Chanel isn’t just one of the most recognizable fashion brands in the world, it’s a global empire. Like Nike or Coca-Cola, its branding and logo are identifiable on a mass scale, which stems from it being a brand that is synonymous with luxury, sophistication, and a hard-to-put-your-finger-on-it kind of “Frenchness.”
The legacy of the house and its pivotal role in women’s fashion starts with Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel and the key visual pillars she created for the brand: the little black dress, the quilted bag, the tweed suit, two-tone shoes, camellias, pearls, and Chanel No. 5 perfume. All of these Chanel trademarks functioned (and still do) as a kind of fashionable source code that has been etched into the minds of our grandmothers, our mothers, and even younger versions of ourselves.
Dress, handbag, Code de Coco watch, and earrings CHANEL; stockings STYLIST’S OWN
There are two things I vividly remember wanting as a teenager: A Chanel 2.55 classic Flap Bag and a J12 watch. I yearned for these items on a molecular level. It was as if owning these two very expensive things would make me glamorous and cool and bring me one step closer to being Chanel ambassador Keira Knightly. But how was it that, at age 15, I wanted a handbag my grandmother owned and a watch made by a company that also sold lipstick and perfume to my mother, who routinely applied both Chanel-branded items before the school run every morning?
Chanel had penetrated every corner of my teenage world, and being: I grew up on chipped Rouge Noir nail polish, pictures of Kate Moss posing in Coco Mademoiselle advertisements, and Mischa Barton wearing giant Chanel bags in episodes of The O.C. This omnipresence of the brand in my life (as well as my mother’s and grandmother’s) came courtesy of Chanel’s creative director, Karl Lagerfeld. Much like Coco Chanel who changed the way women dressed in the 1920s – which was a revolutionary political act akin to passing bills in Congress today – Lagerfeld was also a trailblazer.
Lagerfeld was a fashion bellwether who took Coco’s tenets and made them modern and suited to the tastes of the 1980s and 1990s (arguably his strongest periods creatively for Chanel’s Ready-to-wear and Haute Couture collections). He revamped a venerable fashion house that was fast losing relevance and turned it into a supremely modern supermodel-filled dreamworld. Everything was synchronous no matter the historical period or cultural phenomenon he referenced, and all because of his commitment to the aforementioned design codes. Lagerfeld took Coco’s motifs, melded them with his own imagination, and incorporated them into the entire body of his work at Chanel.
In 1987 two of the brand’s most discernible symbols were turned into a watch called the Première. The design was conceived and executed by Jacques Hélleu, who served as the Artistic Director for Chanel perfume, beauty products, watches, and jewelry from 1965 to 2007. A lesser-known name to those outside of the industry, Hélleu worked in tandem with Lagerfeld and created some of the most impactful aspects of the brand’s image that we recognize today. It is Hélleu who rebranded the iconic No. 5 perfume and put faces to the fragrance, casting actresses and models such as Catherine Deneuve, Carole Bouquet, Vanessa Paradis, and Nicole Kidman to star in advertising campaigns and commercials shot by the likes of Helmut Newton, Ridley Scott, Luc Besson, and Baz Luhrmann.
Lagerfeld muse, Inès de la Fressange wearing the Première watch in 1987. Image: courtesy of Chanel
Chanel created the No.5 bottle in 1921, a modernist design that remains mostly unchanged; it was placed in the permanent exhibition at MoMA in 1959 and also depicted by Andy Warhol in a silkscreen series in 1985. The stopper, which is cut like a diamond, was inspired by the geometry of Place Vendôme in Paris and served as the inspiration for the design of the Première watch’s case. The Première’s bracelet was designed to emulate the interlaced leather and chain strap of the iconic quilted bag. Everything at Chanel was (and again, still is) a repackaging and repurposing of the core Coco tenets – a pick-and-chose methodology where the motifs are subsumed and reframed into a modern context.
Like the jewelry and accessories shown on the runway at the time, the watch was part of the 80s (and early 90s) Chanel maximalist aesthetic that Lagerfeld had created. It was the decade of excess and loud fashion. Lagerfeld included an eclectic range of gold costume jewelry into his collections: from gold chains tied around the waist or used as necklaces and mixed in with long strands of pearls, to belts and “double-C” gold hoop earrings and cuffs. All of these accessories were used to embellish and dramatize tight black waist-cinching dresses, quilted leather jackets with giant imposing shoulders, candy-colored tweed miniskirt suits and blue denim jeans. Jeans on the runway at a Chanel show in the 90s = big deal!
