In 1987 Chanel decided to make its watchmaking debut, with the aptly named Première. Since then, a great deal of water has flowed under the horological bridge. In the 30 years since, the status of the wristwatch has changed: no longer a tool designed to tell its wearer the time as precisely as possible, it has become an object of pure pleasure: a style statement, a status symbol and an aesthetic indulgence. Thirty years ago, Chanel had already anticipated the profound changes that would affect the watch industry. In thirty years, through a series of watches with an utterly distinctive allure, watches devoted to pleasure, time has proven Chanel right. A testimony of 30 years of Chanel Time.
1987 - The very first Première
In 1987, Chanel marked its first foray into the watchmaking arena with the aptly named Première.
In homage to the place where it was born, it featured the exact geometry of the Parisian square where it was designed – the iconic Place Vendôme. This square plays a central role in the history of Mademoiselle Chanel, who lived in a suite at the Hotel Ritz on the Place Vendôme, and in that of the Maison Chanel, whose headquarters and flagship store share the same address.
With its octagonal case topped with a bevelled sapphire crystal, the Première, designed by Jacques Helleu, artistic director of Chanel’s watchmaking division, mirrors exactly the shape of the Place Vendôme. Its two deceptively simple baton-shaped hands recall the shadow of the Vendôme column that rises in its centre, as they sweep around the plain, unadorned dial.
Thirty years ago, women were immediately won over by this watch designed specifically for them. The Première watch was neither a scaled-down version of a man’s watch (which is so often the case), nor a jewellery creation; understated yet sophisticated, it was an object of beauty whose simple function of telling the time gracefully ceded the limelight to beauty and style.
30 years of transformation
Over the course of its first two decades, the Première really came into its own. It retained its peerless allure through a number of metamorphoses, appearing in white and yellow gold, ceramic and steel, mingling confidently like the most accomplished socialite.
Rarely have we seen such a slim and delicate watch, with such distinctive architecture, lend itself so felicitously to innumerable transformations. Never before had a watch provided such an inspiring canvas for the creative potential of its strap. The bracelet of the Première watch, slim, supple and delicate like Mademoiselle Chanel’s beloved ribbons, has appeared as a chain of plaited leather and yellow gold, rubber and white gold, Akoya cultured pearls mounted on a white gold thread, a cascade of diamonds, a series of alternating black and white octagonal rings, links of white ceramic interspersed with links of yellow gold, or black ceramic and white gold, and magic mirrors of steel and ceramic, rubber and diamond.
For its 20th anniversary the Première watch appeared in a smaller and more precious variant, subtly studded with pearls. But that is just one of its many faces, and the costume parade is far from over. For its 25th anniversary there’s going to be quite a firework display.
With a lacquered black dial on a chain that is astonishingly supple despite its powerfully designed links, it will have a completely different look. In steel, yellow or white gold entirely paved with diamonds, the links forcefully echo the now iconic shape of its octagonal case. But the watch will also be venturing into the fascinating world of complications, for which it provides a superlative setting.
2000 - J12 black - A paradigm shift
At the turn of the century Chanel launched another model that would become a landmark. Today, it’s hard to grasp the scale of the shock waves this watch sent out, when it was unanimously lauded as the “first iconic watch of the 21st century”. It was the first watch that dared to transform high-tech ceramic into a precious material.
It was a genuine stylistic revolution and a paradigm shift. Until the first J12 appeared in its sombre costume, the colour black had never really succeeded in making a lasting impression in watchmaking. The intense black of ceramic, however, is not the result of a surface treatment – it is an intrinsic feature of the material itself. Its matchless strength and scratch resistance, its ability to defy aging, finally resulted in a black that stood the test of time. But more fundamentally, the black ceramic of the J12 intensified the rigidly defined architecture of the watch, underlining and amplifying the potency of its dynamic lines. The black high-tech ceramic developed by Chanel for the J12 had become a new precious substance, and would henceforth take its place in the pantheon of watchmakers’ favourite materials.
