Flight of Fancy: Chanel Calibre 5

Flight of Fancy: Chanel Calibre 5

When Chanel unveiled the Calibre 1 in the Monsieur de Chanel in 2016, it took many by surprise, not merely because it was Chanel’s first in-house movement, but because it was constructed with an exceptional level of refinement both in terms of its fundamental architecture and complication. Equally impressive was its conceptual approach to design. The iconic codes of the French fashion house were skilfully woven into all aspects of the watch, from the details of the dial to the framework of the movement, creating an admirably cohesive timepiece few watchmakers can even approach.

Proving it is far more than a one-trick pony, Chanel soon unveiled the Calibres 2 and 3 in the Premiere Camelia Skeleton and the Boy.friend Skeleton respectively. They were a pair of skeletonized time-only form movements with equally considered and distinctive constructions characterized by circularity. The Calibre 3 even spawned a 3.1 version in the J.12 X-ray wherein the movement plate and bridges were made entirely from sapphire.

Monsieur de Chanel fitted with Calibre 1
Monsieur de Chanel fitted with Calibre 1
Premiere Camelia Skeleton fitted with Calibre 2
Premiere Camelia Skeleton fitted with Calibre 2
Boy.friend Skeleton fitted with Calibre 3
Boy.friend Skeleton fitted with Calibre 3
J.12 X-ray fitted with Calibre 3.1
J.12 X-ray fitted with Calibre 3.1

This year, Chanel has introduced its magnum opus — its first in-house tourbillon movement, the Calibre 5 — in the J12 Diamond Tourbillon. While the movement reveals the same sophistication and an extension of the style of the Calibre 1 in terms of its conceptual focus on form, it was distinctly built from the ground up as a flying tourbillon movement.

J12 Diamond Tourbillon
J12 Diamond Tourbillon

The J12 Diamond Tourbillon was designed in Paris by Arnaud Chastaingt, Director of the Chanel Watchmaking Creation Studio, who also oversaw the design of the Calibre 5. Meanwhile, a team based in Chanel’s manufacture in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, was responsible for the development and assembly of the movement.

Arnaud Chastaingt, Director of the Chanel Watchmaking Creation Studio
Arnaud Chastaingt, Director of the Chanel Watchmaking Creation Studio
Calibre 5
Calibre 5

The Devil in the Details

Often framed as a virtue in modern design is the principle of form following, rather than determining, function, but there is much to be appreciated when engineering is critically rethought and furthermore optimized to achieve aesthetic goals.

As with the Calibre 1, the exemplary architecture of the Calibre 5 is easy to appreciate, but what’s perhaps less obvious is the minute but significant steps taken to arrive at its beauty. As you’ll come to find, every aspect of the movement has been meticulously considered in the pursuit of finer aesthetics and thinness.

The J12 Diamond Tourbillon features a classic layout with the mainspring barrel located at 12 o’clock, while the tourbillon regulator is displayed in an aperture at six o’clock. Typically, in most tourbillon watches with such a configuration, the gear train traverses the central axis of the movement with the second wheel located right in the center — as it turns once per hour — to drive the minute hand directly. This construction results in additional height due to the thickness of the overlapping components and their necessary running clearances.

However, in the Calibre 5, the gear train is instead arranged at the edge of the movement in order to preserve its circular layout. The effect of this arrangement is a thinner watch; the movement clocks in at just 6.25mm in height. Spreading out the wheels on the same plane optimizes the volume of the movement while enabling more room for more important elements: the barrel and the tourbillon.

A large mainspring barrel occupies half the movement’s diameter
A large mainspring barrel occupies half the movement’s diameter
A 0.18-carat solitaire diamond with 65 facets is set at the center of the tourbillon cage that is framed by 26 round brilliant-cut diamonds
A 0.18-carat solitaire diamond with 65 facets is set at the center of the tourbillon cage that is framed by 26 round brilliant-cut diamonds
The wheel train of the caliber 5
The wheel train of the caliber 5

In contrast to the Calibre 1, which was equipped with a pair of serially coupled barrels, the Calibre 5 had to be built to much smaller dimensions so as to preserve the proportions of the J12, which measures a modest 38mm across. As such, the Calibre 5 relies on a single barrel but one that is notably large for a movement diameter of just 28.40mm. In fact, the barrel occupies half the movement’s diameter, covering the span from the central axis to the edge of the baseplate. Consequently, it is able to deliver a 48-hour power reserve, which is particularly respectable considering the balance has a 4Hz frequency and is further housed in a gem-set tourbillon cage.