Linda Evangelista in Harper’s Bazaar circa 1995. Image: courtesy of Chanel
The Première was, and is, classic Chanel; the 1987 reloaded Karl Lagerfeld version of Chanel, interpreted by Hélleu. A modern woman’s watch without gemstones conceived not as a derivative of any existing “watch brand” product, nor a scaled-down men’s watch, but as its own type of accessory. It took design cues from inside the maison, with style as its number one driving force. Yes, the watch may be quartz, but if you’ve made it this far into my article, I’m sure you understand that’s a moot point.
Re-released with a baby facelift by the current Director of the Chanel Watchmaking Creation Studio, Arnaud Chastaingt, in 2022, the Première is a perfectly formed black and gold souvenir from a time when the runway ruled. Its black lacquer dial, set within a gold octagonal case, has no numerals or indices, no seconds hand or date display, just a little white Chanel logo at 12 o’clock and Swiss at 6 o’clock. Simple clean lines, just like the Chanel No.5 stopper.
Shirt, pants, necklace, and Première watch CHANEL
The Première Robot and Première Gourmette chain watch.
By the early 1990s Lagerfeld had turned Chanel into the apex of fashion, and as a consequence, Chanel became one of the most desirable brand names in the world. The supersizing of the classic Chanel idioms: (pearls, chains, belts and logos) in Chanel’s FW91 Collection ushered in a new era for the brand. Lagerfeld had taken cues from hip-hop and Black designers such as Dapper Dan and borrowed elements from Black culture long before it would reach or be acknowledged by mainstream luxury.
It made sense then, that during the era of supremely bold change for the maison, in all its perfectly topsy-turvy execution of Coco’s design language, Hélleu would go on to design the J12: a mechanical watch with bolder, more masculine (for the time) design codes in all-black ceramic and later in all-white ceramic.
Waistcoat, sweater, pants, earrings, and J12 watch CHANEL
Waistcoat, sweater, pants, shoes, earrings, and J12 watch CHANEL
The J12 wasn’t the first watch made in ceramic, but it was an unexpected choice for a high-fashion brand with a less-than-established background in watchmaking. Aesthetically it made perfect sense; the ceramic allowed a duality of execution, with one reference a pure deep black and the other a shimmering pearlescent white. This choice again aligns with Gabrielle Coco Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld’s design cues: an obsession with the dialogue between black and white, a modern play of chiaroscuro.
In 1993 Chanel acquired the Swiss manufacturer G&F Châtelain in La Chaux-de-Fonds. But it would be another seven whole years before Hélleu would go on to release the J12 in 2000. Despite having worked at Chanel since the age of 18 and being immersed in the brand’s design and creative processes, Hélleu still worked to finesse the design of the J12 for the entire intervening period.
Belying its masculine appearance, the J12 wasn’t exclusively designed for men. Perhaps an intentional nod to Coco Chanel’s daring adoption of masculine style at the beginning of the 20th century – or maybe just a happy accident – this “unisex” design was to become Hélleu and the maison’s signature timepiece.
The J12 name comes from the world of yacht-racing . Specifically, J-class 12-meter race boats from the 1930s that were used for open-ocean yacht-racing regattas like the America’s Cup. Unlike the rather more delicate Première, the J12 was designed to be a sporty and robust watch.
Over time, the J12 would develop myriad identities and serve as a canvas for watch complications, starting with its first chronograph in 2002. But that’s not all, the J12 tourbillon was released in 2005, the J12 GMT in 2007, the Rétrograde Mystérieuse (developed by Renaud & Papi) in 2010, the J12 Chromatic Dreams made from a titanium ceramic material composite launched in 2011, the J12 Moonphase in 2012, a J12 flying tourbillon in the form of a comet and fully set in diamonds (with movement once again developed by Renaud & Papi) in 2014, and the J12 Skeleton Flying Tourbillon in 2016 (Renaud & Papi, again!).
Under the direction of Arnaud Chastaingt in 2019, the brand launched a revised version of the classic 38mm J12, which later received an award in the Ladies’ category at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (GPHG) ceremony. It features a sapphire crystal caseback revealing automatic Caliber 12.1 produced by Kenissi (of which Chanel owns a 20% stake).
“The J12 is extraordinary for having achieved the near impossible feat of being a true horological classic made by a fashion brand,” esteemed journalist and author Nicholas Foulkes told me. And I wholeheartedly concur. While it’s not necessary for me to explain the use of the term “fashion watch” and its inherently derogatory connotations (I’m sure you are all familiar), it is worth noting Chanel’s serious and continued connection to watchmaking. Chanel acquired Bell & Ross in 2001, became an investor in Romain Gauthier in 2011, and then collaborated with the brand on their 2016 Monsieur de Chanel watch. Furthermore, they own a stake in F.P. Journe and have been in an industrial alliance with Tudor – via Kenissi – since 2018.
