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Vanitas vanitatum, the relentless passing of time
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Vanitas vanitatum, the relentless passing of time

Wednesday, 10 October 2012
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Christophe Roulet
Editor-in-chief, HH Journal

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3 min read

What more evocative allegory for these words from the book of Ecclesiastes, which evoke human “vanity” and the transience of human life, than the skull. An imagery watchmakers have been quick to seize upon.

In the collective conscience, a skull, usually above two crossbones, is the symbol flown by pirates and other swashbuckling outlaws of the seven seas. Yet the skull also represents a more profound and immutable notion that is rooted in the human condition. As the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes reminds us, vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas (vanity of vanities, all is vanity); our destiny is to die. Such memento mori leave us in doubt that whatever wealth and opulence, pleasures and glory we enjoy, the Grim Reaper will ultimately visit us all. Such must be the order of the species, as the skull so eloquently symbolises. “To be, or not to be” asks Hamlet in his famous soliloquy on life and death; death recalled to him later by Yorick’s skull.

A rich past

This notion of vanitas has inspired painters throughout the centuries; countless still lifes depict a skull as an allusion to the fraility of human life and Man’s imminent mortality. Naturally, watchmakers too were drawn to a symbol so intimately linked to the passing of time. From the seventeenth century, it became more common for pocket watches and table clocks to borrow the form of a skull. Examples include pieces by Nicolous Schmidt, Nicolas de Bary, Marc Lagisse and James Harmar, among others. Similarly, the dials of timepieces associated with Freemasonry are often adorned with a human skull as to enter Masonic life implies an end to all previous existence.

A profusion of new models

This theme, after a period of neglect, now returns. Who could forget the famous Bubble watches by Corum, whose Baron, Gangster and Jolly Roger versions represent different facets of Man’s fate. Bell & Ross followed suit with an Airborne collection that even includes a tourbillon. More recently, Richard Mille stepped into the fray with its Tourbillon RM 052 Skull, along with Hublot and its Skull Bang, Perrelet with its Turbine Toxic, and of course Daniel Strom’s baroque Memento Mori and Fiona Krüger’s sculptural Memento Mori, inspired by a watch owned by Mary Queen of Scots and the death imagery of the Mexican Dias de los Muertos. Its skull-shaped case houses a skeleton movement. Even Swatch has joined in with its Full-Blooded Black Skull.

“There is no master except the absolute master, death”, said Hegel. Si vis vitam para mortem, declared the ancients, a maxim taken up by Freud and which tells us “if you would endure life, be prepared for death”. Such an admonition worn on the wrist takes on a singular air. Even though fashion has latched on to the theme, pirate references and appearances aside, to count time this way is to acknowledge the rules that govern our human condition, when each second that passes takes us closer to the fatal moment.

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