And particularly since it so happily embraced gold inlays, diamonds and other precious stones, as well as the intense statement created by paving with baguette-cut ceramic pieces, the J12 opened up an expanse of new creative possibilities.
2003 - J12 white - A broken taboo
Three years later, Chanel made another unexpected and shocking announcement: the now famous J12 would be making a grand entrance, this time in white. There is no other mineral or alloy that is so intensely white. And in fact, until the appearance of the white ceramic J12, white had become almost a taboo colour in watchmaking circles. But the transgressive J12 succeeded in carrying off its white robes beautifully. As Mademoiselle Chanel said, “Black has it all. White too.” It cuts through to the essential and underlines the J12’s masterful architecture. Its unusual lustre, which appears to come from deep within, and its silken polish give it a remarkable magic. Its ability to combine harmoniously with the most precious metals, gold and diamonds, creates unexpected juxtapositions and incomparable plays of light.
2004 - J12 Exclusive Editions - Precious encounters
From 2004 Chanel began launching limited editions of the J12 set with the finest baguette-cut stones. The juxtaposition of ceramic, a high-tech composite material, with the luminous transparency of diamond, the intense red of ruby, the green of emerald and the pink, blue or cognac of sapphire produced exceptional effects and a range of innovative and fascinating associations. This play of contrasts was behind a genuine break with stylistic tradition, opening up new creative avenues. Whether discreetly set around the bezel or entirely paved with baguette-cut gems, the J12 is a master of versatility. Always different but inalterably itself, it succeeds in creating a variety of effects as its legend continues to grow.
2009 - J12 Intense Black - Ceramic high jewellery
The stylistic legend explored a new dimension, with a world first in 2009. The J12 Intense Black extrapolates the possibilities of ceramic to their outer limits, making it a genuine high-tech precious material.
Unlike high jewellery that plays with reflected light to ensure the most dazzling display possible, ceramic absorbs light and swallows it into its own intense blackness. It is worked in the same way as precious stones: 724 tiny blocks of ceramic are carved into baguette shapes using the same procedure used for diamond (ceramic is almost as hard as diamond), then set by hand onto an 18-karat white gold bracelet (502 diamonds), white gold bezel (48 diamonds), white gold caseband (78 diamonds) and the white gold dial (96 diamonds). The white gold crown is decorated with a ceramic cabochon. This watchmaker’s ode to ceramic is stunning, because of its exceptional graphical vigour, which underlines the architecture of the piece, as well as through the intensity of its black lustre and its comfort in wear.
2011 - J12 Chromatic - Inventing a new colour
After the most intensely black ceramic possible, then the purest and most luminous white, Chanel introduced an entirely new colour: chromatic ceramic. This new kind of high-tech ceramic – a titanium ceramic – is the end result of a lengthy technological development process. It produces a colour close to that of titanium or white gold, but it has a unique brilliance all its own.
It is more lightweight than the other black or white ceramics (the titanium of which it is made is one of the lightest metals in existence, with approximately 60% of the density of steel) but 25% harder and equally biocompatible. Chromatic ceramic distils all the technological expertise acquired by Chanel in this highly specialised cutting-edge field.
2016 - J12 XS Extra small, extra strong and extra feminine
Usually, the strap or bracelet of a watch is seen as just an accessory, an appendage of the watch. With the new J12 XS, Chanel turns this preconception on its head. What you notice first is the strap, or more accurately the cuff or glove, on which the watch is mounted.
The watch itself, as the “XS” in the name suggests, is extremely small, measuring just 19 mm in diameter. But mounted on its leather cuff, whether one-piece or fashioned from multiple buckled straps, it turns into a statement of strength, while remaining extremely feminine. As Chanel puts it: “I don’t tell the time, I bestow it upon those who look at me.” The strap defines the watch.