The maximal size of the barrel is made possible as the watch features a dial that is offset from the central axis, with hands that are driven indirectly by an auxiliary train. Because the second wheel of the movement is located on the edge of the baseplate, additional gearing is required to redirect the minute information to the center of the offset dial. This is done by extending the arbor of the second wheel through the baseplate to carry an extension wheel (the solid wheel visible on the far left of the offset dial). This wheel then gears with an intermediate wheel, which in turn drives the cannon pinion and motion works exposed on the dial. Such a solution preserves the circular architecture of the movement, permitting the entire transmission system of the watch to be arranged in an unbroken visual flow when viewed from the caseback, from the winding mechanism all the way to the tourbillon.

The bezel is paved with 34 baguette-cut diamonds in the glossy ceramic model
The bezel is paved with 34 baguette-cut diamonds in the glossy ceramic model

The openworked dial reveals just enough of the unusual bits to provide intrigue while keeping the more conventional parts such as the keyless works hidden. At the same time, with the second wheel located on the side of the baseplate and the motion works off-centered, nothing obstructs the view of the tourbillon from above. This is noteworthy and a sure indication of a well-thought-out design. The aperture size for the tourbillon, like the barrel, can be taken to its limit, occupying half of the movement’s diameter for maximum visual effect. In addition, the subsequent wheels after the third wheel are made smaller so as not to cause a huge overlap. The last wheel in the gear train then drives the star of the show, which is the flying tourbillon.

As a recap, a tourbillon houses the balance wheel and escapement in a carriage that rotates on a fixed fourth wheel. By design, the cage has a 60-second period of rotation which allows it to double as a small-seconds display. Because it is constantly revolving, the balance does not experience the downward pull of gravity in the vertical plane, as compared to a stationary oscillator, thereby producing a more uniform average rate.

In the Calibre 5, the tourbillon cage is cantilevered only at its base, without a bridge on its top pivot, giving the impression that it is unfixed and thus “flying”. Without an upper bridge, this configuration offers unobstructed views of the full carriage. And to amplify the effect, the tourbillon cage is set with 26 round brilliant-cut diamonds with a large 65-facet solitaire diamond positioned in its center, creating a dazzling spectacle as it rotates. A gem-set cage with a 60-second period of rotation is a technical challenge in itself as it requires additional solutions to counteract the additional inertia. It is coupled with a low-inertia balance wheel that beats at 4Hz, or 28,800 beats per hour, which is higher than the standard frequency in most tourbillon movements. All things being equal, a higher frequency balance maintains more stable timekeeping in a wristwatch as it is less susceptible to shocks caused by wrist motions.

Unity in Design

The movement alone would have been enough to make this an exceptional timepiece. But Chanel’s calling card — the triumph and perhaps the hardest aspect to emulate — is its knack for creating watches that are not only beautiful on the face of things, but also cohesive in their motivation and overall design.

A series of repeating, intersecting circles — reminiscent of Chanel’s interlocking double-C logo and a design choice of Arnaud Chastaingt — permeates all levels of the watch. The movement is a collage of rings, with wheels that are held in place by a large circular bridge, while the front of the watch is composed of interlocking circles on different elevations. They vary in size and texture, from the diamond-set tourbillon cage to the bridge that frames the exposed gearworks and tourbillon.

The J12 Diamond Tourbillon is presented in two versions, each limited to 55 pieces. The first one features a glossy black ceramic case with a white gold bezel while the other has a matte black ceramic case with a black-coated steel bezel. To further accentuate its circular architectural composition, the bezel is paved with 34 baguette-cut diamonds in the glossy ceramic version, and 34 black ceramic baguettes in the matte model. As with all in-house calibers, an emblem of a lion’s head — a nod to Coco Chanel’s zodiac sign — adorns the Calibre 5 as a homage to the designer.

Chanel’s deftness in producing an inimitable design with the use of highly refined watchmaking has been evident in the succession of in-house movements over the years, and the Calibre 5 is no different, save in the strength of the blend and the fact that it is housed in one of the most iconic timepieces in modern watchmaking.

Tech Specs

Movement: Hand-wound Calibre 5; 48-hour power reserve; 4 Hz (28,800 vph)
Functions: Hours, minutes, flying tourbillon
Case: 38mm; black ceramic or matte black ceramic; water-resistant to 50m

Black Ceramic

Bezel: 18K white gold bezel set with 34 baguette-cut diamonds
Diamonds: 34 baguette-cut diamonds (~3,50 carats), 49 brilliant-cut diamonds (~0,23 carat) and 1 solitaire diamond (~0,18 carat)
Bracelet: Black ceramic and 18K white gold triple-folding buckle
Price: € 160,000
Availability: Limited to 55 pieces

Matte Black Ceramic

Bezel: Black-coated steel bezel with matte black baguette-cut ceramic ring
Diamonds: 49 brilliant-cut diamonds (~0,23 carat) and 1 solitaire diamond (~0,18 carat)
Bracelet: Black ceramic and steel white gold triple-folding buckle
Price: € 100,000
Availability: Limited to 55 pieces

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