According to Luke Sullivan, the revered copywriter, to succeed in branding is to represent a single, simple adjective. Mercedes-Benz means luxurious, Nike equals athletic, Apple means innovative. These connections take time to establish; clever advertising helps, but real brand equity is built, not bought. So what do we make of Chanel, which, over the course of 111 years, has given us the classic tweed suit, the 2.55 quilted handbag, and No.5 perfume? What adjective does the French fashion house embody?
In a word: Iconic.
So it’s only natural that Chanel’s flagship timepiece, the J12, should make an indelible mark on the horological landscape. Now twenty years old, the watch remains revered for its groundbreaking use of ceramic materials, as well as its cool nautical-inspired look. This dichotomy has always been central to the J12’s appeal: a lighthearted appearance that belies an extremely serious timepiece.
And while Chanel’s seasonal fashion offerings debut rapid-fire worldwide, behind the scenes, the company’s watch division has been playing the long game. Early in 2019, Chanel Horlogerie laid the technical groundwork for its future by investing in Kenissi, the Swiss manufacture that creates movements in partnership with another iconic brand: Rolex Group. An updated J12 emerged soon after, housing the new Calibre 12.1 in-house movement—no small achievement, and the technical specifications speak for themselves.
A true Swiss Official Chronometer Testing Institute (COSC) certified chronometer, this self-winding mechanical heart offers 70 hours power reserve and water resistance of 200 meters. It also shares traits and components with some of the best tool watches on the market. Still, there were only subtle tweaks to the exterior of last year’s J12, rendering it nearly indecipherable from previous versions; many clients wouldn’t notice the difference, or think of unseen changes as frivolous. But the increase in quality was essential to the Chanel Horlogerie brand. This speaks volumes about everything the company does, and its overall approach.
Now, with its first in-house movement established, Chanel has started to play with the J12’s aesthetic, and to fantastic results. Earlier this year, the new Paradoxe model offered a brilliant riff on the watch’s traditional monochromatic finish. The case is split vertically: two-thirds is white, while the other third is black. It’s an inventive twist on the typical two-tone watch, and the Paradoxe Diamond takes it even further: two-thirds black, one-third gem-set white gold.
Then there’s the dazzling sapphire crystal X-Ray version. The first non-ceramic J12, this watch is completely see-through, including the transparent sapphire links of the bracelet. Developed and assembled by the Chanel manufacture, the sapphire mounting bridge, and gear bridge adds to the clarity. The baguette diamond bezel provides sparkle, like the idea of a watch imaginatively constructed out of thin air.
But icons aren’t always so serious. Hence the J12-20, a wonderfully manic celebration of the watch’s 20th anniversary. Here, all the symbolic markers of the house are combined into a graphic illustration, incorporating camellias, pearls, thimbles, comets, lions—and fifteen additional motifs. Composed erratically, these rhodium-plated details take over the dial of the J12, like the distracted scribbles of the designer’s imagination run wild. In a neat homage to Coco Chanel’s love of numerology, only 2,020 ceramic editions of the J12-20 will be available. A pair of (even more) exclusive limited-edition pieces—five each in black and white cloissonné enamel, set with randomly scattered brilliant-cut diamonds—are also to be made.
It’s a reminder that Chanel understands the intrinsic value of irreverence. Because while the J12-20 uses the Calibre 12.1, with its Swiss pedigree and manufacture bona-fides, the watch’s playfulness removes all pretension—an important concept Karl Lagerfeld brought back at Chanel during his long-lasting career. The first two decades of the J12 established an icon; these new anniversary pieces suggest the house isn’t content to rest on its laurels. It seems we’re only getting started. One can only imagine what the next twenty years will bring.
J12-20 Limited Edition of 2020
Calibre 12.1, self-winding Manufacture movement, chronometer-certified by COSC. Approximate 70-hour power reserve. Water-resistance 200 meters.
38 MM white or black highly resistant ceramic and steel case, sapphire caseback with “20 YEARS. LIMITED TO 2020” metallization. Steel unidirectional rotating bezel, rhodium-plated motifs. Screw down crown with white or black ceramic cabochon. White lacquer dial set with 12 brilliant-cut diamonds.
White or black ceramic bracelet with steel triple-folding buckle.
J12-20 Limited Edition of 5
Calibre 12.1, self-winding Manufacture movement, chronometer-certified by COSC. Black or white oscillating weight set with 34-brilliant cut diamonds. Approximate 70-hour power reserve. Water-resistance 50 meters.