2012 - Mademoiselle Privé Coromandel - The enchanted world of Gabrielle Chanel
“Mademoiselle Privé” – these two words so full of mystery were on the door to Gabrielle Chanel’s workshop in Rue Cambon in Paris. Like a magical incantation, the name of this collection opens the doors to a world of imagination, an enchanted landscape rich in symbolism. It becomes the privileged canvas to showcase the Maison’s artistic crafts, including enamelling, engraving and gem-setting, through a collection of exclusive and one-off pieces.
The jewellery watches in the Mademoiselle Privé Coromandel collection faithfully reflect the sumptuous lacquered Chinese coromandel screens that Gabrielle Chanel loved. The curves of the delicately snow-set, understated case and its grand feu enamel dial are designed to focus attention on the unique grand feu enamel miniature painting that ornaments each model.
“I thought I would faint away in happiness when, for the first time, on entering a Chinese merchant’s shop, I saw a Coromandel...” confided Gabrielle Chanel. This is the emotion that every model in the Mademoiselle Privé Coromandel collection seeks to recreate.
2013 - Mademoiselle Privé Embroidered Camellia - Watches and embroidery
Embroidery is another artistic craft, one that is rarely if ever seen in watches, which was celebrated by Chanel in 2013 with the Mademoiselle Privé Embroidered Camellia. What could be more natural for an Haute Couture fashion house than to entrust the famous Lesage workshops, which now belong to Chanel, with the task of bringing the embroidery needle together with the watchmaker’s loupe. For the first time, the expertise of Lesage’s embroiderers was employed in the creation of a watch dial. Realised with coloured silken thread using the “needle painting” technique, with the addition of pearls and diamonds sewn in with gold thread from 2014, each dial is an unique work of art. This Mademoiselle Privé Embroidered Camellia, a tribute to the meticulous workmanship of the embroiderer, won Chanel its second Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève.
2005 - J12 Tourbillon - Haute horlogerie debut
On top of its many aesthetic metamorphoses, the J12 Tourbillon would also be the vehicle for Chanel’s entry into haute horlogerie. For this inaugural incursion into the exclusive preserve, Chanel presented the first ceramic grand complication in watch history in 2012. For the very first time, the movement baseplate, the foundation on which all the delicate mechanical architecture rests, with tolerances of the order of one-hundredth of a millimetre, was produced in ceramic. This was a significant technical feat in itself. But, visible through the sapphire caseback, the pure, pareddown ceramic baseplate was also an aesthetic first, conferring on the J12 Tourbillon its own special charm.
The upper bridge of the tourbillon carriage was made of optical glass, giving the tourbillon movement a breathtaking depth, and the tourbillon bridge was carved out of white gold, reflecting the pure lines of the watch hands. This unexpected association of ceramic, optical glass and white gold in such a profoundly horological, but nevertheless sporty J12, marked the advent of an ultra-contemporary aesthetic. A highly limited edition comprising 12 pieces in white ceramic and 12 in black ceramic was produced.
2010 - J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse - Unprecedented complication
But two years later, with the absolutely exceptional J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse, Chanel ventured even further into the grand complications of fine watchmaking. Created and manufactured in collaboration with the avant-garde watch designer and builder Renaud & Papi, this highly unusual J12 is both technically innovative and stylistically unprecedented. Because it has no lateral crown it is perfectly round, which gives it a radically different allure.
Equipped with a tourbillon, it incorporates a truly unique mechanism: the vertical ceramic crown pierces the sapphire crystal, rising out of its housing when pressed. But doesn’t the crown prevent the minute hand from moving around the dial? The solution to this obstacle gave rise to a completely new way of reading the time. At ten minutes past the hour, when the minutes hand encounters the “obstacle” created by the vertical crown, it reverses direction and begins moving anti-clockwise. For ten minutes, it travels backwards around the dial, before arriving in its “usual” position at twenty minutes past the hour, on the other side of the vertical crown, from where it proceeds as normal. During this ten-minute retrograde episode, the exact minute can still be read off a digital display under a magnifying aperture, which shows the numbers 11 to 19. A novel solution to a novel problem.
