he Chanel J12 occupies a very special place among the iconic designs of contemporary watchmaking. Since its release in 2000, the masterfully subtle design by Jacques Helleu, Chanel’s artistic director at the time, has demonstrated an astonishing versatility, and the enduring ability to constantly reinvent itself without losing any of its essence.
The J12 has not only showcased the unique properties and varying hues of ceramic; over the years it has explored chronographs and aluminium; it has been fitted with an Audemars Piguet mechanical calibre; it has reinvented high jewellery, with a setting of 724 black ceramic baguettes around the dial; it has been transformed into a dive watch on a rubber strap, with a 300m depth rating and, starting in 2005, has been equipped with a long series of tourbillons.
The 10th anniversary marked the J12’s debut into the world of haute horlogerie complications, with the J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse. A duet performed by Chanel Watchmaking Creation Studio, Place Vendôme, and Giulio Papi, proprietor of the Vallée de Joux manufacture Renaud Papi (now owned by Audemars Piguet), this watch incorporates a tourbillon movement, retrograde minute display (to sidestep the obstacle represented by the vertical winding crown inserted into the dial), and an additional magnifying aperture for the interim minutes display. In its perfectly round black ceramic case, this is completely ably the J12. And it provides a virtuosic demonstration of how technical solutions can fulfil a conceptual and aesthetic brief.
Recently, Chanel has expanded its horological capabilities even further by taking a stake in the new Kenissi manufacture.
Since then, Chanel has made multiple incursions into haute horlogerie, systematically developing its own manufacturing capacities to keep pace with its ambitions. In 1993 Chanel acquired the G&F Châtelain manufacture in La Chaux-de-Fonds. That was where the Maison began manufacturing ceramic components. In 2016 Chanel began to build in-house watch movements, and thus became a watch manufacture in its own right.
Recently, Chanel has expanded its capabilities even further by taking a stake in the new Kenissi manufacture, alongside Rolex and Tudor. Chanel now has complete mastery of the technical tools and expertise it needs to create exceptional watches, entirely in-house.
It all begins with the Chanel Watchmaking Creation Studio
For Chanel, creativity and style set the tone for technical execution. Technical considerations are entirely linked to the intention of the Studio de Création Horlogère in Paris, under the direction of Arnaud Chastaingt since 2013. Since then, he has designed the Boy.Friend watch, Monsieur Chanel (the maison’s first explicitly masculine watch), the Code Coco and, more recently, the wonderfully original Mademoiselle Privé Bouton collection.
As Arnaud Chastaingt states: “Every creator working for Chanel uses a common vocabulary.” Watch after watch, Chanel creates surprise. Sometimes, if necessary, they startle – as we saw with the recent J12 Electro capsule collection.
But let’s get back to the J12. Arnaud Chastaingt began by performing what he calls a “surgical operation” on the original design, carefully dissecting the case, dial and bracelet. Gloves most definitely on. “It’s a structural process,” he explains, “It’s often far more complex than cre- ating something from a blank page.” Mission accomplished. The J12 emerged regenerated, with its identity intact.
Arnaud Chastaingt began by performing what he calls a “surgical operation” on the original design of the J12, carefully dissecting the case, dial and bracelet.
2020 marked the launch of the exceptional J12 X-Ray. Nothing remains of the dial but its essence: the pure geometry of a circle in the centre, imprinted with a slender minutes track, and baguette diamonds floating freely above the watch’s open heart to mark the hours. The central movement appears to be suspended in the void, inside its completely transparent sapphire case. Beyond the edge of the bezel set with 46 baguette-cut diamonds, the case merges into a bracelet carved out of translucent sapphire – a major watchmaking first.
The watch is equipped with the proprietary Caliber 3.1, made in its entirety by the Chanel Manufacture. The movement architecture was dictated by the Studio de Création, which specified that it should appear to be suspended inside the cavity of the watch. It is a magnificent achievement and a superlative example of what is possible when movement architecture is subject to creative constraints.
The J12 Diamond Tourbillon
The next step was the J12 Diamond Tourbillon, introduced this year. The genesis of the idea took place, naturally, in Chanel Watchmaking Creation Studio. The concept was to insert the biggest possible diamond inside the watch and make it rotate. The visual effect of this jewel, revolving in place at the rate of a second hand, is hypnotic and utterly breathtaking.
In order to achieve this spectacular effect, it was decided to mount a diamond on the cage of a flying tourbillon. The tourbillon in question is the Caliber 5, the fifth haute horlogerie movement to leave the Chanel Manufacture in La Chaux-de-Fonds.
This was no easy task for the Manufacture’s master watchmakers. Unlike a traditional tourbillon, whose cage is held both at the bottom and at the top, the delicately constructed cage of a flying tourbillon is supported only at the base. But this means that, without the upper bridge, the tourbillon is fully visible.
For the the J12 Diamond Tourbillon, the concept was to insert the biggest possible diamond inside the watch and make it rotate.
The technical masterstroke here lies in setting a solitaire diamond into a flying tourbillon cage that performs one full rotation every 60 seconds. The balance must be perfectly calculated, because the lighter the cage, the more precise the tourbillon. A special diamond cut was developed with 65 facets, to ensure that the reflections from the diamond set into the cage were perfectly calibrated to the 60-second rotation, generating the stroboscopic effect demanded by the Creation Studio. And it had to fit in a vertical dimension of no more than 6.35mm.
- Chanel J12 Diamond Tourbillon - Limited to 55
The frame that encircles the cage is also set with 26 brilliant-cut diamonds, creating the impression that the solitaire is flying above a circle of diamonds. The architectural composition of expanding, interlocking rings is further accentuated by the bezel paved with 34 baguette-cut diamonds (or, in the second model, 34 black ceramic baguettes).
In the centre, slightly raised, the baton hour and minute hands, also set with brilliant-cut diamonds, promenade around a minimalist minutes railroad track, visually separated from the wheels and circles of the black movement below. This interplay of light and contrast magnifies the blaze of white from the diamonds set against the black dial, enclosed in a case of ultra-hard black ceramic that merges into a bracelet made from the same material, fitted with a white gold clasp.
Looking through the sapphire case back, the Chanel Caliber 5 is inscribed with a beautifully executed lion’s head, Maison’s signature for in-house movements. A close inspection reveals the small details that make all the difference: the rubies are rounded and oversized, focusing attention on their splashes of red. The outer edge of the baseplate appears to be trimmed, a nod to the haute couture aesthetic of the maison. The architectural composition of the movement is a collage of interlocking circles, just like the face of this exceptional watch.
The balance must be perfectly calculated, because the lighter the cage, the more precise the tourbillon. A special diamond cut was developed with 65 facets.
The J12 Diamond Tourbillon is presented in two versions: matt black ceramic and steel, with a bezel set with ceramic baguettes, or glossy black ceramic and 18K white gold, with baguette-cut diamond-set bezel. Both are limited to 55 pieces.
The J12 Diamond Tourbillon, equipped with Chanel’s first flying tourbillon that has a diamond to enumerate the seconds, marks the beginning of a major new chapter in the Maison’s watchmaking history.