Timeless Art

Timeless Art

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Vacheron Constantin’s Les Masques collection is a matter of horological magic and the commitment of a team to surpass the limits of possibility. A Watch World feature

Masks have a function associated with initiations and religious rites and denote social distinction. They are, at the same time, the personification of a divinity and a spiritual entity as well as a mirror held out to men across time and borders, encouraging them to ask themselves those universal questions relating to the mysteries of birth, life and death, and to the relationship between the visible and invisible, between the human and the divine.

Indeed, masks were born of a necessity and used at every ritual to mark the seasons. Accompanying both the living and the dead, they possessed a clear chronological dimension.

Setting aside the symbolism and magic associated with these masks, there’s a certain logic in bringing tribal art and the art of watch-making together: both are the offspring of time. The real sculptor of an object, the one who gives it its patina and significance, who hollows out or softens its contours, is time. It is also easy to draw a parallel between the anonymous work of a sculptor who has created a mask and that of a watchmaker at his workbench, toiling away for months, sometimes years, to bring a new movement to life. When the work is finished, both craftsmen are dispossessed of the object, which does not usually bear their name. Instead, it becomes the property of the person who uses it and passes it down to later generations, bearing with it so many questions and so few answers.

In 2005 Vacheron Constantin celebrated 250 years of uninterrupted history. This jubilee event, unique in the annals of watch-making, was a perfect opportunity for the Geneva-based manufacture to demonstrate its mastery of horology with exploits that redefined the limits of what is possible. Though proud of its past, Vacheron Constantin continues its steady march towards the future in an ongoing quest to create, astound and enchant.

Watch-making is an art requiring fresh starts and continual improvement. How else can one go on creating surprises? Thanks in particular to one of its founders, François Constantin, the manufacture’s name and reputation are synonymous with distant horizons. An accomplished ambassador and tireless traveller, he crisscrossed the world in hazardous conditions to spread the company’s watch-making expertise on other continents. By 1820, he was already exploring opportunities in China and in 1833 the first Vacheron Constantin watches were crossing the Atlantic. The company had realised very early of the necessity of gaining a foothold in the New World and opened a subsidiary in New York before going on to open other markets in Brazil in 1840, and India ten years later.

Can a timepiece serve as a cultural bridge between nations? Vacheron Constantin thinks so. The company felt the need to go back to the basics and pay homage to man. It was a long journey in search of man’s roots to focus on one of the most beautiful expressions of his soul. The company’s master watchmakers and designers considered several possibilities. But, as it turned out, the choice of masks was an obvious one for Geneva is extremely fortunate in having the Barbier-Mueller Museum, one of the world’s finest museums of primitive art. Its proximity guided Vacheron Constantin in its final choice. The Métiers d’Art “Les Masques” collection, therefore, grew out of a reflection on the near and far, the past, present and future, and the process of constant renewal.

Some partnerships are so obviously meant to be that it seems amazing they have not taken shape before. But would the museum be willing to lend its treasures for months on end so that they could be reproduced on the dial of a collector’s watch? It took a special encounter for Vacheron Constantin and the Barbier-Mueller Museum to find an opportunity to mingle their destinies in a collection of timepieces transcended by primitive art. Three things convinced museum owner Jean Paul Barbier of the project’s beauty and significance: a preliminary drawing, a lunch during which he and the Vacheron Constantin team were able to share their common passion for beautiful objects, and the manufacture’s philosophy. The rest was a matter of horological magic and the commitment of a team to surpass the limits of possibility.