Chanel’s Pursuit of Creativity

Since the 1920s Maison Chanel has consistently created icons. From fashion to fragrance and more recently, timepieces. What is the secret to their success?
Published: January 22, 2024

When it comes to Chanel, they are in the business of designing timeless icons. This is not a statement to throw around lightly; but consider the Chanel suit and the perfume Chanel No. 5, both were created in the 1920s and nearly a century on these luxury items from the house of Chanel are still being made, with their original design ethos intact. And in a world where attention spans seem to get increasingly shorter, this is really saying something. So, naturally, when Chanel embarked on creating a timepiece, it was not entirely unexpected that it take on the same genre- defining qualities as well. We are talking, of course, about the Chanel J12.

Photo: Courtesy of Chanel

Sure, the watch was designed long after the founder’s passing but by then, the core values of Chanel’s DNA had already been well established. The Chanel suit was the product of integrating masculine elements into feminine clothing and Chanel No. 5 was created to dispel the notion that an elegant woman needed to smell exclusively like a bed of flowers. The common denominator between the two? A pursuit of creativity, unshackled by conventional norms. And this is perhaps the reason Chanel’s creations stand unmoved through the test of time. The J12 was cut from the same cloth, as it were. Imagine creating a watch with a material that was rarely used in the watchmaking industry, a material reserved for aerospace travel at that. This is the J12, unapologetically different and it is through this ethos that its legacy remains entirely secure, even more than two decades on.

Incubation In Ceramic

To understand the allure of the J12, one must first travel back to the year 2000 when its legend began. Famously, the J12 was created by Jacques Helleu, the Artistic Director at Chanel for over 40 years. Helleu long admired the chassis lines of racing cars but more importantly, he was totally enamoured with the regal silhouettes of the America’s Cup yachts. In fact, the watch’s namesake, J12, comes from a category within the America’s Cup, the J-class and its 12m long yachts.

From the very first pencil draft lines, the watch was imagined to be incredibly sporty and of course, designed to be timeless. As for its material, it was only fitting that a watch inspired by racing sports be built with the most cutting-edge technology. Thus, the J12 was born with a black ceramic case that extended to the bracelet as well.

It is easy to dismiss the use of ceramic as “cutting- edge” these days as the watchmaking landscape has seen an explosion of this material in the past couple of years. However, in 2000, this material was nearly unused in watchmaking as due to its hardness, it was incredibly difficult to work with. So, as you can imagine, when the watch debuted with its slick and glossy 38mm black ceramic case and bracelet (and subsequently white ceramic in 2003), it became an instant icon, sitting on the wrist as unalterable and almost eternal as a diamond.

Changing Without Changing

Photo: Courtesy of Chanel

The Chanel J12 is often hailed as the very first watch icon of the 21st century. And therein lies the conundrum laid out before the maison: how do you take a globally recognised icon, and allow it to evolve with the times? Seven years after creating the J12, Jacques Helleu passed away and with him, the blueprint, if any, for the J12’s future.

The task of heralding this icon of Chanel into the next era of watchmaking was then placed in the hands of the current Director of the Chanel Watch Creation Studio, Arnaud Chastaingt. He had the unenviable task of giving the J12 a modern makeover without touching the very identity that built its legend and its success. How do you evolve something that is not allowed to change?

In 2020, two whole decades after the J12 first debuted, it received its first makeover, evolution, update, or whatever you want to call it. And by passing through the veil into the land of modern horology, it opened the floodgates of creativity for the J12. In the maiden year of its re-birth, the J12 brought with it a number of aesthetic changes. The bezel was refined with more notches and given a new typeface for its numerals and indexes, the width of the crown was reduced, and new indicators were added to the reworked inner railway track on the dial. The truly genius part of this update was that at a quick glance, it was a splitting image of the J12 from the year 2000. It is only when you take a closer look that you see the refinement in its details.

One refinement, and perhaps quite an important one to stake a claim to the J12’s legitimacy within watchmaking circles was the availability of a new movement that was made by Kenissi, aptly named Calibre 12.1. Before the grand reveal of the new J12, Chanel had made investments in Kenissi in 2018 and with it, came the ability to offer manufacture movements for the non haute horlogerie J12 watches.

With new watchmaking expertise slowly folded into Chanel’s repertoire, Arnaud Chastaingt now had the freedom to explore creativity in entirely different ways. In 2020, Chanel combined the black and white pillars of the J12’s design into the J12 Paradoxe and even made a fully transparent watch with the J12 X-Ray. Through Chastaingt’s redesign of the J12, the Chanel Watch Creation Studio now had a firm grasp on all of the core recognisable elements of the J12 and with it the ability to push the boundaries of its design without ever changing what the watch stood for. After all, the J12 would always have to be the J12.

