The Chanel J12 X-Ray in all its glory, featuring a sapphire case and matching bracelet

There is a certain pleasure in discovery – it is the very thing that powers our ongoing quest to understand the world we live in. I mean that not only in the sense of finding a new species or developing a new technology. Instead, I would argue that we are connected to each other by a shared discovery of what it means to be human, and to live on this planet. This is not something that happens once – you can count on it happening all the time, in fact. Looking at a newsstand, you might discover all sorts of new things, even from brands that you know well, to use a very specific and rather biased example. It even applies to search engines, where you frequently arrive with a question in mind. Whatever results you get, those are all discoveries; to you, the seeker. They might be brand new and entirely unexpected.

When it comes to individual watches, you are likely to learn about a new model long after its debut. You might even discover a watchmaking brand centuries after it made and sold its first watches. It is not uncommon to learn the names of the great houses of horology before finding out anything about their watches. This is also not unusual in the world at large, beyond watchmaking. To use another example from bookstores, everyone knows Homer but only a fraction have read even one of the works in full.

The Chanel J12 X-Ray in all its glory, featuring a sapphire case and matching bracelet.

The story of time is even older – far beyond even the history of our own solar system – so the tale of human timekeeping will form just one narrative arc, albeit an entertaining one from our perspective. Building on this metaphor, any given timepiece will form a standalone chapter, part of the backstory of one or more watchmakers. When it comes to Chanel, it so happens that the J12 model is perhaps the most famous, although it was not the first. That honour belongs to the Premiere model, which opened the story of Chanel watchmaking in 1987. As a character in the evolving story of Chanel, the J12 is arguably the protagonist – it is definitely an important watch in the grand scheme of the watchmaking world.

The Chanel J12 X-Ray that graces our cover encapsulates all the key points about Chanel watches that we examine in this story. As usual, the details about the watch will be in our cover watch segment, including the vital statistics. In this extended look at the J12 in general, we will be paying specific attention to the bracelet of the X-Ray, which represents another ground-breaking triumph for Chanel in watchmaking. In a bit of a lucky twist for WOW in particular, the bracelet here adds to our ongoing conversation about this essential yet oft neglected part of the wristwatch. Of course, all J12s do tend to speak to the key issues for this magazine in recent times.

Long-time readers will recall that we have taken up the cause of the genderless watch – that is to say, the wristwatch designed specifically for both men and women. There is nothing inherently masculine or feminine about time so why should timepieces be made for one sex or the other. This is an issue that has been bouncing around in the heart of Swiss watchmaking for years, yet it has not been properly answered. In this rather remarkable year, we count our blessings to have been able to explore this subject in so much depth, and now to have this shot at a cover story.

Close up of Calibre 3.1 that powers the Chanel J12 X-Ray and 12 baguette-cut diamond indexes

Truly, the Chanel J12 was one of the first non-binary watches that was developed as such, right from the start more than 20 years ago. Indeed, the J12 watch sits at the confluence of a number of slow-burning trends in watchmaking, including the triumph of the sports watch and rise of high-tech ceramic. This magazine has been tracking these developments for years, in general, while keeping an eye on Chanel watches periodically.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. To properly proceed into the world of the J12, we must set the stage. First of all, it is the 20th anniversary of the debut of the J12 according to the brand and industry rag EuropaStar, although Wikipedia has it as 1999. In fact, the brand presented a rethink of the J12 last year, as the opening salvo of the commemoration of the anniversary. The new 2019 J12 is thus quite a different watch to the one that appeared in 2000, as you can see for yourself in these pages. “We changed 70% of the components (of the watch)…although maybe you cannot tell this when you first look at it. We want the J12 to always be on time with the time,” Chanel’s head of watchmaking and jewellery Nicolas Beau told Alexander Linz for Watch Advisor at BaselWorld 2019.

A close up of the Chanel J12 X-Ray where the diamond indexes appear to be floating

Details aside, 20 years is not enough time for a watch to prove itself, one way or another, although plenty of models do fall by the wayside long before even getting to this point. Quite a number of brands (in all sectors) also attempt to emulate the so-called Porsche 911 method in updating flagships designs. This does happen in watchmaking, although brand executives (who must remain anonymous) sheepishly admit that invoking Porsche is a bit of a disingenuous cliché. Having said all this, many legendary products today took a little longer to establish their credentials as they currently stand – the 911 will turn 60 in 2023. As far as wristwatches go, this story need not name names here as such icons are the mainstays of the brands that use them, and those that borrow them.

