Cover Close up of J12 Paradoxe

The first ever J12 watch was in black ceramic followed by white ceramic; this year, it celebrates its first step into adulthood with a two-toned model featuring both classic shades

For a major fashion house whose name is known all over the world whether you're into fashion or not, Chanel has miraculously avoided the whole fashion watch cliche that plagued many of its contemporaries, and it's all thanks to the J12 watch. Making its debut in 2000, the J12 came out strong from the get-go with its robust ceramic case in black, a classic design code for the Parisian label. While J12 wasn't the first watch to be crafted in ceramic, a scratch-proof material that makes it practical for daily wear, it is arguably the first to make it chic enough for women used to wearing Christian Louboutin heels and Hermès silk scarves.

See also: The 20-Year Evolution Of Chanel J12 Ceramic Watches

Created by the late Chanel artistic director Jacques Helleu, the J12 became an instant icon, providing a much-needed canvas for Chanel's watchmaking ambition. And it proved to be perfectly suited for the task.

Over the years, the J12 has been endowed with complications like the tourbillon and the GMT, mixed ceramic with titanium for a glossier case, and adorned with so many baguette diamonds that it was transformed into a showpiece of Met Gala proportions.

It has also pushed mechanical boundaries with the J12 Retrograde Mysterious that boasts a tourbillon, a retrograde minute hand and a digital minute display in a single timepiece. 

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J12 Mademoiselle
Above J12 Mademoiselle

The arrival of Arnaud Chastaingt as the director of Chanel Horology Creation Studio introduced a sense of whimsy to the J12 design such as the appearance of a Mademoiselle Chanel figurine in her signature braided suit and hat on the dial, her hands indicating the hour and minute.

In 2019, the J12 underwent a change of heart, so to speak, with the debut of the new Caliber 12.1, a movement designed and developed exclusively for Chanel by Swiss movement maker Kenissi. Caliber 12.1 boasts a precision that meets COSC standards and a power reserve of 70 hours. 

See also: The New Chanel J12 Is Armed With A New In-House Movement

As it celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, the J12 continues to astound with the J12 X-Ray, its first sapphire crystal case model limited to 12 pieces, and the commemorative J12∙20 (limited to 2,020 pieces) in white ceramic with a dial set in 12 brilliant-cut diamonds and a collage of beloved Chanel symbols. A second J12∙20 (which is even more limited with only 5 pieces) boasts a bezel and dial adorned in champlevé enamel. 

Last but not least is the J12 Paradoxe that solves the dilemma of having to choose between black and white by combining both colours in a two-toned model. Combining white and black ceramic is not as simple as it sounds as it requires very precise technical skill to cut two ceramic blocks in different dimensions and assemble them perfectly as a single case.

These anniversary pieces are conceived by Chastaingt who shares that he has a special relationship with J12. In this interview excerpt, he talks more about the watch and his future plans for it.

See also: On A Winning Streak With Chanel J12

As I see it, it's not time that sets the pace at Chanel, it's allure. At Chanel, the magic is the same whether it's haute horlogerie or haute couture.

The J12 is turning 20 this year. Can we say it's the best year of its life?

J12 has fascinated and inspired me from the first day. It has never lost its edginess, and it's made a mark as one of Chanel's most iconic creations. This timepiece has always completely lived up to the free and lighthearted attitude that made it a legend. It stormed into the watchmaking world as a fashion diva. It has now become my muse. 

The J12 Paradoxe has reinvented the two-tone concept in watchmaking. What was the impetus for entering this realm?

The duality of black and white is a Chanel hallmark. “Black has it all, so does white. Their beauty is absolute. It’s the perfect harmony,” Gabrielle Chanel would say. In 2000, the J12 came on the scene wearing a black ceramic dress. Three years later, it unveiled itself dressed in white ceramic. For 20 years, the J12 would basically be either black or white.

In 2020, I am fusing both colours together in the same creation. From a watchmaker's perspective, the J12 Paradoxe is a new twist on the graphic two-tone concept in watchmaking. Symmetry becomes asymmetry.

I love how this watch looks under the sleeve of a sweater. You get an initial glimpse of the silhouette’s black curves, but the paradox is revealed as soon as you move your arm, creating a surprising and pleasantly distorted effect. It’s not a watch that goes with every wrist and I can tell you right now, it will need a certain amount of audacity to really pull it off.

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How did you come up with the transparent J12 X-Ray?

I dreamed of taking off the J12’s black and white dress and, for lack of a better term, stripping it to its bare essence. The J12 has a perfect figure and I don’t think it has anything to hide. It's a radical choice. The watch unabashedly shows off its curves and midriff, its movement and its bracelet with total transparency.

Now undressed, it accentuates the lines of the 3.1 Caliber, a new in-house movement that was designed and developed for the J12 X-Ray. It's a creation that defines the uniqueness of haute horlogerie at Chanel. I just kept the bare minimum out of a desire for sophisticated, irreproachable simplicity.

Does the J12 X-Ray symbolise your vision of haute horlogerie at Chanel?

Traditional watchmaking originally took on this haute horlogerie label to categorise a family of watches with complications. To begin with, I don’t really like the term “complications". Why make it complicated when you can make it simple? Personally, I prefer dreaming about “watch clarity” instead of “watch complication”. To be honest, I do not understand watches that require you to have an engineering degree to tell the time. If Gabrielle Chanel were alive today, she would probably reject such creations. She believed that simplicity and comfort were a guiding philosophy.

When I hear haute horlogerie now, I think more about haute couture or high jewellery. Our watchmakers are skilled craftspeople and I use their know-how like I would if I were working with a jeweller, a glyptician, an embroiderer, an enameler or a glove maker. Chanel's haute horlogerie is an inspiration-rich playing field where the operative words are excellence, edginess and exceptional. As I see it, it's not time that sets the pace at Chanel, it's allure. At Chanel, the magic is the same whether it's haute horlogerie or haute couture.

See also: How Luxury Fashion Houses Are Redefining Watchmaking

The J12 is also celebrating its 20th birthday with a collection called J12∙20. Can you let us in on its secrets?

In honour of the J12’s 20th birthday, I created a custom dress for it called J12∙20. I did this by gathering together the House's great symbols. Almost obsessively, I drew a fresco that was a random aggregate of Chanel symbols. It is a graphic illustration comprised of camellias, pearls, thimbles, diamonds, comets, lions and lots of other things. The motifs seem to have an erratic balance, but in a structured composition.

At first glance, the J12∙20 shows a diagonal line of silvery motifs intertwined with the original design of the dial and the bezel. If you look closer though, the eye can make out a mosaic of 20 stylised symbols, a microcosm of Chanel codes to crack!

How would you sum up your vision for Chanel watchmaking?

I can perfectly sum up my current vision for Chanel watchmaking in five words: It's Chanel o'clock. I like the irreverence of the idea that allure is mandatory when telling Chanel time.

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