There are few watches whose timeless yet novel designs have marked the history of watchmaking. Chanel’s J12, first unveiled in 2000, happens to be one of them.
At this year’s Baselworld, where the fashion house also presented new bejeweled versions of its Code Coco and its Boy.Friend in tweed, Chanel dared to do the unthinkable: it presented a new version of its J12 model with a refreshed face and a jazzed-up movement, dubbed the “J12 of Today and Tomorrow.”
For the unveiling of the new J12, Nicolas Beau, chief executive of Chanel’s Watch Division had invited Arnaud Chastaingt, director of Chanel’s Watch Creation Studio, to tell the tale of the dilemma he faced as he contemplated transforming the J12.
“We wanted to put a face to all our watch creations,” Beau said. “In general, we do not mention our in-house designers, with the exception of Karl Lagerfeld of course and Olivier Polge for perfumes, but we thought it was important to reveal the face behind our watches.”
When the J12’s creator, Jacques Helleu, then artistic director of Chanel’s jewelry division, came up with his original prototype—having already opened the way to watchmaking for Chanel with the Première—his intention was to design a watch for the exclusively feminine-oriented fashion house that men could wear without seeming to have raided their wife’s jewelry chest.
For Helleu, the watch had to be black, sporty, unisex, yet unmistakably Chanel. His intuition turned out to be on mark, and the watch was an instant success when first shown in 2000.
Nearly two decades later, the J12, named after the J-Class single-masted racing sailboats in the America’s Cup sailing race, continues to be a bestseller at Chanel. It revolutionized the industry as a luxury sports watch in black ceramic, an unprecedented material in watchmaking.
Altering the face of the design of the J12 was an exercise that for Chastaingt, director of Chanel’s Watch Creation Studio, became akin to “messing with perfection.”
“This was the most complex exercise of my career,” Chastaingt said. “It is simpler to start from scratch than to retouch an icon.”
Since 2013, Chastaingt, who until this year had remained in the shadows, has been the designer behind an ever-growing line-up of watches at Chanel for both men and women, including the Monsieur de Chanel and its new version in black, the Boy.Friend including in the new tweed, the Code Coco, not to mention Chanel’s spectacular métiers d’art watches. Still, he felt the J12 was a challenge he had to measure himself against.
“In 2013, when I joined Chanel, the J12 was already there,” Chastaingt said. “It was a revelation and love at first sight for me.”
“But I soon realized that I had to define my relationship with the J12,” he said. “Before I could touch it, I had to understand it, but whatever happened, I could not leave it untouched because it was too inspirational for me.”
For several years, Chastaingt tip-toed toward retouching the J12, and produced various iterations of the model, minimized on a black glove, set on an embroidered cuff bracelet, placed on a ring, or produced in a marquetry of ceramic, all experimental exercises presented as capsule collections which did not alter the lines of the main design.
“When I finally decided to make the move, I chose to define my relationship with the J12 as that of a muse with its creator,” Chastaingt said.
“In the end, we chose a paradox, which was to change everything without changing much at all,” he said.
The new J12 unveiled at Baselworld was so subtly freshened-up that it was easy to miss, at first glance, its transformation. It is still black or white, but clearly sharper, faintly curvier, with the depth of its case augmented slightly—by 1 mm—to fit its most significant new feature, an automatic movement.
The movement, known as the Calibre 12.1 was made exclusively for Chanel by Kenissi, a movement maker for the watch brand, Tudor, owned by the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation that also controls Rolex. Chanel also announced it had taken a 20 percent stake in Kenissi, as supplier that would allow it to make the new J12 in larger quantities than Chanel’s own existing production capacity allowed.
“To create a movement of this quality in industrial quantities, we needed a strategic partner with a technologically important input,” Beau said. “We met with Tudor in 2016, and decided that a participation in Kenissi would be necessary in view of the long-term relationship we had in mind.”
The new caliber confirms Chanel’s commitment to “serious” watchmaking, and its development of complications will surely elevate its timepieces onto a higher playing field vis-à-vis watch connoisseurs, all without losing sight of the Maison’s design codes.
“At Chanel, technique is always in the service of design,” Beau said.
With its clear caseback, the new J12 offers a view onto the movement which is now decorated with the codes of Chanel, including on the oscillating weight, to preserve Chanel’s graphic signature as was already done in the past, including with the Monsieur model.
“Before this, there was a steel case on the back which could be scratched,” Chastaingt said. “With the glass caseback, we have given the watch eternal youth.”
The new manufacture movement allows for a 70-hour power reserve, chronograph certification and a five-year warranty, all features that, chances are, could be seen in Chanel’s watches going forward.
Elsewhere on the watch, seventy percent of the J12’s components are new, though every detail was changed with surgical precision.
On the dial, now more legible, the curves on the numerals have been adjusted, and are now made in ceramic instead of composite materials. The crown is larger yet the cabochon less prominent. The fonts on the dial are finer. The minute and the hours are balanced in width and perfectly contrasted in black and white.
“In watchmaking, the detail is measured to the 10th of a millimeter,” Chastaingt said.
In the end, the new signature J12 timepiece remains timeless, sporty and gender-neutral, notwithstanding jeweled versions in snow and baguette settings were also presented at Baselworld.
“Refreshing the J12 was an exercise in humility for which we put all creative impulse aside,” Chastaingt said. “Ours was an obsession not to alter the essence of the original creation.”
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