What you can say, after 20 years, is that the J12 is definitely worth looking at, in much the same way that the Philosopher’s Stone confirms that the Harry Potter series of books is worth reading. After 20 years of the J12, the watch is starting a new arc, with the watch maturing in fine form. In this brief story (10 pages is not enough to cover 20 years of watchmaking), we are looking at the entire history of the J12. The focus is on its identity as a unisex sports watch that was ahead of its time 20 years ago. It is the right sort of watch for our present era, when hygiene and the ability to wear something and feel secure are paramount.

Historical Essence

Chanel was one of the first all-luxury labels to explore the world of watchmaking. Although primarily known as a fashion brand, it was already multi-faceted in the late 1980s when the Premiere wristwatch debuted. As a follow-up, the late Jacques Helleu wanted a sporty expression of time that was also transformative and distinctive. The former artistic director of Chanel expressed this in many interviews from the debut of the J12, which is how we know that the watch was inspired by the J-Class yachts of the America’s Cup. This type of yacht had been out of production since 1937, roughly, but there was a revival in 2001 – the J-Class Association was formed in 2000, and there are active races for this type of yacht right up to this year.

The Chanel J12-20 in white

The 5-piece limited edition Chanel J12-20 with enamel dial in black

Regardless of serendipitous associations, the J12 is a Chanel design through-and-through. It was a 38mm watch in black ceramic, with a ceramic bracelet (or rubber strap) with an impressive water-resistance of 200 metres, and an automatic calibre (the reliable ETA 2892). Of course, a great watch is more than just statistics, but the J12 that arrived in 2000 was deeply intriguing, and those numbers are telling. It was very easy to go from the boardroom to the pool with the J12, and then head to a black-tie engagement. This sort of aesthetic flexibility in watchmaking remains quite rare, especially if you only count purposeful designs – there are sports watches that work as dress watches today, but these were not created to be all-purpose tickers.

From its debut onwards, the J12 was described as Chanel’s drive to create a basis for men’s watches. Later on, it was touted as one of the most compelling watch designs – for ladies. This happened when current watchmaking design head Arnaud Chastaingt created the Mademoiselle J12 and the J12 XS. Perhaps this happened even earlier, when the J12 appeared in white in 2003, or got its first jewellery editions in 2002. Reality has conspired to make the J12 a man’s watch and a ladies watch, depending on who is doing the talking, or the wearing.

The middles of the watch cases are positioned on a ceramic support to be sintered at high temperatures.

The development of the original J12 watch took seven years, which is par for the course when introducing brand new watches. Helleu said he wanted a watch that was “timeless, indestructible, in brilliant black or dazzling white,” which was how he described it in the original press materials. This meant that ceramic was the go-to material from the start, and it entailed many production challenges (as recounted in our last issue, and also in Features this issue). Fittingly, watch magazines from Revolution to QP have credited the J12 with bringing ceramics to a wider audience.

To make this watch a reality, Chanel established its know-how in horology, creating a base for itself in watchmaking hub La Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland. This is not to say that Chanel claimed to be a manufacture – it did not. The firm’s journey into mastery in this complex area is ongoing, which we address more completely in the contemporary section, as well as the segments on Kenissi and G&F Chatelain.

Injected links

Returning to the design, Helleu also drew inspiration from automobiles and, according to EuropaStar, the all-black yacht belonging to industrialist Giovanni Agnelli. If you are curious, look for Stealth, a 93-foot high-performance yacht with a hull in carbon fibre. These days, it belongs to Lapo Elkann, Agnelli’s grandson. With this sort of inspiration, one is bound to have a great deal of testosterone in the mix – Chanel’s use of high-tech ceramic also helps in this regard. Everything from brake discs to next-generation coatings in power boats uses advanced ceramic technology.

But this is not to say the J12 was, or is, meant to be ultra-masculine. Indeed, the addition of both diamond-set versions in 2002 and J12 Jewellery in 2004 showed that Chanel was keen to keep the J12 as inclusive as possible. That the model has retained a distinctive flavour is entirely down to the genesis of the J12’s design codes. Even in something as singular as the X-Ray, it is evident. Writing in 2009 for EuropaStar, Pierre Maillard noted that the J12 was a multifaceted design, capable of taking on many guises without losing its core character. This remains true today.

Right Here Right Now

While the last 20 years have been exciting for the J12, the next 20 hold a lot of promise. It goes without saying that the world is a very different place in 2020 than it was when the J12 debuted. The world in 20 years is likely to be so different that it could be a brand new reality. Change may be the only constant, but it will still be people living through it all. Some touchstones that feel of the moment, but come from the past, will be useful anchors. Wristwatches are clearly objects of that sort, and the J12 is ready for the challenge.

