TIES THAT BIND
Chanel’s short years in watchmaking belie the breadth of expertise now gathered under its roof. We chart its horological arm’s growth in the 20 years since the release of the original J12
Chanel fetes 20 years of the J12 by improving it further
The Chanel J12 is one of the talking points of 2019. Not only is the fashion house celebrating the 20th anniversary of this immediately identifiable brand icon, it has also given the watch a timely update—one that improves it substantially without changing too much of its original aesthetics. The revamp also spotlights how much Chanel has grown as a watchmaker—an impressive advancement, given that its watchmaking arm itself is not much older than the J12.
When the J12 was first created in 1999, Chanel’s watchmaking department was still in its relative infancy. While hardly experienced in the field of horology then, the maison caught the industry’s attention for being among the first fashion houses to delve into serious watchmaking. When it started in 1987, it partnered with G&F Châtelain, and later bought it outright when its owners retired in 1993. At that point, G&F Châtelain—and by extension, Chanel—was capable of machining and finishing cases and bracelets, and assembling the final watch, but was limited in certain ways.
For instance, it could work with gold, but dealing with more challenging materials such as platinum, titanium, and special gold alloys only came later— as did its ceramic workshop. The latter became a necessity when Jacques Helleu, the brand’s then-artistic director, created the J12. At the time, Chanel’s movements still came from other manufacturers, and the J12 housed an ETA 2892 calibre, a Swatch Group movement that is resilient and accurate. Over the years, Chanel slowly developed its watchmaking arm, introducing new lines of watches and flirting with haute horlogerie complications, again with the help of external movement manufacturers. The J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse from 2010, for example, had a tourbillon and unique retractable crown that used a movement from Audemars Piguet Renaud & Papi. In more recent years, however, Chanel has gone on an acquisition
spree. First came Romain Gauthier in 2011, an independent watchmaker known for its innovative haute horlogerie movements. That same year, Chanel set up its in-house movement manufacturing department in G&F Châtelain, which culminated in Calibre 1, its first in-house movement in 2016—a feat it repeated in 2017 and 2018 with the Calibres 2 and 3. Then, at the end of 2018, Chanel announced that it had acquired a 20 per cent stake in F.P. Journe, another renowned independent watchmaker. Earlier this year, it announced yet another acquisition—this time, of Kenissi, a relatively unknown movement manufacture.
Kenissi was the missing piece in Chanel’s watchmaking puzzle. Despite its haute horlogerie achievements, Chanel needed to be capable of producing high-quality movements on a much larger scale—in the thousands, much more than its haute horlogerie workshops are capable of. So it went searching. “Chanel is privately owned, and very secretive,” said Nicolas Beau, the brand’s international business development watch and fine jewellery director. “We wanted a partner that was also secret, that was not for sale, and that had the same value of luxury as Chanel. And there is only one. The Hans Wilsdorf Foundation, which owns Tudor.” And Rolex, of course. Chanel now has a 20 per cent stake in Kenissi (which still makes movements for Tudor), free reign in terms of movement creation, as well as access to the engineers under the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation. It used its new arm to create the Calibre 12.1, the movement powering the revamped J12.
This new calibre is arguably the most important part of the J12 revamp. According to Beau, “the one point that was lacking in the previous J12 is that it was not as beautiful from the back as it was from the front.” As such, an ETA 2892 movement would not do. The Calibre 12.1, however, does the job quite nicely. When viewed from the back, you can see the movement’s special oscillating weight, which has a circle cut out of it—because it is more beautiful, and because the circle motif has become one of Chanel’s watchmaking signatures. To make sure that it has the same winding efficiency, however, the oscillating weight is made out of tungsten. On top of being quite pretty from the back—as much as a mass-produced movement can be—it also carries certification for precision and reliability from the Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute (COSC), has a 70-hour reserve, and a 5-year warranty.
From zero to covering all of its watchmaking bases in 32 years—that’s no mean feat, even for a brand as big as Chanel.
IN TIME Friends of the house of Chanel the likes of Vanessa Paradis (opposite), Liu Wen and Claudia Schiffer donned the new J12 in the new advertising campaign, It’s All About Seconds; the new Calibre 12.1 is a workhorse movement that looks beautiful too