“Chanel”. The word alone resonates like a legend. But while Chanel belongs to the history of fashion that was transformed forever by Mademoiselle, it is also a living legend whose history is still being made.
Yet, being an absolute icon in the world of haute couture doesn’t necessarily mean an open invitation into the hierarchical world of timekeeping. An invitation into this elite domain remains a question of not only continuity but also, and more subtly, one of true legitimacy.
When it comes to legitimacy, this is something that cannot be decreed. It is constructed step by step. It is acquired by mastering various mÉtiers and dominating watchmaking’s savoir-faire. It is a slow process of sedimentation that passes through many imperative stages.
When Chanel began making watches in 1987 with its ‘PremiÈre’ model, it set out on the road it wanted to follow. The brand’s approach reminds us a little like entering into holy orders - it is about taking one measured step at a time, and doing so forever. Chanel’s chosen road is heading towards the long-term with stops for the progressive acquisition of true authenticity as it draws deep into its own values. And, one of its values is quite central: the brand requires that technology support the design, not the other way around.
Place VendÔme - Paris, Chanel No 5 perfume, Chanel’s “Première” Watch
With this in mind, the brand approached watchmaking from the point of view of a stylist and designer. Under the brilliant creative direction of the late Jacques Helleu, Chanel’s adventure into the world of watches in 1987 began with a creation that captured the magic of numerology (Chanel N°5 oblige) as well as the significance of being the first watch. It was thus aptly entitled ‘PremiÈre’. Like the stopper of the N°5 perfume bottle and like the Place VendÔme where the watch was born, the ‘PremiÈre’ also took on a rectangular shape with cut-off corners.
In keeping with the patrimony handed down by Coco Chanel, the brand selected the codes of black and white. So, whether ‘PremiÈre’ was made in black lacquer or white mother-of-pearl, a style was born - a style, which, against the grain of watchmaking traditions, placed technology in the service of the aesthetic.
In 1987, it was still rare to see a ladies’ watch that was not simply a reduced size of a masculine timekeeper but rather was an object designed specifically for women. Right from the start, the ‘PremiÈre’ marked a design revolution, a radical change in perception, somewhat like the little black dress that Miss Chanel launched in the 1930s.
Now, more than twenty years later, the ‘PremiÈre’ continues to occupy a central part of the brand’s offer. This year, the line is returning in full force with a series of models imbued with an astounding purity, available in all types of materials—steel and white or black ceramic, 18 carat white gold and white or black ceramic, with a case set with 52 diamonds and, at choice, a bracelet also set with 216 diamonds.
The ‘J12’: the master’s touch
In 2000, Jacques Helleu and his Chanel team created a sensation with the launch of the ‘J12’. It truly demonstrated the master’s touch. A perfectly designed watch with a sporty allure, this piece would, over the next few years, establish itself as one of the first watch icons of the 21st century. It would also elevate ceramic to the rank of noble materials.
It took seven years to develop the timekeeper that Jacques Helleu described as “timeless, indestructible, in brilliant black or dazzling white.” Seven years of work were spent before finally obtaining a stable ceramic that would neither scratch nor oxidize and whose hardness was close to a diamond. Its fabrication technology requires perfect mastery.
Sometimes, starting from zero lets you reach an uncompromising result. This was the case of the ‘J12’, for which Jacques Helleu had to invent, ex nihilo, all the model’s design codes, since, up to that point, Chanel had no masculine traditions. To accomplish his goal, Helleu looked to the automobile for inspiration, as well as to the boats code named ‘J12’ that the Baron Bich fitted out for the America’s Cup of that era. Other inspiration came from Giovanni Agnelli’s last vessel, a sailboat that was totally black - from the hull to the sails.
During these seven years, Chanel earned its stripes in watchmaking. Acquiring a great deal of knowledge, the brand established its own ateliers far from the Place VendÔme, in La Chaux-de-Fonds, at the heart of Swiss timekeeping. The ‘J12’ would rapidly demonstrate the extraordinary versatility of a design that was very pure, very functional, and very readable, yet with both bold and soft lines. The ‘J12’ offered Chanel the opportunity to begin creating and adding more watchmaking functions, thus building up its legitimacy in this domain. The piece’s extremely well balanced design lends itself to all sorts of transformations without losing one ounce of its soul.
The very first all black ceramic ‘J12’ was born in 2000, and came with a ceramic rotating bezel and either a black ceramic bracelet or a rubber strap. In 2002, the watch became a COSC-certified automatic chronograph. The next year, the first white ‘J12’ was introduced, while the white chronograph version saw the light of day the following year, in 2004. In 2005, Chanel launched the very sporty 41-mm ‘J12 Superleggera’ that mixes black micro-granule ceramic with ‘high tech’ anodized aluminium. And 2007 saw the birth of the ‘J12 GMT’, equipped with a chromed GMT hand with a red arrow at the end that points to the second time zone on a 24-hour scale engraved on the exterior ceramic bezel.
J12 Black Jewellery Tourbillon with diamonds, J12 White Jewellery Tourbillon with diamonds, J12 Superleggera in aluminium, ceramic
J12 Rose Gold Jewellery Chronograph with rose sappire or diamonds in white or black ceramic
J12 Quartz Movement Index Diamond, J12 White Chronograph Diamond Indices, J12 Index Emeraudes
J12 GMT Automatic, J12 3125 Automatic, J12 Haute Joaillerie, ceramic and diamonds
A watch - and jewellery - icon
In parallel with the preceding models, the ‘J12’ also began a long relationship with diamonds and precious gemstones. This sporty watch thus also added a high level of refinement, leading to its later status as a true jewellery icon.
