When it comes to fashion, Chanel is revered as iconic and legendary. When it comes watchmaking though, Chanel is deemed relatively young — with just 32 years under its belt — compared to the other watch behemoths that have been in the business for generations. Undeterred, the French brand continues to relentlessly pursue the next step in time-telling with the pioneering passions that marked its late founder Gabrielle Chanel. With the same trailblazing spirit that saw her introduce jersey into haute couture, the house made its mark in the world of haute horology when it launched the J12 in 2000 — hailed as the first all-ceramic watch ever.
Twenty years might be minute compared to what Chanel’s No. 5 perfume has achieved in almost a century of its lifetime, or the years the 2.55 bag has served as an icon, but the J12 has its own story to tell. The watch was built upon the idea of self-expression. Introduced in 2000, the J12 was created by the then-artistic director of the house, the late Jacques Helleu, for himself. He imagined his watch to be “timeless, sporty and all black”, with inspiration from the two worlds he loved most — those of automobiles and yachts. The J12 is named after the 12-metre long J-Class racing boats used in the prestigious international sailing competition that is the America’s Cup.
The popularity of its all-black aesthetic prompted an all-white model in 2003. Several limited edition iterations were also introduced along the way, from the whimsical J12 Mademoiselle with a caricature of Coco Chanel herself indicating the hours and minutes with her “hands”, to the abstract pattern of the number 12 as ceramic marquetry on the J12 Untitled. The family of J12 continues to grow year on year, but it was only last year that the watch finally cemented Chanel’s status as a serious watchmaker.
As if preparing for the big 2-0 this year, the J12 underwent a major overhaul last year that included acquiring a stake in watch manufacture Suisse Kenissi to produce the exclusive Calibre 12.1 movement for all J12 watches moving forward. Furthermore, 70 per cent of its components were changed and every part of its original design subtly altered. These tweaks might not be apparent to the untrained eye; yet it is clear that they make all the difference to watch connoisseurs.
The new J12 has reinstated itself as the first watch icon of the 21st century, popularised by A-list celebrities such as Keira Knightley and Naomi Campbell. A new limited edition to celebrate its 20th anniversary this year comes with a new case and movement, as well as 20 Chanel icons painstakingly crafted into rhodium-plated motifs to grace its white lacquered dial. Limited to 2020 pieces in the familiar black or white ceramic, look out for the even more exclusive five-piece-only limited edition in the enamelled motif version.
Now, the real test is, can you spot all 20 icons?