“Once you realize how seriously Chanel takes their watchmaking, you can’t help but appreciate the craftsmanship and its cultural status” explains Parchie founder and ex-Hodinkee alumnus Cara Barrett. “There are very few watches that you constantly see on people’s wrists, and the J12 is one of them along with the Cartier Tank and the Rolex Submariner which are both excellent companies to keep.”
Back to me and my 2005 J12 obsession.
I was certainly not alone in my (unsuccessful) conquest for the it-girl watch of the 2000s. “As a native of the pre-gossip girl Upper East Side, I’ll always think of the J12 in white as the ultimate Bat Mitzvah present watch. If you were the type of young lady who had a town car waiting for you at dismissal, you were either rocking a J12 or your dad’s old Sub,” noted Head of Creative Content at SSENSE Thom Bettridge during a recent text exchange. To which I replied, “It’s also very Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton in their DUI era.”
The watch – along with pink Juicy Couture tracksuits, Balenciaga Motorcycle bags, and side-car chihuahuas – was a symbol of Y2K LA celebrity “style.” Over in Europe, it was a slightly more refined affair; I remember seeing countless chic ladies strolling up and down London’s Sloane Street in their glistening ceramic watches. One has to assume that these ladies also existed in Paris and Milan, and various other stylish metropolitan cities.
Though the J12’s popularity may have waned slightly since its original launch, Chanel is currently using the platform to make some of the most innovatively designed timepieces on the market today. The J12 Cybernetic (pictured below) was launched at this year’s Watches and Wonders, and caught many a watch journalist’s eye. It stood out as a jewel in a sea of more traditional designs at the fair.
Shirt, hat, gloves, Cybernetic watch CHANEL
Jumpsuit, shirt, skirt, shoes, hat, gloves, Cybernetic watch CHANEL
“While the power of the brand helps, it is not the sole reason for its enduring success. You just have to look at the original [J12] design and the relaunch of a couple of years ago to see that when Jacques Hélleu designed this, it was almost future proof as the changes are effectively imperceptible” noted Foulkes. “For what it’s worth, I believe that Hélleu’s contribution to Chanel is as valuable as that of Karl’s.”
Chanel has made a foray into every corner of the watchmaking space, from high-jewelry pieces, to fully skeletonized ladies’ watches, to flying tourbillon Premières and crystal sapphire J12s. All this while staying faithful to the ‘codes of Gabrielle’ with countless quilted designs and camellia motifs.
“The emphasis on the eternal elements of Chanel and the countless variations on these that the remarkably imaginative designer continued to invent for one collection after the other… [were for Lagerfeld] recognized symbols that could be understood across barriers of language and geography,” says Patrick Mauries in his introduction to the book Chanel: Catwalk. Hélleu, like Lagerfeld, held a synchronicity with Coco Chanel. They represented an evolution in her design language. The same can be said of Chastaingt today.
The Code de Coco watch with quilting and logo detail. An ode to quilting.
Elaborating on the design cross-pollination between Chanel’s Ready-to-Wear, couture, accessories, cosmetics, and watches isn’t a plea for watch enthusiasts to take Chanel watches more seriously. They are serious enough. Understanding the weight and power of such a strong and globally recognized design DNA and the continuous aesthetic thread Chanel has managed to maintain 100 years into its existence… well I mean, that should speak for itself too.
Chanel has a global brand identity, far more powerful than 99% of watch brands. And the highly identifiable Chanel design pillars are no different than that of a Rolex jubilee bracelet or shaped Cartier case. I will go to my grave arguing that design is just as important and just as valuable as a watch’s contents. And I’m sure there are many of you who would also agree: looks do matter.
Jumpsuit, tie, and Boy.Friend watch CHANEL
Chanel watches strike a particularly strong chord with me and bring back a wave of sweet memories from childhood: flicking through my first ever independently purchased copy of Vogue U.K., from April 2003 (it was pink and Angela Lindvall was on the cover) and seeing the bold black and white Chanel typography; buying Chance by Chanel perfume and spraying enough to give every one of my classmates a headache; obsessing over Kate Moss in every single photo shoot, fashion show, and paparazzi shot; and hoping that one day I too could own a 2.55 bag and J12 watch and be just as glamorous as a Chanel girl.
Chanel watches have a history of meeting at the intersection of fashion and horology and neither need be dismissed. In my perfect world, both elements would be appreciated and respected in equal measure.
Continue here original post: Fashion Watches: Chanel Watches Matter, And Here’s Why