Starting already in 2002, the watch demonstrated its jewellery inclinations by offering two hitherto unused contrasting elements, that of the black or white ceramic juxtaposed with the sparkle of black or white diamonds, followed later by the use of other precious stones. In the beginning, only the bezel was stone-set but in 2004, the bezel and bracelets were both studded with diamonds.
In 2005, the brand presented the ‘J12 Index’ line. On its sleek dial, rhodium-plated hands pointed to the hour markers, initially diamonds then rubies. With the dawn of 2006, the ‘J12’ combined diamond hour markers and a ceramic dial set with 110 diamonds in the centre. But since 2004, the ‘J12’ was transformed into the ‘J12 Jewellery’ piece, with dials and bezels set with black and white baguette diamonds. Finally, it became a high jewellery watch available in a variety of sublime models that mixed ceramic, 18 carat white gold, and dazzling displays of diamonds, rubies and emeralds over the entire piece. Today, the watch is entirely crafted in Chanel’s own workshops in La Chaux-de-Fonds.
EntrÉe into Haute Horlogerie
During its time spent creating classic, design, and jewellery pieces, Chanel had not neglected its explorations into the realm of the art of pure watchmaking. In 2005, during the tourbillon craze, Chanel proposed its own interpretation of timekeeping’s flagship complication. This radical departure from it normal activities made an immediate impression. The ‘J12 Tourbillon’ was, in fact, the first ever tourbillon realized with a ceramic plate. With a thickness of 2mm, la plate was machined to a tolerance of 1/100, a feat never before achieved with this material. The upper bridge of the tourbillon carriage is carved in optical glass that carefully emphasizes the tourbillon’s moving parts.
The watch world is taking another look at this grand couturier that prides itself on its many accomplishments in timekeeping. The entry of Chanel into the inner sanctum of Haute Horlogerie has been achieved with as much seriousness as panache.
If there were any remaining doubts about the brand’s watch authenticity, the introduction of the ‘J12 Calibre 3125’ in 2008 will totally dispel them. After nearly a decade in existence, the ‘J12’ has amply proved its worth, but now this icon needs its own prestigious motor - an Haute Horlogerie automatic movement of its very own.
To realize this, Chanel turned to one of the most remarkable Swiss manufacturers in the Haute Horlogerie sector, Audemars Piguet. The initial result of the partnership between the couturier and this independent manufacture (a partnership that continues with no implications on capital) is the 3125 movement based on the AP 3120. In the 3125, Chanel redesigned the balance bridge and clad its gold rotor in black ceramic.
The Chanel/AP 3125 is a highly precise automatic movement whose shock resistance is ensured by the double balance bridge. It also features a large balance with variable moment of inertia that is regulated using eight small regulating weights.
With its precision automatic movement, a barrel that can accumulate 60 hours of power reserve, the gold and ceramic rotor mounted on ceramic ball bearings, a rapid correcting date mechanism, and a balance stop lever that ensures precision time setting, the Chanel/AP 3125 calibre marks the definitive entry of Chanel into the universe of precision Haute Horlogerie.
The decorations and finishing of the movement, as creative and contemporary as they may be, nonetheless respect, to the letter, the codes of traditional watchmaking: chamfering, diamond polishing, polishing, and CÔtes de GenÈve decoration. The movement and the ‘J12’ black ceramic and 18 carat yellow gold case combine to provide true mechanical excellence and graphic perfection.
The Chanel / AP 3125 Automatic movement
Working for the long-term
In these tumultuous times that seem to mark the end of a cycle - one of great excess - Chanel is seeing the fruits of its labour, of its efforts that have targeted the long-term while building up, step by step, true legitimacy in timekeeping. Its approach has “never been directed by market studies or dictated by any sort of reactivity to current trends. Creation is the prime importance,” explains a spokesperson for the brand. “First and foremost, we want to make beautiful watches while remaining completely faithful to ourselves.”
For Nicolas Beau, Chanel’s international director of watches, “the current crisis, even if it may weaken distribution networks, will see customers return to the basics. I dare to believe that, going forward, Chanel will be part of the community that is made up of the most established, perennial, and legitimate watch brands. Chanel has a strong identity, not only in terms of style and design, but also in terms of watchmaking fundamentals.”
Without ever having given in to the fads of the moment, Chanel has patiently developed a unique offer that is unlike anything else and that remains totally dedicated to the heritage and patrimony of the company. (In terms of fads that the brand has ignored, the one that comes most often to mind is the over-the-top watch size. Even with its most masculine timepieces, Chanel has never yielded to ‘trends’ for the sake of trends.)
Over the course of its serene approach, Chanel has made each of its models another step that, in one way or another, will remain in the annals of watchmaking. (Among some of these outstanding models are the delightful MatelassÉe, the floral CamÉlia or the avant-gardist Chocolat, just to cite a few.) In its ateliers in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Chanel is now able to assure the fabrication of all the pieces of the case, except the dials, as well as the assembly and quality control of all their timepieces. In addition, the brand will continue to develop its own technology in the use of ceramic. The brand has laid down its roots as a true manufacturer, and this will ensure its longevity.
It is clear that legitimacy cannot be decreed. It can only be patiently constructed. This is the price to be paid for continuity and perpetuity.
Source: Europa Star December-January 2009 Magazine Issue