The past few years have seen a plethora of luxury fashion brands launching mechanical watches – Burberry, Davidoff, Fendi, Botega Veneta, to name but a few – but the company that blazed the trail more than a quarter of a century ago, and the maison that still does it better than any other, is the one and only House of Chanel.
Earning its stripes as a producer of haute horlogerie as well as haute couture, Chanel has been creating timepieces for 26 years, giving the world masterpieces such as 2012’s Chanel Première Flying Tourbillon and the limited edition Coromandel series based on the screens that were given to Gabrielle Chanel by her lover Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel, and that still line her Paris apartment today. But Chanel’s signature collection, the one that is perhaps one of the most imitated watch designs of modern times, and the one that causes most excitement among buyers, is the Chanel J12.
Designed by the legendary Jacques Helleu, the Chanel J12 – named for the America’s Cup J Class yachts that were the inspiration behind it – was Introduced in 2000 and branded as a ‘fine jewellery sports watch’. An instant smash the watch ticked many boxes – it was unisex, water-resistant to 200m and incredibly resistant to wear and tear thanks to its use of high-tech ceramic.
With the original J12, Chanel was not trying to create a here-today-gone-tomorrow fashion watch, but one that would endure the passage of time. As Nicolas Beau, Chanel’s Director of Watches says: “Only Chanel could have come up with the J12. It was a watch that looked like no other before it and this is because we do not brief our designers. They have total creative freedom with the only restraint being ‘can we make it’? Because of this freedom we are able to create products that have never existed before. We use simplicity and creativity to create something that lies between being trendy and timeless.”
The real achievement for the Chanel J12 was its world first in terms of material. Although Rado had already experimented with ceramic, the designs it produced lacked the streamlining of the Chanel piece, whose architecture was guided by the input of a structural engineer and influenced by the brake lining of a fighter jet. The first model was in Chanel’s signature black, the colour being incorporated throughout the ceramic itself rather than being delivered by a top coating, giving a deeper, more intense hue.
Three years after its launch, the Chanel J12 was revisited in pure white. Inspired by the camellias that Coco wore in her buttonhole, the piece was designed to capture and reflect light. “The year 2003 was a strange time to launch anything new,” says Beau. “There was unrest in the world generally plus problems in Hong Kong. Everyone thought we were mad to introduce a watch that was pure white but it became the talk of Baselworld and today everyone is doing a similar thing.” To celebrate the 10th anniversary this year, Chanel launched the limited edition J12 White Phantoms in 33mm quartz and 38mm automatic versions.
The collection went from strength to strength introducing complications – a chronograph, a diving model and a GMT followed and, in 2006, the Chanel J12 Tourbillon featuring the 05-T.1 movement with ultra-thin ceramic bottom-plate (just 2mm thick), optical glass cage and white gold bridge made its debut, later developing into the oh-so feminine Chanel J12 Tourbillon Haute Joaillerie with 568 baguette-cut rubies embracing the watch’s bezel, case and bracelet and nine index diamonds supporting a tourbillon at 12 o’clock.
Then in 2007, the Chanel J12 suddenly took a very masculine turn with the introduction of the part aluminium Superleggera – an homage to the ‘extra light’ aluminium bodies and frames of 1950s Italian company Touring, which supplied parts for some of the most renowned sport’s cars of the past century, including the Aston Martin DB4 and DB5.
Credibility among the watch world was only increased In 2008 when a collaboration with Audemars Piguet resulted in the Calibre 3125 and again in 2010 when, in conjunction with AP Renaud et Papi, the J12 TRM was unveiled with a pop-up dial-side crown allowing perfect fluidity of the case. The minutes are read via a retrograde hand to 10, followed by a digital display between 10 and 19 before the minute hand again takes over.
With complications conquered, Chanel then moved back to material advancement with the stunning Chromatic – ceramic blended with titanium and then diamond-powder polished to create a colour that shifts between black and white with a metal-like effect highlighted by mirror-polished rhodium-plated hands and numerals on a satin-finished dial.
And the latest addition to the range is the super-romantic Chanel J12 Moonphase collection of black white and titanium ceramic jewellery watches that had their consumer launch last month. Displaying the phases of the moon on a deep blue aventurine disc at 6 o’clock, the current phase identified via a serpentine hand.
So there it is. Year-on-year the watch world waits with baited breath to see what Chanel’s iconic range will deliver. And, as we move ever further into the 21st century, it is time for Chanel’s numbers ‘5’ and ‘19’ to make space for a new digit – all hail the mighty ‘12’.
More resources about the Chanel J12 on the Official Chanel Website.