Looking Into The Stars

Building on the success of that first 2020 J12 collection, Chanel has continuously sought out other universes to draw its inspiration from. In 2021, they were enthralled by the pulsing vibe of 90s electro music, and in 2022 they focused on mechanical innovation by debuting their very first in-house flying tourbillon movement, the Calibre 5 and even brought the Kenissi-made calibre to their smaller 33mm range of J12 watches. This year, they literally looked to the universe for design inspiration. With the theme “Interstellar” this capsule collection combines science fiction, space and time travel for a collection that is truly out of this world. The Chanel J12 Cybernetic is one of the watches launched this year that is perfectly able to enthral its audience even without the use of high-complication movements. The premise of the watch combines the iconic J12 silhouette with an ostentatious display of pixels almost as if it is invading the rest of the watch.

The combination of black on white is something that is not new to Chanel but the ability to fashion a highly irregular case based on pixellated graphics is one that perhaps took considerable technical know-how from the brand. Those familiar with Ceramic will know that even though it is lighter, harder, and more corrosion-resistant than most metal alloy materials found in watchmaking, it is exactly these properties that make ceramic incredibly tricky to work with. To machine such a hard material into this particular shape is one thing, then to ensure the edges are not sharp enough to scratch skin means that everything has to be refined and polished so that it retains the shape but is still comfortable enough to wear.

This pixelation in white seamlessly transfers onto the bezel via the interplay of black and white varnish, while on the dial, the white varnish is combined with black lacquer to complete the effect. Additionally, there is a version of this watch, the Hyper Cybernetic, with precious stones where instead of white ceramic, white gold is used for the portion of the case to allow for the setting of 116 brilliant-cut diamonds. As with all the modern J12 watches, this J12 Cybernetic is also powered by the manufacture Calibre 12.1 movement that has been Chronometer certified by the COSC ensuring the watch is as precise as it is beautiful to look at.

Photo: Courtesy of Chanel

A Return to Classics

To an artist, inspiration can come from anywhere, even the unlikeliest of places. For Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel, it is safe to say Place Vendôme in the centre of Paris held a special place in her heart. From the 1920s onwards she called Place Vendôme, more specifically the Ritz Hotel, home and around this time, the legendary perfume, Chanel No. 5, was sold in a new bottle, with a shape that evoked the octagonal silhouette of that very square. The significance of Chanel No. 5’s angular bottle is even more pronounced when combined with the fact that most perfumes of the time came in round ornate vials.

So, as you can imagine, in 1987 when Chanel decided it was time to venture into watchmaking, its very first watch created again by the legend, Jacques Helleu, had to be inspired by an element intrinsic to the core design tenants of Chanel. The shape of the Première was based on the cap of the Chanel No. 5 bottle and by association with the shape of Place Vendôme. To give the watch an undeniable link to the brand, even the strap of the watch borrows from yet another icon within their repertoire, the Chanel 2.55 Flap Bag. When the Première debuted in 1987, it was a watch that women could call their own. Fast forward to 2022, the collection is still very much alive and, in fact, has taken on a life of its own through various interpretations that range from the playful like the Première Robot to the complex like the Première Camélia Skeleton. Last year however, to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the very first Chanel timepiece, they made the Première Edition Originale, a re- issue of that very first watch from 1987.

Photo: Courtesy of Chanel

The watch offers the same octagonal shape of Place Vendôme, and the same metal and leather double chain strap, but all of it is further refined for the audience of today. Both the steel case and strap are coated with a brilliant 18ct yellow gold which contrasts nicely against the dark colour of the leather on the strap, the black lacquered dial and the onyx cabochon on the crown. To ensure the watch is fit for daily use, it runs on a high-precision quartz movement and the entire watch is water resistant to 30m.

This year, Chanel has also announced Lily-Rose Depp as the new muse for the Première Édition Originale. No stranger to Chanel, Depp has long been a friend of the brand and one of the youngest brand ambassadors when she was cast in her first Chanel campaign when she was just 16 years old in 2015. Since then, she has represented the brands on numerous occasions including as the face of the Chanel No.5 L’Eau for a younger millennial audience. Depp is a source of inspiration to the younger generation, evidenced by her monumental 8.4 million followers on Instagram. Since her first minor appearance in the movie Tusk (2014), and her appointment as Chanel brand ambassador in 2015 she has since ventured into fashion modelling and has appeared on the cover of several of the world’s most high-profile fashion magazines. Additionally, she has also continued to expand her acting capabilities by appearing in the historical epic war film The King playing Catherine of Valois opposite Timothée Chalamet as Henry V. Most recently she made her TV debut starring in the HBO drama series The Idol alongside Canadian singer The Weeknd.

This article was first published on WOW Autumn Issue #70

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