The J12 by Chanel is one of those watches born from a brilliant intuition by a single person – rather like Gérald Genta and the Royal Oak. It was designed by Jacques Helleu, artistic director at Chanel, who had previously masterminded Chanel’s entry into watchmaking with the Première in 1987. He created the J12 in 1999 according to his own personal tastes, taking inspiration from his hobbies, cars and yachts. The name is based on an America’s Cup racing class. The concept was turning a diving watch into a chic, fashionable object. Its diving bezel and 200 metres water resistance made it a practical and functional timepiece, and the purity of the colour scheme made it instantly recognizable. The first version was all-black with white numerals, and it attained immediate success. It was followed by the white version in 2003. Its looks and Chanel’s intense marketing involving female testimonials led to the J12 becoming a favourite amongst women.
Velvety ceramic sheen
The decision to use ceramic for the case and bracelet was innovative at the time, and the J12 was probably the first high-end watch to be made from this material. Perhaps Helleu chose it for the very pure tones of white and black that it can produce. Chanel developed their own blend based on zirconium dioxide and yttrium oxide, which is fired at over 1,000°C and then painstakingly finished to attain the finial components. Chanel underline the links with brand founder Gabrielle, connecting to her love of black and white (“Black has everything, so has white. They have absolute beauty. They are a perfect match”), and the satin sheen of the ceramic material, resembling the petals of the camellia flowers that she invariably wore in her buttonhole.
New anniversary model
The 20th anniversary model was created by Chanel’s design team headed by the current Artistic Director Arnaud Chastaingt – Jacques Helleu died in 2007. “From the start, I decided not to alter its original appearance, not to change Jacques Helleu’s initial design,” said. Chastaingt. “The changes appear relatively subtle, but paradoxically I have to admit that we changed 80% of the components.” The visual innovations are subtle but add to the watch’s appeal. The typeface used for numerals has been updated, and applied to all the other lettering that appears on the dial. The numerals themselves are now in ceramic, in itself a dazzling feat of miniaturization. The number of bezel flutes has been increased from 30 to 40.
New movement, new collaborations
But the most important new feature of the J12 can be seen when you turn the watch over. “The J12 has a transparent caseback for the first time, in order to reveal a new self-winding movement,” said Chastaingt. The automatic 12.1 calibre was specially developed for this edition, by Geneva-based movement manufacturer Kenissi, a company with close links to Tudor and Rolex. A new building that will be shared by Kenissi and Tudor is currently under construction in Le Locle, with the move planned for 2021. Chanel acquired a 20% stake of Kenissi in January 2019, expanding their in-house calibre capability (Chanel also recently purchased a 20% share of F.P. Journe, and for some years it has had a close involvement with Romain Gauthier).
Circle motif on the rotor
The 12.1 calibre is finely finished, provides 70 hours power reserve, it has an instantaneously-jumping date display, and it is chronometer-certified by COSC. The most visible feature is the rotor. “I wanted to create something elemental,” said Chastaingt, “so I designed the oscillating weight with a perfect circle that makes the mainplate more visible.”. To ensure that the skeletonized rotor is heavy enough to provide the necessary winding power, its peripheral segment is made from tungsten.
The basic models are the best
There are many versions of the new J12 models, the classic black and white versions, and jewellery versions ranging from diamond hour markers to limited-edition gemset millionaire pieces. But to my eyes, the most attractive versions of all are the basic, classic new J12s with their crisp black and white design. They cost €5,300, $5,700. More at the Chanel website.