Style / World of Watches (WOW)

Chanel – The Unexpected (Serious) Watchmaker

The Monsieur de Chanel surprised the world with Chanel’s first in-house Calibre 1. Anyone can be a one-hit wonder but when the Maison won a GPHG with its Calibre 3. Perhaps, it’s not just luck anymore.

Nov 15, 2018 | By Jonathan Ho

Carole Bouquet posed with the 1987 Chanel Premiere and the No. 5 which provided its muse

Chanel watchmaking has come a long way. In fact, featuring bevelled lines from the stopper of the Chanel No. 5 perfume bottle, the distinctive rectangular-octagonal of their 1987 Première, should have been immediately evident that the couture house’s first watch wasn’t some blatant money grab. We dare say, as a pioneer among fashion houses moving into the genre, it would have been intimately aware that any “betrayal” of the brand’s values and DNA would see its fans and the market punish them accordingly.

Over 30 years on, what began as design muse from combination of one of their most recognisable products and the unforgettable Place Vendôme “shopping square” in Paris has grown into a watchmaking concern which encompasses ownership stakes in serious industry partners like case and bracelet maker G&F Chatelain, incidentally, a supplier to many notable names including Richard Mille; high horology purveyors like Romain Gauthier, Bell & Ross, and most recently in September 2018, FP Journe.

Chanel – The Unexpected (Serious) Watchmaker

Owned by the Wertheimer brothers, the privately-held Chanel was among the rare few houses which did not require disclosure of their financial results unlike the other publicly listed luxury conglomerates. That all changed in June 2018, when for the first time, the group posted their results boasting annual sales of almost US$10 billion. It was eye opening.

Aerial view of Place Vendome

In the past, through a combination of analysing marketing spend, the group’s propensity to acquire small luxury ateliers and its distribution network, analysts were able to conjecture as to Chanel’s actual financial performance, now laid bare, with profits of US$1.6 billion, it surprised few that their results had outstripped rivals like Gucci and Hermes and equalled if not slightly exceeded chief competitor Louis Vuitton.

“Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.” – Coco Chanel

The Monsieur de Chanel surprised the world with the brand’s first in-house Calibre 1 dedicated to men

Granted $9.62 billion of revenues were earned on the back of the brand’s core business of ready-to-wear business, accessories, and cosmetics, including its world-famous Chanel No. 5 fragrance, astute spend by Chanel management have seen it tread into serious watchmaking territory – the manufacture of in-house movements. It’s not hyperbole to say that though lacking serious watchmaking heritage of the industry’s most hallowed brands, Chanel is indeed, making serious watches. As of the conclusion at the latest edition of Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Geneve, Chanel has taken the top prize at the in their category for the fifth year running (but we will get back to that in a bit).

In an industry with names which count their histories back centuries, thirty years is but a fraction but somehow a young watchmaker like the Parisian Maison has somehow managed to build its reputation for not just women’s timepieces, where its most obvious raison d’etre would lie, but also men’s!

Mademoiselle J12 launched at Baselworld 2017

Chanel Mademoiselle J12

Coco Chanel once opined that “Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.” In that sense, the visionary designer gave us some inclination that as a beacon of grace and sophistication, Chanel is not mere producer of pretty gowns and splendorous trinkets: with the Mademoiselle J12, the Maison took an idea and imbued it with Chanel’s very own unmistakable fashion sense using the most unexpected material – high tech ceramics.

Launched in 2000, the ceramic J12 was by no means a breakout success like the Première. Water resistant to 200 metres, the initial unisex model received mixed reactions. But in 2005, Coco’s famed surname would begin to be mentioned in the same breath as other watchmakers exhibiting at Baselworld. Reintroduced as a fine jewellery timepiece, the reflective jet black J12 distilled the essence of the brand with its elegant curves, sturdy manufacture and added a touch of bling, what resulted was stunning yet simple – a Chanel time-keeping icon was born, with it, the Maison forged ahead with their new watchmaking confidence.

