The J12 is the watch that paved the way for fashion-brand respectability in the stuffy world of watchmaking, spawning countless copycats and pioneering new ceramic technologies in the process
By Alex Doak
The enduring success of the J12 has probably taken Chanel itself by surprise – especially since watch aficionados started defying received Swiss wisdom and conceding that here, finally, was a fashion watch with genuine horological integrity, paving the way for Louis Vuitton, Dior et al and to launch their own “proper” watch collections. The innovative use of ceramic (only Rado had mastered this material beforehand) to echo that Chanel-handbag leitmotif of quilted, glossy monochrome was inspired, and when it launched in 2000, the cutting-edge ceramic technology required for the J12’s case alone demanded a purpose-built facility in the cradle of La Chaux-de-Fonds.
Unlike the licensed-out, entry-level wristcandy of yesteryear, the J12 contained Swiss movements, both quartz and automatic ETAs, as well as the odd high-end adventure, such as the J12 Calibre 3125 of 2008 – driven by Audemars Piguet’s calibre of the same name – and the quite extraordinary J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse flying tourbillon of 2010, courtesy of Audemars Piguet’s Renaud et Papi thinktank, with a crown that rose smoothly from the dial rather than the caseband.
The late, great Jaques Helleu originally conceived the J12 as a unisex watch, naming it with deliberate androgyny after his favourite yachting class. But even Chanel’s artistic director for over 40 years could never quite infuse the right degree of manliness into his baby. The Superleggera tried its best in 2005 by introducing titanium and a connection to the titular Italian coachworks, but it felt a touch random. No, it took until 2011 for J12 to feel properly at home on a hairy, muscular wrist, in the form of the Chromatic. Its innovative titanium-infused ceramic was beguilingly iridescent, with just enough sinister T-1000 Terminator gleam to look butch. Of course, the mere utterance of the words “titanium-infused ceramic” also helped.
There are gem-set versions aplenty, as you’d expect from a watch collection that falls adjacent to Chanel’s highly regarded Fine Jewellery division (both wings now benefit from a fabulous New Bond Street boutique) but what the J12 does best is what it did right from the start. Which is why the design – arguably rather “inspired” by a certain Crowned diver – has never changed a bit. 2016 saw the addition of the 38mm white J12 Mirror, with hour markers that appear to hover above the lacquered dial, and black and white versions of the fabric strap J12 G10, and for 2017 we gained the more whimsical Mademoiselle J12 – complete with cartoon cutout of Coco Chanel herself – and the J12 Graffiti.
This is part of our Modern Classics series, profiling the most significant watch designs of the last 30 years. You can view the rest of the entries here. Disagree with our choices? Let us know on Twitter, Facebook or by email.