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A Watch That Fuses Black and White Ceramic in a Single Case

By Lynette Kee

The Chanel J12 Paradoxe is an almost subversive take on high watchmaking.
 
Photograph by Ching, styled by Lynette Kee
The Chanel J12 Paradoxe is an almost subversive take on high watchmaking.

At Chanel's watch factory in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, groups of artisans hunch over minuscule watch parts so tiny they can only be held using a tweezer, in order to deftly assemble the classic J12 watch by hand. Each watch typically takes two months to construct, from the ceramic band to the steel-edged case to the self-winding mechanism. The French luxury brand spends approximately 5,259,492 important seconds to achieve perfection for every piece.

The painstaking and stringent process includes slicing and baking the ceramic, assembling the links, screwing down the hours and second hands individually and polishing the case — a procedure that runs like clockwork and took Arnaud Chastaingt four years to put together, after joining the brand as the director of the Chanel Watch Creation Studio in 2013.

When this iconic watch launched as a reprisal version of the original J12 (introduced in 2000) last year, it re-emphasised everything that had been novel about the design. Chastaingt upended every conceivable detail of the watch: He shaved down its bezel and increased the number of notches around its ring, shrunk its crown by a third of its original size and redesigned the numeral indexes in its signature ceramic material. At the heart of the rejuvenation was the 12.1 calibre automatic movement, developed by Kenissi. The watch is thoroughly enhanced in a way that is undetectable to the untrained eye but is instantly felt by the wearer.

Additional images courtesy of ChanelSince 2000, Chanel has been determined to raise its haute horlogerie presence by setting up its watch factory in the Swiss watchmaking town of La Chaux-de-Fonds.
Since 2000, Chanel has been determined to raise its haute horlogerie presence by setting up its watch factory in the Swiss watchmaking town of La Chaux-de-Fonds.

Now, exactly one year from the J12’s 2019 evolution, Chanel introduces four new designs created by Chastaingt to mark J12’s 20th anniversary: the X-Ray, a 12-piece limited edition watch made in sapphire crystal; the J12.20, an exclusive 20th anniversary design limited to 2020 pieces in black and white; and the visually astounding J12 Paradoxe watch, which fuses both black and white ceramic in a single case.

While the luxury brand has proven itself to be a legitimate watchmaker over the years with its constant mechanical breakthroughs within the J12 collection, its latest designs are bringing the focus back to its core identity as a maker of beautiful things beyond mere technological innovation. “A watch is an identity vector,” says Chastaingt to The New York Times earlier this year in an article titled “Chanel’s ‘Fashion Watch’ Set the Fashion”. “I’m very proud that the J12 is equipped with this amazing calibre but I’m not obsessed about the movement.” In an age when people reach for phones to tell the time instead of turning to the wrist, Chanel is adamant about giving consumers more reasons to put on a traditional watch.

Additional images courtesy of ChanelDue to the complex watch shape, dimensions of the casing ring has to be thoroughly measured before the final assembly.
Due to the complex watch shape, dimensions of the casing ring has to be thoroughly measured before the final assembly.

Fashion and Watchmaking

When Chanel released its first watch model (called the Chanel Première watch) in 1987, it was a timepiece more associated with the brand’s tweed and pearl-filled Parisian ateliers than the rarefied world of Swiss horology. The introduction of the J12 watch in 2000, however, blew apart all preconceived notions of what Chanel watchmaking could produce and finally managed to turn the stiff necks of the luxury watch industry.

The mandate for Helleu was simple at the time: To create “a beautiful yet different watch.” And so Helleu deliberately eschewed gold, titanium and steel — typical materials used in traditional watchmaking — and designed a watch made in full ceramic, the same way Gabrielle Chanel reinvented womenswear by employing the use of the then-masculine fabric, tweed.

