 limited-edition sets of four watches will be produced, with each watch featuring an exactingly reproduced version of a mask from the renowned Barbier-Mueller Museum in Geneva. The first set of four, which will retail for $389,200, caused a stir after its April debut, with one collector putting a 150 percent deposit down to ensure he would get one of the 25 sets produced this year.

“Our clients in general are people who collect art, whether it’s paintings or antiques or cars or whatever,” explains Julien Tornare, the firm’s North American president, “and they see a perfect connection between watchmaking and fine art.” New collections will be available in 2008 and 2009, and lists of potential purchasers are already forming.

The premier collection derives from masks that originated in Asia, Africa, North America and Oceania. To accurately miniaturize them, craftsmen studied 3-D computer models of each and set about re-creating every indentation, scratch and age spot present on the originals. The 18-karat yellow gold Chinese mask, for example, was given a patina with carefully oxidized copper, while the Alaskan mask got topped with strands of carbon fibers instead of horsehair. Yet for all their artistic cred, these watches aren’t without function—an innovative handless movement with rotating wheels reveals the day, date, hour and minute at the perimeter of the watch. And, for a scholarly touch, poems by the celebrated French writer Michel Butor encircle each face in gold lettering visible only when the watch is tilted at a certain angle, adding a soupçon of mystery to these immensely collectible works.

Vacheron Constantin’s Métiers d’Art Les Masques watches with alligator bands, clockwise from top: platinum Congolese watch, 18k yellow gold Chinese watch, 18k pink gold Indonesian watch, 18k white gold Alaskan watch, $389,200 for the set, 877.862.7555,