When considering a Chanel J12, the ultimate question you’ll face is this: Black or white? Sounds like a simple straightforward question, one you should be able to answer in a heartbeat, but it isn’t. Especially when you start to understand what transpired in the 20 years since the day this watch was launched. Because even though the entire collection is predominantly monochromatic, and dressed strictly in these two hues, you’ll realise that the much-adored (and much-copied) J12 is indeed one of the most “colourful” timepieces in modern watch design.
It is no secret that Coco Chanel herself adored this striking dichotomy of black on white—or white on black. You see it constantly reflected in the brand’s accessories, ready-to-wear, and haute couture. She’s said: “Women think of all colours except the absence of colour. I have said that black has it all. White too. Their beauty is absolute. It is the perfect harmony.” Hence when the maison embarked on a plan to create its first sports watch, it was clear from the beginning that that watch could be dressed only in black and white. An aesthetic upheld by then-artistic director Jacques Helleu, who drew inspiration from the world of competitive yacht racing in establishing the design. In fact, the J12 got its name from the sleek and purposeful J-class yachts, sharing in their clean, minimalist aesthetic.
Yet the J12 is anything but simple. Even the inaugural piece, clad provocatively in a full black ensemble, was made out of high-tech ceramic. This material might be ubiquitous today, and the technology to produce ceramic timepieces have improved by leaps and bounds. But it definitely wasn’t the case in the early 2000s.
Chanel wasn’t the first to use high-tech ceramic—or ceramic of any style and colour—in watchmaking, but it was, arguably, the brand that popularised this sexy cool material to a much wider audience. Thanks to its balanced proportions and harmonious, symmetrical form which is no doubt an extension of Chanel’s incredible eye and design sensibilities as a world-leading fashion house. At first working only with black high-tech ceramic, the maison swiftly introduced in 2003 a white version of that same timepiece.
This dazzling bright white piece not only drew the gaze of fashionistas, but the watch-loving crowd as well, marking Chanel’s bold entry into the hallowed halls of luxury haute horlogerie.
Despite being a leading fashion house, Chanel however remained a new entrant to watchmaking. In spite of its global luxury status—or perhaps because of it—the maison wasn’t instantly drafted as a high watchmaking hall-of-famer. It was perceived as a “fashion watch” company, where the term ‘fashion watch’ was occasionally used as a pejorative. At that time, the idea that a fashion house could make watches you’d take seriously was practically absurd.
Still, the maison pushed on. Realising the need to prove itself and its watchmaking vision first to the connoisseurs and then to the style savvy crowd, Chanel explored different avenues of watchmaking. As a result, the next few years saw numerous variations of the J12, before the maison would eventually, truly, establish its DNA. Like trying on outfit after outfit at a fashion boutique to determine one’s tastes, and to craft a look that is 100 per cent authentic.
There were dalliances with motorsports, and trysts with high complications. There was a collaboration with Audemars Piguet, and a creative endeavour with Audemars Piguet Renaud & Papi. There was an experimental stage using different ceramic types. All were efforts by the maison to make watches like a watchmaker. But Chanel was not a watchmaker, rather, a designer and fashion house. So why should it try to be something it’s not?
Right around the mid 2010s, there was a subtle shift in design ethos for the J12 collection. Chanel returned to the J12’s roots as a fashion watch, embracing this unique identity rather than trying to be something else. What followed was a dazzling new generation of Chanel J12s suffused with the house’s core design codes and accented with prevailing trends that marry well with timepieces.
There was even a memorable advertising campaign, a first for the brand’s watch division, featuring the classic J12 juxtaposed with a fashion visual. Most interestingly, the watch has not been set to 10:10, which is the unspoken default position of the hour and minute hands. Instead, the hands echo the model’s pose on the opposite page. It’s a small tongue-in-cheek rebellion against the traditional rules of watchmaking, one that underscores the maison’s fresh new vision.
So began a period of exceptional watch design creativity at Chanel. It was like the maison finally opened its eyes to see what amazing opportunities were out there waiting for its timepieces—and seized them. Because it’s not a traditional watchmaker, and never will be, it doesn’t have to play by the rules. Within the J12 collection, Chanel, ever the ground-breaker, blurred the lines between watches and jewellery, watches and fashion accessories, watches and art… transforming the J12 from timepiece to icon.
All this time, though, it’s never neglected the business end of the watch: its movement. In 2019, Chanel acquired a 20 per cent stake in Swiss movement manufacturer Kenissi, upping its value and street cred as a watchmaker practically overnight. From this point, the J12 featured in-house movements developed exclusively for Chanel. Calibre 12.1 is a big step up from the industrial calibres previously used, offering 70-hour power reserve and improved accuracy as a COSC-certified chronometer. The movement debuted in the new and improved J12 Phantom available in black as well as white, along with a number of gem-set models. Fittingly, these watches come with matching oscillating rotor visible through the sapphire crystal back.
Thus equipped with bona fide watchmaking chops, Chanel ventured deeper into luxury horology. For its 20th anniversary, the maison made everyone who believed in the J12 from the start extremely proud. The J12.20 inducted enamel painting into Chanel’s watchmaking repertoire; the J12 X-Ray was a jaw-dropping interpretation that resonates with Coco Chanel’s quote on the absence of colour; the J12 Paradoxe shattered all previous expectations by combining black AND white in one watch.
Which brings us to the question mooted at the start of this article. The ultimate question anyone looking to buy a J12 will have to face. Black or white? With this crop of new models, you can add colourless, as well as black-and-white, to the list of options. And these four key styles were all Chanel needed to create a full kaleidoscopic collection for the J12.