Behind the mask

Behind the mask

A full set from the first series of Vacheron Constantin’s Métiers d’Art Tribal Masks collection is a highlight of The Champion Collection: Part VI at Christie’s Hong Kong

A miniature replica of a mysterious mask from the 4th-century nomadic people who went on to found the imperial Chinese Liao dynasty is probably not the first thing you’d expect to find in a luxury Swiss watch.

The collaboration between Vacheron Constantin, the oldest watchmaker in Switzerland, and the Barbier-Mueller Museum in Geneva, the finest private museum of tribal art in the world, makes perfect sense however, representing a profound meditation on time and space.

Copied from the life-sized original in the museum, the tiny Chinese Qidan mask appears to float on the sapphire crystal dial, encircled by gold letters that can only be read when the light strikes them at certain angles.

When it was released in 2007, the watch was accompanied by three others, incorporating micro-masks from the Mahongwe people of the Congo, the wayang topeng shadow-puppet and masked theatre traditions of Indonesia, and the Tlingit Indians of Alaska — all similarly modelled on originals in the museum’s collections of 7,000 pieces from the four corners of the globe.

This first series was followed by two others in 2008 and 2009, each featuring four different models from Asia, Africa, Oceania and the Americas.

The result was the 12 models that make up the Vacheron Constantin Métiers d’Art Tribal Masks collection. The first four are offered as highlights of The Champion Collection, Part VI: The Finest Watchmaking on 27 November at Christie’s Hong Kong, while Champion Collection sets from the second and third series will be offered in subsequent sales.

Vacheron Constantin has long been a favourite with luxury watch collectors, says Alexandre Bigler, vice president and head of Watches at Christie’s Asia Pacific. As well as being the oldest watchmaker in Switzerland, the Swiss manufacture is celebrated for producing highly complicated watches such as the 57-complication Ref. 57260, as well as for its inventive design and meticulous craftsmanship.

The collaboration with Barbier-Mueller Museum dates back to the watchmaker’s 250th anniversary in 2005, when president Juan Carlos Torres approached museum founder Jean-Paul Barbier-Mueller (1930-2016) to produce a collection of culturally significant timepieces.

Like the full-sized masks in the museum that inspired them, the 12 Metiers d’Arts Tribal Masks collection are genuine works of art.

In watchmaking, Métiers d’Art references timepieces that incorporate traditional decorative techniques hand-applied by master craftsmen. In this case, the micro-masks were all hand-engraved in gold, and delicately coloured to reproduce the originals as faithfully as possible, taking care to retain their original character (as portraits of people or animals) or respect their original use in rituals or ceremonies.

The mysterious gold letters, meanwhile, are prose poems specific to each mask by the French writer Michel Butor (1926-2016), sprayed onto the sapphire crystal dials in a spiral that seemingly has no beginning or end.

The movement was also redesigned to allow the time to be read without hands — through four rotating discs that indicate the hours, minutes, day and date in four windows.

Full sets from the first series are rare, says Bigler. Only 25 sets of each series were produced, presented in a boxed set with each of the four models in a different case (yellow-gold, platinum, white-gold and rose-gold). Offered individually, the watches coming to auction are also in pristine condition.

The second series features a ritual Buddha mask from Japan, a Brag mask (representing ancestor spirits) from the mouth of the Sepik river in Papua New Guinea, a portrait mask from the Mayan civilisation of Mexico, and a Pibibuze mask (mask of a man) from the Kwele people of Gabon.

The final 2009 series, meanwhile, comprises a wayang mask from the Sasak people of Lombok, a kaolin-covered wooden Ngontang mask from the Fang people of Gabon, a basalt mask from the Mezcala culture of Mexico, and a mask worn by monks from the Dge-lugs-pa (Yellow Hat Sect) in Tibet, linked to the cult of Kalacakra (the ‘Wheel of Time’).

Sign up today

Christie’s Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week


The collaboration between the watchmaker and the museum went further, also including an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum in New York and the creation of a foundation that funded research into cultures on the verge of extinction — all with the aim of raising awareness both of the museum’s collections and the extraordinary cultures that created them.

More recent Vacheron Constantin Métier d’Art models, meanwhile, have also taken their cue from epic themes of history, art and culture, namely the Chinese Zodiac, the great explorers and the great civilisations.