Since the launch a decade ago, Chanel's J12 has become an instantly recognisable icon. And with 2011's Chromatic version, the company has retained its design-leading look while achieving something ground-breakingly new - a close to indestructible timepiece, thanks to the titanium ceramic case which is almost as hard as sapphire.
We already know that the J12 is something of a chameleon. A design able to retain its identity and look over a range of values and interpretations from all-out princess cut diamond to the almost understated J12 manufacture automatic with its bespoke Audemars Piguet calibre, via the unimpeachable and masculine Superlegerra and white ceramic tourbillons.
Designed by five decade Chanel veteran Jacques Helleu, the J12 was the showstopper when it was unveiled at Baselworld in 2000. The model is less a 'classic' - although it may well become one - and more a standard. Just as watches such as the Rolex Submariner or IWC's Mark IX Pilot's Watch established the pattern in their genre, so the J12 is not so much imitated as followed - it simply defines and fills the niche.
The new Chanel Chromatic features a revolutionary titanium ceramic case, which is a highly scratch-resistant material almost as hard as sapphire.
Having taken Chanel into designing watches in the 1980s with the Première, Helleu began work on the J12 during the following decade, taking a leisurely seven years to create a watch that both embodied the monochromatic (and arguably the matelassé or padded too) codes of Chanel and was also something that he would want to wear himself. At the time of the J12 launch, it was unheard of for a couture house to be taken seriously in the world of watchmaking and the industry was suitably shocked, though as Chanel had bought La Chaux-de- Fonds case and bracelet makers, G&F Chatelain in 1993, such shock was hardly justified.
Stating the case
As it turned out, the acquisition of G&F Chatelain was the key. By designing the J12 around a ceramic case, Helleu created a watch that was both technical in feel but also clearly a luxury product. The rarity of companies able to produce ceramic components (only Rado of the Swatch Group had comparable expertise at the time), meant that the J12 would be guaranteed an exclusivity and, perhaps more importantly, that more established watch companies would be unable to compete without vast expense.
Ceramic, as Helleu realised, is a material that offers both great advantages and almost equal disadvantages. It is light and extremely hard but, at the same time, relatively brittle and difficult to use (although recent innovations have improved on this). Hypoallergenic but without any intrinsic value itself, in the early-1990s, ceramic jewellery rarely got made.
The dial, bezel and crown can all be diamond-set on 38mm and 33mm models.
The J12 Noir Intense was a €250,000 version set with ceramic baguettes which proved the point well, as few at first could understand why ceramic baguettes should cost the same as similar sized diamonds. However, the point being made was that while zirconium powder has a relatively low monetary value, the difficulty of creating, polishing and setting the baguettes was quite enough to drive up the cost. And don't forget that while precious time and effort is devoted to the Noir Intense, regular J12s are not getting made. But despite working well in a number of incarnations, including tourbillons and the J12 Marine, the general perception has been that the J12 is not quite the unisex model it should be. Although the style and mechanics are there, the shine of both black and white ceramic is just too glossy in the end to appeal to a lot of men. One longmooted solution would have been to make the finish more matte but, in the past, this was vetoed on the grounds that the appearance would then look no different than other materials.
Chanel's 2011 answer to this conundrum is the Chromatic - a brand new timepiece that uses a unique ceramic blend. The novel material includes titanium and involves a highly complicated polishing process, which creates a finish that at first glance looks like steel. The actual end result is a warm grey hue that changes tone with any shift of angle or lighting conditions, diffusing light as much as reflecting it. As Chanel's images (that we have reproduced on these four pages) try to capture, there is a wealth of colour in the tone, all of which eludes definition.
So, is the new J12 Chromatic an easier watch to buy as a result? Impossible to say, but it is certainly worth seeing.
Further information: www.chanel.com