For a Former CIA Master of Disguises, An Eye for an Eye

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

When he retired in 1993 after more than 30 years as a disguise specialist for the Central Intelligence Agency, Robert Barron wasn't ready to stop doing the work he loved. The Bluemont resident founded Custom Prosthetic Designs in Ashburn.

The one-man shop specializes in lifelike silicone prosthetics for people with birth defects or missing features. Barron has sculpted an ear for a 5-year-old born without one, a nose for a cancer survivor and fingers for a survivor of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon.

If his work, shown in before-and-after photos on his Web site, appears startling in its verisimilitude, that's because Barron worries the details, down to the hairs visible on an ear and the freckles on a nose. "It's just like in the Agency," he says. "I wouldn't issue [agents] a disguise if their life would be in jeopardy" as the result of a less-than-perfect disguise.

Fabrication takes at least a couple of months -- from making impressions to shooting photos to taking measurements to the final fitting. Some of his creations are attached to the body with prosthetic adhesive, while others use titanium screws embedded in bone or natural skeletal undercuts such as the ocular orbit.

Barron shies away from describing his work as "cosmetic." "Everything that I do has a purpose in the medical arena," he says, from noses that hold up glasses to ears that improve hearing. When people leave his office, he says, they're "smiling ear to ear" -- even if one of them is a fake.

-- Kathleen Hom

© 2007 The Washington Post Company