J12 with full pave diamonds and a mid section of rubies

In 2013, Chanel released the elegant white J12 in complete opposition of their mega-hit and years ahead before other notable watchmakers would explore the spectrum of white; alternative designs, bezel options and varied jewelset options including the introduction of a stainless steel model and a new moonphase complication made the J12 design ever popular and ever enduring. More importantly, it ignited deeper horological ambitions in Coco’s namesake.

Chanel’s first dedicated Men’s watch was equipped with its own manufacture movement

Monsieur de Chanel: The brand’s first dedicated Men’s Watch

With some assistance from Romain Gauthier (Chanel is a shareholder), the Monsier de Chanel was completely designed and built in-house with the brand’s first manufacture Calibre 1. Launched in 2016 with the majority of watchmaking brands focused on women’s watches, Chanel swam against the stream. Speaking to New York Times, Nicolas Beau, Chanel’s international watch director explained that, “The way we work is to start from the stories we want to tell. We don’t really look at marketing surveys or whether the market is saturated or not.”

Thus, the fully integrated Calibre 1 home to technically challenging complications like jumping hours (where time adjustment can be done in reverse unlike most other jump hour complications), retrograde minutes and three days power reserve expresses a high horology approach that few other non-purist watchmakers (save Bulgari) can match.

Chanel’s second in-house Calibre ensconced with the Premiere Camelia Skeleton

The Calibre 2, conceived and developed at its G&F Châtelain workshop in La-Chaux-de-Fonds, is ironic in that for a brand whose sole mission was to provide much joy and sophistication to women, would finally get their own dedicated movement. The camellia-shaped skeleton Calibre 2 was a delightful concoction of elements from Renaud & Papi, G&F Châtelain and Romain Gauthier.

In short, the Première Camélia Skeleton watch, the latest model in the Première line is the descendant to the watchmaking ambitions of Chanel while firmly expressing its visionary ethos as a feminine brand for would eventually lead to the creation of the pinnacle of feminine watch expression for the atelier.

The Chanel Boy.Friend Skeleton, equipped with the manufacture Calibre 3, won the ladies’ prize for GPHG

Portrait of a Watchmaker exemplified in GPHG winning Chanel Boy.Friend Skeleton

Executed in not pink, not rose but Chanel exclusive beige gold, the Boy.Friend Skeleton is a high horology expression of the original Boy.Friend launched in 2015; gone is the ETA 7001 manual-winding movement and in its place, the in-house manual-winding Calibre 3 with never-before-seen circular bridges. Made of brass with black ADLC coating, the Boy.Friend Skeleton was created from the ground up. That is to say, unlike other skeleton watches which are born from slowly removing the excess material from existing movement architecture, the Calibre 3 was developed as a skeleton from concept. This “ground up” philosophy extends into the wheels which are galvanically grown for precise thickness and weight, ensuring that each element is uniformly flat – Excessive but such excellence and eye-for-detail is something we have grown accustomed to since the Calibre 1.

The Calibre 3 is unlike any other skeleton movement. It was conceived as such unlike other skeleton calibres which start as complete movements and then the excess material is slowly removed.

Aesthetically, Chanel’s latest Boy.Friend takes reference from the brand’s most significant emblems and motifs – the rectangular case with beveled edges and corners once again calls to mind the unmistakable Chanel No. 5 perfume bottle and stopper, itself drawing muse from Place Vendôme’s square. Design congruence follows through from the external case to the internal elements of the calibre where the curved and circular bridges too are bevelled and then gold plated.

Raymond Loretan, President of GPHG said it best, “participating is winning”. But at Chanel, taking home to the top prize for ladies’ watches, reinforces the adage that ultimately – winning is winning. Given what the Parisian house has accomplished in just three decades, World of Watches eagerly anticipates what their fertile imaginations would conceive off next.

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