This novel material is lighter yet harder than steel. It is also extremely scratch-proof with a plump surface that feels satisfyingly smooth. While these oxymoronic qualities make ceramic an ideal material for watches, it is extremely brittle and delicate to machine, making it a challenging feat to craft a watch entirely in ceramic. Sintered at high temperature, this high-tech material creates an attractive, solid effect — the result is a watch that is not only physically and technologically modern, but ahead of its time.

Additional images courtesy of ChanelAt this critical stage, Chanel artisans carefully adjust the screws of the balance to obtain the sought-after chronometry.
At this critical stage, Chanel artisans carefully adjust the screws of the balance to obtain the sought-after chronometry.

Beauty and Complication

The success of the J12 led to the brand unveiling a series of iterations over the next two decades. Release after release, Chanel checked off the boxes with technical masterpieces that would lay its foundation as a serious watchmaker.

In 2002, the house launched its first chronograph, followed by a tourbillon in 2005. Within the next five years, the J12 took form as a GMT dual timezone watch, appeared as a creative collaboration with Audemars Piguet and debuted as a highly-resistant diving watch featuring a compendium of complications, such as a tourbillon, digital minutes display, retrograde minute hand, 10-day power-reserve and a retractable vertical crown.

By 2015, the J12 had ticked off the moonphase, a flying tourbillon and a skeleton flying tourbillon. Later, the luxury house reimagined its quintessential Mademoiselle brand icon, which is found in its fashion and cosmetic counterpart, as a display on the J12 watch to tell the time; and also experimented with ceramic marquetry. The 2019 reinvention of the original J12, though subtle, was a deliberate move to draw attention back to the original timepiece, before releasing the sling to launch the J12 Paradoxe in time for its 20th anniversary.

Photograph by Ching, styled by Lynette KeeUsing the remaining two thirds of the black ceramic case, Chanel created a limited edition J12 Paradoxe diamonds edition.
Using the remaining two thirds of the black ceramic case, Chanel created a limited edition J12 Paradoxe diamonds edition.

Allure and Modernity

Witnessed on screen, the J12 Paradoxe could easily pass off as a product of digital imaging. In the flesh, it is, in fact, Chanel’s enthralling take on the two-tone concept — fusing two-thirds of white ceramic and one-third black ceramic into one seamless form. The two sections are carefully sliced from each of its completed cases, and anchored to an inner steel frame by two screws. The leftover two thirds of the black ceramic case are then used to create the alternative diamond version, where the remaining portion of the case is crafted out of white gold to hold the 88 diamonds in place.

After 20 years and about hundreds of executions, the J12 Paradoxe represents Chanel’s most progressive leap in watchmaking yet.

Additional images courtesy of ChanelEvery Chanel watch goes through a water-resistance test before the bracelets are attached.
Every Chanel watch goes through a water-resistance test before the bracelets are attached.
Additional images courtesy of ChanelNow celebrating its 20th anniversary, Arnaud Chastaingt launched the Paradoxe saying, “her whole life, she’s worn a black or a white dress, and I wanted to take that dress off. She’s old enough today that she can do what she wants”.
Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, Arnaud Chastaingt launched the Paradoxe saying, “her whole life, she’s worn a black or a white dress, and I wanted to take that dress off. She’s old enough today that she can do what she wants”.

As a young player within the luxury watch industry, Chanel has taken ownership of its limited heritage. While it may never match its years to the industry’s most hallowed brands with centuries of heritage behind them, it is no less important as a brand that has managed to revolutionise modern watchmaking. The J12 was first released with a ground-breaking material at the centre of its product, and marketed as a unisex watch in an industry that then held rigid notions about gender. While the world of traditional watchmaking has always provided a sense of renewal, its inherent sense of structure makes it challenging to change at times.

The degree of legitimacy in watchmaking brands then isn’t always about how far back its history stretches, but its ability to continue being radical in the face of a fast-changing world. To Chanel, “the less you need a watch, the more it will become a product of pleasure,” and it is just starting to pave the way for watches to become both a timepiece and a stylish and desirable objet d’art.