Cover Chanel's 12.1 calibre is chronometer-certified by the Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute (COSC) for optimal precision and reliability. (Photo: Courtesy of Chanel)

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Take a closer look at Chanel’s revamp of its iconic J12 watch

“Apart from the buckle, everything has changed,” says Nicolas Beau, director of international business development for watch and fine jewellery at Chanel. We’re at the Baselworld watch fair in March discussing the revamp of Chanel’s iconic J12 watch, which debuted 20 years ago.

At first, Beau’s statement seems incongruous. Even with both the old and new versions of the J12 in front of us, spotting the changes is like playing a microscopic version of Where’s Wally? But as Beau walks us through the tweaks, we begin to understand what he means by “everything has changed.”

The hour and minute indexes have been moved onto the slanted flange surrounding the dial along with the words “Swiss Made,” reducing visual clutter. The rail track in the centre of the dial sports thicker hour indexes. The hands are now of equal widths, whereas previously the hour hand was thicker than the minute hand. The hands on the black version have been redesigned to include a portion of black Superluminova, a relatively recent innovation, to be a perfect mirror reflection of the hands on the white version. (The hands were previously completely white.)

The round counterweight on the seconds hand is now the same width as the arrow on the other end, where it had once been larger. The words “J12” and “Automatic” have been changed to the official Chanel font, and the Arabic hour numerals have been reworked by a professional typographer. The numerals are also now made out of ceramic.

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On top of the dial changes, the team has also modified the proportions of the bracelet, making the links longer and narrower. On the bezel there are now 40 notches on the outer rim where there were once just 30. The indentations on the underside of the bezel have also changed, so that turning the bezel results in a pleasant sound—Beau likens it to the sound of the door closing on a luxury sports car. When you are Chanel, these details matter.

The final changes are to be seen on the back of the watch. “The one flaw in the previous J12 was that it was not as beautiful to view from the back as it was from the front,” says Beau. The steel case back of the old J12 housed a conventional ETA movement, procured from the Swatch Group, that was “not necessarily beautiful,” he confesses. “We thought a luxury brand like Chanel deserves something of a higher level.”

To achieve this, Chanel announced a stake in Kenissi, a manufacturer that also provides watch movements for Rolex’s sister brand Tudor. Today, Chanel owns a 20 per cent stake in Kenissi and the result is a completely new self‑winding calibre specially developed just for the new J12 watch. It includes a beautiful oscillating weight with a circle motif—Chanel’s watchmaking signature.

Made out of tungsten to maintain winding efficiency, it is visible through a new sapphire-glass case back, which is anchored to a new ceramic case back plate. The calibre, called 12.1, is chronometer-certified by the Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute (COSC) for optimal precision and reliability.

The J12 became an overnight sensation when it was introduced in 1999 by Jacques Helleu, then artistic director of Chanel. To contemporise the J12 while respecting the spirit of Helleu’s work was no mean feat, and the team approached the task with the precision of a surgeon. Some 70 per cent of components have been changed, but the new J12 looks just like a slightly refreshed version of its iconic self, which is precisely what Chanel would have wanted. 

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