It took Chanel 80 years to move into watches. Fine jewellery had entered the Maison in 1932; perfume slightly earlier in the 1920s – but it wasn’t until 1987 that the Premiere arrived. And what a debut. Although Mlle had been dead for 16 years, the design was so quintessentially Coco, it was as if a sketch had been unearthed from her private papers. Simple and refined, the cut-off corners of its rectangular case nodded to an aerial view of the Place Vendome – just like the top of the No.5 bottle.
It wasn’t until 2000 that Chanel seriously transitioned from a Maison that dabbled in watches to a Maison with a credible watchmaking department. That was the year it launched the J12.
Designed by Jacques Helleu, the charismatic former artistic director who died in 2007, the J12 was a unisex sports watch from a brand identified for the finest women’s clothing. Named after an America’s Cup yacht, rather than something from the Chanel universe, and crafted in ceramic – a material that only Rado had dabbled with at that point (without a great deal of success), it was a serious statement of intent. Like the corset-free sports-influenced clothes with which Chanel had disrupted the fashion world nearly 100 years previously, this watch – the first automatic for the company – launched the label’s watchmaking career and opened a flood gate of inspiration.
Chanel’s first-ever J12 tourbillon was swiftly followed by the creation of the limited-edition Mademoiselle Privé collection; a marrying of the Maison’s fine-jewellery and haute horlogerie expertise with sumptuous metiers d’art dials and exquisite stone setting. Dials were decorated with details from Chanel’s life, such as her famous Coromandel screens replicated in miniature in Grand Feu enamel, or delicate sheaves of wheat in sculpted gold set against black onyx – even the diamond-set replica patterns from the windows of the abbey attached to the orphanage in Aubazine where she was abandoned by her father in 1895.
In 2015, Chanel proved once and for all that a fashion house knew what women wanted in a watch with the launch of the Boy.Friend. It was pure Chanel: a wrist-sized mix of perfectly realised contradictions. The minimalist design flirted with masculine and feminine; it was noticeable but not showy; modern but also a future classic.
Never content to rest on its laurels (or should that be wheatsheaves?) just one year later and Chanel was ramping up its horological prowess. It started with the Monsieur de Chanel in 2016. That it was a man’s watch would have been newsworthy enough, but it also showcased the brand’s first in-house movement – the Calibre 1. The next two years saw two new calibres, in the bodies of the Premiere and the Boy.Friend respectively – all utterly beautiful creations, as refined and mesmeric as anything the brand has produced over its history.
Its recent bid to control movement supply across its watch portfolio with the acquisition of a 20 per cent stake in Kenissi, Tudor’s industrial arm, suggests Chanel might be gearing up for another major power play. While that remains speculation, what is undoubtedly a fact is that whatever watch it launches next, it’s likely to be the only thing you’ll want on your wrist.
The instinctual answer here is: one from every collection – the Boy.Friend for everyday; the J12 for weekends; a Premiere for after dark. However, if you’re only buying one then it should probably be the new J12. The iconic timepiece had remained untouched aesthetically until its recent skilfully subtle redesign at the hands of Arnaud Chastaingt, director of Chanel’s watchmaking design studio. Subtly altered – Chastaingt says he “changed everything without changing anything” – but still an absolute design classic. You could always get one in each colour…