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On Set | The Making of the Chanel J12 Watch

By T: The New York Times Style Magazine Singapore

When Chanel released the J12 watch in 2000, it rocked the buttoned-up world of luxury timepieces. Conceived by the house’s then artistic director, Jacques Helleu, the design was cast in matte monochromatic ceramic, a material that gave the women’s accessory a fresh, graphic athleticism. “There was such authority to the design that you either loved it or hated it, but you could not be indifferent,” recalls Arnaud Chastaingt, who became the director of the Chanel Watch Creation Studio in 2013, following a 10-year tenure as a designer at Cartier. “The best creations work that way. That’s a sign of success for me.” Available first in jet black, and later in white, the J12 combines the functionality of a sports watch with the elegance of a link bracelet style. It proved wildly popular and has since joined the N°5 fragrance and the 2.55 handbag as one of Chanel’s most iconic creations.

When Chanel introduced the watch, Chastaingt had just arrived in Paris, after studying applied arts at Strate School of Design in Sèvres, and the moment is forever etched in his memory. It’s understandable, then, that he hesitated to revisit the design ahead of its 20th anniversary. “I had two options: the first was to change everything, and the other was to change nothing and continue with other creations,” he says. In his typically radical way, he opted to do the former and remade 70 percent of the J12’s original components. The new watch looks more modern than ever, but, to an untrained eye, many of the changes might be hard to pinpoint. “My job wasn’t to revolutionize, Jacques had already done that,” Chastaingt says. “For me, it was more about evolution. In some ways, it is easier to start from scratch than to retouch a creation like this.”

The redesigned timepiece took four years to perfect, a process that involved narrowing the bezel, or top ring, and increasing the number of its notches around its perimeter, touches that Chastaingt says make the design feel lighter and more feminine. Other changes reinforce the timepiece’s graphic appeal: The lettering is now exclusively in Chanel’s custom typeface, the numerals are cast in ceramic and the hands were modified with contrasting monochromatic accents. The most significant difference is perhaps the custom-designed 12.1-calibre automatic movement, which can be seen through the sapphire crystal that encases the back of the watch. It takes two months to assemble these elements into the finished product, and the result is just as striking as ever: “To have a watch like this, where you can be active all day, but then go out in the evening wearing a silk dress and it still looks perfect,” Chastaingt says, “that’s very legitimate in the Chanel universe.” Watch the artisans in the video above make a J12 from start to finish, at the Chanel-owned watch manufacturer G&F Châtelain in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland.