For Beauty’s Sake
Change is afoot at Baselworld. This year’s installation of the world’s largest watch and jewellery fair was two days shorter than its general eight-day run; while Swatch Group has announced that it will not be participating in next year’s edition.Yet, at Chanel earlier in March, it was still business as usual with its illuminated Baselworld booth buzzing with activity from an international array of journalists. As I took in the quick, purposeful movements that filled the room, I found myself musing once again at the reaction that Chanel seems to evoke in its visitors.
It’s astounding when you think about it.That Chanel, with just 31 years of horology experience to its name, is more than able to hold its own in a fair filled with some of the world’s most preeminent, and oldest, watch brands.Yet, it’s no more astounding than the fact that the last three years have seen it releasing three in-house calibres (four, if you count the Calibre 2.1 Camélia Skeleton) in rapid succession—a move that has made waves in the industry, if not signalled its intentions of being taken seriously.
But make no mistake: Like with its fashion and beauty empires, Chanel is set on playing the horology game to its own rules, with an unconventional approach that somewhat turns haute horlogerie on its head.Within its Manufacture walls at La Chaux-de-Fonds, an unwavering mantra rings clear: It’s beauty first, and foremost; with technology and innovation serving as tools to deliver that strict vision. In other others, it’s the same mantra that has seen it becoming one of the world’s most coveted luxury houses.
We catch up with International Business Development for Chanel Watches and Fine Jewellery Director, Nicholas Beau, to find out more.
Chanel has relied on collaborations to deliver successful haute horlogerie creations in the past. Why did it decide to start producing its own movements?
It was a decision we had to make, because if you really want to be in this market and service your clients in the long-run, you cannot depend on other watchmakers or brands who supply you with movements, before suddenly disappearing—either because they’ve gone bankrupt or have been sold to another group.Also, we had to start dealing with after-sales service for our complications and, at some point, we were like:“Okay, let’s do it.”
What were some of the challenges?
The first one was to have the right people. Before he had his own brand, Romain Gauthier was, and still is, a producer of high-end watch components. He was looking for a little back-up to grow his business, so it was the perfect match. Because, like what we do with haute couture and [Maison] Lemarié or embroidery [ateliers] that we purchase to ensure the continuation of the know-how, going with Romain Gauthier was in the same spirit.
We support him so he can grow his business, we don’t interfere at all with his brand, but we can access the technology that would take years to develop for ourselves.And the reason why we were able to make three calibres in quite a short period of time was not because we have a lot of people—in our team, there are eight people and at Romaine, there are about 10—but because they are very, very focused and are very, very good. Once all this was in place, we could really move forward.
Why was your first in-house movement, Calibre 1, released in Monsieur de Chanel instead of a woman’s watch?
When you move into [an industry that’s] so Swiss, so special, with so many big names and beautiful competition, you wonder what you can do differently.We thought we should start with men and seduce them first; to show them what a brand like Chanel can do. If we succeeded in impressing them, they’d look at us with a different eye. And we have been lucky; the press was surprised [by the watch] and the publicity we had was very good.Then, we focused on our core metier, which is our women.What I understood from our Première Flying Tourbillon [with movement by Renaud et Papi] was that women are very passionate about having something mechanical and artistic, but at the same time it’s not the wheels they love, it’s the entire thing:The watch and movement together, and the story behind it. This is why for Calibre 2, we had a totally different approach. We put the wheels in the same geography as the petals [of the bridge] so that when you look at the watch, you are not distracted by any specific component.With Calibre 3 for Boy.Friend, we took a very Chanel approach, which is to inject a masculine code into a feminine watch, like [what Coco Chanel did] with tweed and jersey.
You’ve always maintained that aesthetics and design are what drive Chanel’s creations. How does that sit with your watchmakers, who tend to be more traditional in their approach to watchmaking?
Watchmakers, as you say, often protect themselves behind traditions by saying, “We don’t do that in watchmaking.” Even putting black [through a galvanic treatment on the movement as with Calibre 3] was something they thought was not a good idea. But I must say the watch world is changing now; there is much more openness and innovation.And mixing a bit of French craziness into Swiss precision is what allows us to do what we do.
What is the change in perception that you hope to achieve now that Chanel has taken its movements in-house?
There are many answers to your question. One of the answers is that there is always this thinking that, because we are also a fashion house, that our watches are just fashion accessories with a short seasonal life.This [move] makes people understand what our direction is, what we do, what we are and what we stand for; that the design and quality of Chanel watches are at level best. Then, there’s the future of luxur y watchmaking, which I think is really about the making of beautiful objects that are there for pleasure, for status, for collections… We have to pass on the culture and make sure that the younger generation, who are less exposed to high-end watches than their parents and grandparents, discover the know-how, the handiwork, the artisanal beauty of this métier.Also, I’d like them to think that if their grandmother bought a Rolex, and their mother Cartier, then they should buy a Chanel [laughs].
“W e have to pass on the culture and make sure that the younger generation discover the know-how, the handiwork, the artisanal beauty of this métier.” — Nicholas Beau
Clockwise from left: An illustrated look at the Chanel Boy.Friend Skeleton’s Calibre 3. Model cum music producer Caroline de Maigret with Chanel’s Boy.Friend watch. Beige Gold and diamond Boy.Friend Skeleton watch. White gold and diamond Mademoiselle Privé Camélia Skeleton watch