Chanel J12 Paradoxe

Setting aside the models prior to 2019, the biggest hint that Chanel is ready for big things with the J12 is in the movement, the automatic calibre 12.1. Made by Kenissi, this calibre is quite distinct from the Calibre 3.1 that powers the X-Ray. Where the haute horlogerie stylings of Calibre 3.1 give it an alluring presence and statesman-like grace, calibre 12.1 is ready for rough-and-tumble action. The circle motifs in both movements link them to Chanel’s taste for that shape – this is also evident right from Calibre 1 in 2016. Some commentators associate this motif with Chastaingt’s own preferences, which might be possible given that he joined Chanel in 2013.

When it comes to the X-Ray and the J12-20 overall, there is no ambiguity. Chastaingt told World Tempus that he wanted the X-Ray watch itself to embody “watch clarity,” over “watch complication.” In a way, that makes the X-Ray the polar opposite of the Retrograde Mysterieuse that celebrated the 10th birthday of the J12. Perhaps more importantly though, the X-Ray looks and feels magical – a quality it shares with many special editions of the model. For both the X-Ray and the Retrograde Mysterieuse, the primary take-away from looking at the watches is a question: how did they do that? This is part of the appeal.

On that note, it is time to look at that bracelet for a bit. As has been acknowledged by many magazines and websites, this is the first time any watchmaker has equipped a wristwatch with a bracelet made up of sapphire crystal links. Gem-set bracelets are not unusual, however impressive they might be. Going the X-Ray route takes courage, and absolute confidence in build-quality. To draw on our previous stories on this subject, exposing relatively small sapphire components to shearing forces is dangerous. On the other hand, it is not that different to exposing ceramic components to the same stresses. Obviously, Chanel has a lot of experience there and thus, good reason to have confidence.

Châtelain de Chanel Horlogerie at La Chaux-de-Fonds

A big part of that confidence comes from the G&F Chatelain manufacture, which is the “secret” behind the remarkable success of Chanel’s ceramic timepieces. G&F Chatelain were third-party suppliers but Chanel has owned it outright since 1993 – this is part of the watchmaking savoir faire that Chanel established for itself in La Chaux-de-Fonds. That means it has been involved with the J12 right from the start because the timeline matches exactly the development time.

WOW Thailand editor Ruckdee Chotjinda visited the site relatively recently, making us jealous for some time. He confirms that it is an ultra-modern affair, complete with automated production lines. The 16,000 sqm space looks the part of a contemporary manufacture, and provides space for the 350 employees. According to Chatelain website, it has full mastery of all manner of processes related to ultra-hard materials, and now even includes a jewellery workshop.

Ultra-modern watchmaking in action at Châtelain de Chanel Horlogerie

Having a manufacture of this quality fully integrated with operations speaks volumes for Chanel’s commitment to watchmaking. On the other hand, the Kenissi stake demonstrates that Chanel is very much part of the tapestry of big Swiss watchmaking names, even if its own roots and claim to fame have nothing to do with the trade. We look forward to reading new chapters in the continuing story of Chanel watchmaking.

Moving with Time

Chanel is a watchmaker with a few different tracks. It has third-party base movements – quartz and otherwise – in play for existing J12 models, exclusive third-party haute horlogerie movements, in-house haute horlogerie movements, and an exclusive workhorse base movement. That last one is calibre 12.1, which is made by Kenissi for Chanel. It shares its architecture with the MT5600 series that Tudor uses, and the B20 used by Breitling.

These commonalities came about mainly because Chanel is a 20% stakeholder in the Geneva-based movement and sapphire crystal specialist. In turn, Kenissi has been called the “industrial arm,” of Tudor, but is really a partnership between the Rolex Group and a watch component-maker. The relationship with Tudor is clear, because Kenissi and the brand will be sharing a space in Le Locle in 2021. In a bit of Swiss magic, the CEO of Kenissi is Jean-Paul Girardin, formerly one of the leaders at Breitling prior to the Schneider family selling their stake. All of the information shared with regards to Kenissi is according to the Swiss press, as cited in various magazines and blogs.

As for Calibre 3.1, this is a different matter, being an in-house production. It is based closely on Calibre 3, as the name suggests, which was most recently seen in the Chanel Boy.Friend rectangular watch. What is particularly interesting here is that this movement is effectively a form one, with balance spring, gear train and escapement all organised along a single vertical axis. It is the only time, as far as we can recall, that a form movement has been adapted for use in a round watch. As big fans of form watches and movements here, we salute this quirky decision.