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How a Monochromatic Watch Became an Icon

By Lynette Kee

Courtesy of ChanelChanel’s roster of muses for the J12 features tastemakers of the world representing what the watch model is at its core — spirited, skilled, and beautiful at any age. Clockwise from top left: Keira Knightley, Kim Go Eun, Naomi Campbell and Liu Wen.
Chanel’s roster of muses for the J12 features tastemakers of the world representing what the watch model is at its core — spirited, skilled, and beautiful at any age. Clockwise from top left: Keira Knightley, Kim Go Eun, Naomi Campbell and Liu Wen.

The concept of time has served as one of the central building blocks of social life since the early 1880s, when the first time zones were created to introduce some semblance of structure to a fast-growing world. As industrialisation and, later, globalisation took hold, time became such an omnipresent metric that is easily overlooked.

To keep pace, watchmakers have consistently invented mechanisms that record time with utmost precision, whether measuring down to the nanoseconds or looking up to chart phases of the moon. But when it comes to thinking about time beyond mere minutes and seconds, the Chanel J12 poses a question few have attempted to answer: “What is the meaning of time?”

In many ways, the concept of time, with its diverse and evolving interpretations in respect to individuals and societies, is a social construct and remains relative to individual cultural beliefs and frames of social knowledge.

A second to most is fleeting, inconsequential even; yet to some it can be life-changing, like a one-way ticket bought on a whim. The rigidity of time may be comforting for the hyper-disciplined, grounding their lives; and yet to some time is something to outrun. These subjective, often conflicting views of the relationship between time and its value make it almost futile to pinpoint an exact meaning of time.

Courtesy of ChanelLeft: The J12.20 anniversary model adorned with champlevé enamel motif comes in a limited number of five in each colour (white and black). Right: The numbered limited edition watch has the Chanel anniversary motif scattered over the bezel and dial while its caseback is engraved with the words, “20 years. Limited to 2020.”
Left: The J12.20 anniversary model adorned with champlevé enamel motif comes in a limited number of five in each colour (white and black). Right: The numbered limited edition watch has the Chanel anniversary motif scattered over the bezel and dial while its caseback is engraved with the words, “20 years. Limited to 2020.”

However, in our current noisy, frenzied world, perhaps time represents luxury itself.

In the 1990s, Chanel’s then-artistic director of more than 40 years, Jacques Helleu, conceived the J12, named after the 12-metre, J class racing yacht he so enjoyed. His choice of material for the timepiece was monochromatic ceramic. Though uncommon, ceramic had been used in watchmaking before, but never in black and never as the sole material. Helleu dressed the watch as Gabrielle Chanel would herself, combining function with her unmistakable style — a refined elegance that influenced the design of the house’s iconic quilted 2.55 handbag and the bevelled silhouette of the Chanel No.5 perfume bottle.

Clearly, Helleu had strayed from the traditional codes of watchmaking as the J12 was released as the first unisex, all black timepiece in the market in 2000. Exactly two decades later, the J12 has earned its place alongside the other house icons. “A watch tells you the time, a better watch tells others about the person that you are,” says Arnaud Chastaingt, who became the director of the Chanel Watch Creation Studio in 2013. Chastaingt was the man behind J12’s subtle reinvention in 2019 — as well as the new iterations created to commemorate its anniversary.

The growing repertoire of the J12 collection, manufactured entirely in Switzerland, has allowed the J12 to shake off its reputation as a “fashion watch.” And now, the watch is transcending its purpose as a time-telling instrument to attempt a narrative of what it could be — an experience.

In the J12’s 20th anniversary feature film, Chanel charts the varying interpretations of 20 years in mere seconds. There are no props, no music. The camera focuses on the individual subjects against the monochromatic set. With no other distractions, words take centre stage — actress Ali MacGraw and French singer Vanessa Paradis, who are both friends of the brand, ruminate on the brevity of life and how short-lived 20 years seem in retrospect. The same period marks the length of the entire existence of American-French actress Lily-Rose Depp — who happens to be Paradis’s daughter, and a brand muse.

Courtesy of ChanelThe Chanel motif is designed with twenty of the house’s iconic symbols: the 2.55 bag, a camellia and its signature N°5 perfume bottle, among others.
The Chanel motif is designed with twenty of the house’s iconic symbols: the 2.55 bag, a camellia and its signature N°5 perfume bottle, among others.

Some of them share the importance of time from a personal encounter. “If I could relive one second, it would be my wedding ring being put on my finger by Matthew,” German model Claudia Schiffer says. In these shared experiences, it is clear that time is constantly slipping through one’s fingers. Whether it is a momentous second or a lifetime, time turns into memory the moment it passes. In luxury, the rarity of time has become its greatest value.

“A watch is an identity vector,” Chastaingt recently said to The New York Times. “I start with a story and think about a woman — the style and signature I want to have on her wrist.” He continued, “I don’t start by dreaming about a calibre.” By opting for experience over technicality, Chanel redefined the purpose of a watch. It was certainly a risk for a fashion brand to craft a complex timepiece out of such an unconventional and challenging material (back in the day). Yet it is the intriguing luxury of living for the future that Helleu has embedded in the watches that now resonate with people who wear them. “If I had to relive one second of the past 20 years,” ponders Paradis. “I would rather live in the next.”