Inspired by a collection of the world's finest primitive artwork, the designers have created timepieces that are beautiful and mysterious Vacheron Constantin's latest surprise collection - Metiers d'Art Les Masques - conveys a new message on the function of a watch - a timepiece that also serves as a cultural bridge between nations. The idea for this collection was grown out of an awareness of a renewed interest in tribal art. The so-called primitive arts are currently experiencing a new golden age, as witnessed by the long-awaited opening of the Quai Branly Museum in Paris and by record auction prices: in June 2006, for example, a Fang mask fetched Euro5.9million (HK$62 million) at French auction house Hotel Drouot. It was the largest sum ever paid at an auction for a piece of tribal art. Executives, master watchmakers and designers at Vacheron Constantin in Geneva then decided to feature traditional masks from different nations in their new creations. Coincidently, Geneva's Barbier-Mueller Museum possesses one of the world's finest collections of primitive artwork, providing them with a major source of inspiration. But one obstacle remained: to win over the museum. Would it be willing to lend its treasures for months so they could be reproduced on the dial of a collector's watch? In the end, three things convinced the museum's owner, Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller, 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. Twelve masks were selected from the Barbier-Mueller collection for small-scale reproduction in gold. They will repose at the centre of each timepiece in a collection that will span 3,000 years and four continents, reflecting the brand's long history and its spirit of openness to the world. Because Vacheron Constantin understands the value of time, it respected the time needed to create such exceptional pieces. Long months were required first of all to perfect the movement, and then the techniques with which the master craftsmen could reproduce these works of art in miniature. There had to be plenty of time for questioning, reflection and invention. A collection cannot be hurried. That is why the Metiers d'Art Les Masques collection is a story that will take time to unfold. Every year, for three years, a boxed set of four different masks will be presented in a limited series of 25. By the end, the complete collection will comprise 12 masks, for a total of 300 watches. The first set of four was presented in April at the 2007 Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in Geneva. Each timepiece is equipped with the automatic Calibre 2460G4 movement so the time can be read without any hands. By means of a set of wheels and gears, four discs indicate the hours, minutes, days and date in windows, leaving the centre of the dial empty for the masks to be placed there and for the craftsmen to give free rein to their creativity. The movement has been redesigned to receive the masks, which are the focus of attention. To ensure that they are under the spotlight, designers conceal the movement. A clever technique using transparency and specially-treated glass creates the impression that the masks are floating. Each sapphire crystal has a different tint, obtained by a unique metallisation process, so that it sets off the colour of the mask. The effect is breathtaking: the miniature sculpture seems within reach, freed from its showcase, like a motionless automaton, a silent guardian of ancestral secrets. The case is fashioned in white gold for the Alaskan mask, pink gold for the Indonesian mask, yellow gold for the Chinese mask, and platinum for the Congolese mask. The Alaskan mask adorned with tufts of horse hair across the top came originally from the Tlingit Indians, who lived on the north west coast of America; and the Indonesia mask from Wayang Topeng theatre of Java. The Chinese death mask was unearthed from a sumptuous Liao Dynasty tomb. The Congolese mask is believed to have been made by the Mahongwe or Ngare people of the upper reaches of the Likuala River. It required talent to give voice, if not life, to the masks. Michel Butor, author of two books on the museum, wrote short poems in prose dedicated to each mask, which circle the sapphire dial in letters of gold. The writer's lines follow each other in a spiral that seems to have no beginning and no end, a mysterious message that can only be read when the light strikes it from a certain angle. This effect is achieved by vacuum metallisation, a sophisticated technological process by which the gold letters are sprayed onto a sapphire crystal. Thanks to the multiple play of light and transparency, the watch has secrets that it will only ever share with its owner.