Chanel’s Iconic J12 Gets A Sleek and Refined Makeover

The iconic J12 needs no introduction, nor an update. But a luxury house like Chanel keeps its forward-thinking momentum, and births a model with a new movement and a more polished look.

́You need a watch because a watch is a beautiful object, because it tells all about who you are and what you like,” says Nicolas Beau, Chanel’s director of international business development of watches and fine jewellery during Baselworld, the “fashion week” of the watch industry, earlier this year. I silently nodded in agreement for two reasons.

One, amongst the big watch players here at Baselworld, Chanel might be the youngest of them all, with just 31 years in the watchmaking world. Yet, the French brand is not trying to follow in anyone’s footsteps nor is it going head to head against the bigger players with groundbreaking calibres. Instead, it has its own formula, one that is deeply rooted in the brand’s DNA as a luxury house. In the same vein of how the late founder Gabrielle Chanel introduced jersey into haute couture, or broke the rule of single floral fragrances with the No. 5, the mandate is no different when it comes to J12 — even when it was created 29 years after her passing — with its all-ceramic watch for both men and women.

The other reason is something of a rather personal one for me. In the world of watch-buying where executives would buy a watch to impress their peers and maybe their clients, and watch enthusiasts, for their appreciation towards a certain watch’s technical achievement, it’s nice to know that Chanel is making watches for people to just own one simply because it is a functional and beautiful object: it tells the time and allows the wearer to express her own sense of style.

Nicolas Beau has been working in Chanel for 18 years — almost as old as the J12.

The conception of J12 is also one that is close to the idea of self-expression. Introduced in 2000, the J12 was created by then-artistic director of the house, the late Jacques Helleu, for himself. He imagined the watch to be “timeless, sporty and all black”, with an inspiration from the two worlds he loved most: automobile and sailing. It is named after the 12-metre long J-Class racing boats used in the global sailing match, America’s Cup.

The J12 can dive underwater for up to 200 metres and, here, the watches go through a water resistance test.

For the past 19 years, the J12 has been a much sought after timepiece. The popularity of its all-black aesthetic prompted an all-white model to be introduced in 2003. Seen adorning the wrists of A-list celebrities like Keira Knightley, Scarlett Johansson and Blake Lively, the J12 has earned a reputation as the first watch icon of the 21st century. However, Beau says, “The J12, as it was, was missing a very important point that we always see in Chanel — something that is as beautiful from the front and back,” hinting on the fact the J12’s stainless steel case back was not as aesthetically pleasing as it should be. And on that note, Arnaud Chastaingt, Chanel’s director of watchmaking creation studio, was tasked to redesign the J12, four years ago. It was a task that he deemed more difficult than creating a watch from scratch.

Naomi Campbell, Keira Knightley, and Liu Wen are among the 10 muses who are featured in the new J12 campaign: It’s All About Seconds.
Keira Knightley’s campaign image for J12.

To the untrained eyes, the tweaks on the new J12 are not apparent. Yet, one could feel that the overall look is a lot more pleasing, a lot more refined. However, the truth is, 70 per cent of its components have changed, and every part of its original design has been subtly altered.

Among the subtle tweaks is the bezel that is narrower (the case size remains at 38mm), allowing the size of the dial to increase by 15 per cent and correspondingly, the number notches (on the bezel), to go up from 30 to 40. The ergonomic aspect of the bezel rotation has been adjusted as well, and the result is that it’s less jerky and produces a subtler ‘tick’ when it’s turned. “Just like how you open the door of a luxury car, the sound is always beautiful,” says Beau. On the dial, readability has been improved by replacing the different typefaces with Chanel’s typography; the hour markers are now in ceramic, and indicators have been added to the railroad. The minute and hour hands are now of the same width; the second hand, which is longer, reaches out to the minute markers on the outer flange. The streamlined silhouette of the watch now carries a crown that’s reduced — by a third — in size; the bracelet now features longer links, giving the overall a sleeker look and feel.

High resistance ceramic grains in its raw form.

The most important part of the J12’s redesign, however, is in the heart of the watch. The new Calibre 12.1 is an exclusive movement manufactured for Chanel, created by Suisse Kenissi (Chanel acquired a stake in it last year), a new Swiss producer who specialises in automatic movements. The inclusion of Calibre 12.1 is the impetus for a transparent sapphire crystal case back in the new J12, which is fitted into a one-piece highly resistant ceramic case to show off the round oscillating weight — a hallmark of Chanel’s movement.

Assembling the ceramic links by hand.

To some, the changes are subtle, yet to Beau, they’re essential. “A luxury brand like Chanel deserves something higher,” he says. Already have a J12? You might want to consider the new version — it’s my observation that you never realise something is not good enough until a better version of it surfaces.

Check out our video in collaboration with the new Chanel J12 below:

This article first appeared in ELLE Singapore’s October issue.