2012 - Première Flying Tourbillon - Feminine complications
With the mysterious and poetic Première Flying Tourbillon, Chanel would for the first time give women the opportunity to enter the extraordinary world of mechanical high complications. The tourbillon cage, in the guise of Mademoiselle Chanel’s favourite flower, the camellia, revolves magically above a minimalist ceramic dial. The overlapping petals are made of metal, their interior filled with a delicate semi-transparent mesh that gives the flower its delicate texture. The centre of the tiered flower is a cabochon set with brilliant-cut diamonds. As the camellia completes one rotation each minute, the petals also serve as a seconds indicator. The slender baton hands for the hours and minutes sparkle from the upper half of the dial. In order to pass over the camellia, they stand slightly proud of the dial. With this exquisite piece, which Chanel alone could have produced, the Maison won its first Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève in 2012.
Over the course of its 30-year watchmaking adventure, Chanel has delved into all of the domains that make up what we know as fine watchmaking. It has added its own special allure, resulting in watches designed above all as highly aesthetic objects of pleasure, while nevertheless refusing to compromise on the technical expertise and craftsmanship necessary to create precious objects that will stand the test of time. Chanel Time flows naturally according to a creative guiding principle and expertise that can be found in each of the company’s watches, however different they might be. This faultless coherence naturally springs from the extraordinary legacy of Gabrielle Chanel. Chanel’s two most recent creations provide ample demonstration of the continuing vigour of its watchmaking adventure.
2015 - Boy.Friend - Overturning the codes of masculinity
In her time, Gabrielle Chanel shocked her contemporaries by taking elements of men’s clothing and using them for the benefit – and liberation – of women. With the launch of a new and unusual line named the Boy.Friend, Chanel is following in the footsteps of its founder. The Boy.Friend watch fully embodies the Maison’s watchmaking vocabulary – elegance, purity, absence of indices, strong lines, refined aesthetic – and borrows the octagonal case of the iconic Première (which is itself based on the shape of the Place Vendôme and the stopper of the Chanel No. 5 perfume bottle). But with its bold architecture and its polished and brushed angles, it has a masculine allure that’s 100% for women. Upsetting the classical codes of watchmaking has always been one of the principles of Chanel Time.
2016–2017 - Monsieur - Both technical and aesthetic
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of its watchmaking endeavours, Chanel wanted to mark its presence in men’s haute horlogerie more strongly. The new Monsieur watch is a manifesto, living proof of the principle that aesthetic and technical are both sides of the same coin.
On the outside, the Monsieur has that unmistakeable Chanel look: incomparable elegance with a strong personality. But inside its round, pure and strippeddown 40 mm case, the Monsieur looks like nothing else you’ve ever seen. Under its gently domed sapphire crystal, an instantaneous jumping digital hour appears in an octagonal window, yet another reminder of the architecture of the Place Vendôme. A very generous retrograde minute display provides optimum legibility, while an overlapping small seconds register gives a visual echo of Chanel’s double CC emblem. Through the back of the watch can be seen the exceptional Calibre 1 that drives it. It is exceptional because of its unusual shape – an elegant interplay of circles – but also because it is the first mechanical movement to have been entirely designed by Chanel’s watch creation studio, and developed, built and assembled in Chanel’s watchmaking workshops at its manufacturing base in La Chaux-de-Fonds. With its austerely magnificent interplay of wheels and cutout circular bridges, this spectacle could easily have been chosen for the dial side. The skeletonised black and anthracite grey movement combines great technical achievement with a uniquely elegant architecture.
With its instantaneous jumping hour and retrograde minute – two watchmaking achievements – and its two series mounted barrels, it provides a power reserve of three days. In 2017 the Monsieur watch will make its debut in platinum, with a black enamel dial, in an exceptionally alluring limited series of 100 pieces.
We look forward to what the next thirty years will bring.
Source: Europa Star TIME.BUSINESS/TIME.KEEPER Chapter 1 / Dec. 2016 - Jan. 2017