There is a sort of dismissive attitude among The Faithful towards the Chanel J12. Which I understand. After all, it is a watch that comes from Chanel (a fashion house, mon dieu!) and it is easy to attack it as a derivative, luxury-brand ripoff of the Rolex Submariner. Of course, given the shenanigans you have to go through these days to get within spitting distance of buying a new Sub at retail, perhaps the J12 does not look so bad after all if you are cross-shopping. But let’s be honest – nobody is trying to decide between a Submariner and a J12. If you are considering a J12, chances are that what you want, is not a Sub, or a Doxa, or a Fifty Fathoms, or indeed any other sort of pseudo-technical, practicality-adjacent dive watch. If you are considering a J12, chances are, what you want is a J12. The J12 was launched in 1999 and was the brainchild of Chanel’s then-chief designer, Jacques Hélleu. The name comes from the world of yacht racing – Hélleu was a fan of the sport, and when the J12 debuted, the J-class 12 meter racing yachts, which had originally been designed for open-ocean yacht-racing regattas like the America’s Cup, were beginning to attract renewed interest in the yachting world. The watch was designed to be a beautiful, elegant object but it was also meant to be a practical, durable sports watch. The Chanel J12 wasn’t the first watch to use ceramic for the case, but the material was not nearly as common in watchmaking as it is today and between the material and the design, the J12 was something of a revolution in its time.
That said, the J12 hasn’t always been taken particularly seriously by watch enthusiasts or by the enthusiast press. Part of the problem is that historically, a distinction has existed in the minds of many between watches from serious, legacy watch brands with decades or even centuries of fine watchmaking under their belts, and so-called “fashion watches” ( or worse, “mall watches”). What exactly a fashion or a mall watch is, is open to interpretation (I have argued in the past that the term no longer has any particular meaning) but in general, brands like Chanel or Gucci or Bulgari, which have not historically been watchmakers first and foremost, have struggled with the stereotype. Chanel, however, has much deeper connections to fine watchmaking than merely working with an outside contractor to produce logo’d, inexpensive watches. The company (which despite its size and impact in the worlds of fashion and jewelry, remains independently owned and operated by brothers Alain and Gérard Wertheimer) acquired Bell & Ross in 2001, and since then has purchased a stake in F. P. Journe, and has a 20 percent stake in Kenissi, the movement manufacturer that produces automatic calibers for Tudor and Norqain.
We’ve covered several of Chanel’s more ambitious watchmaking projects over the last few years, including the Boy.Friend and the Monsieur de Chanel J12, which has a movement produced in collaboration with independent watchmaker Romain Gauthier. The company has also partnered with Audemars Piguet on several occasions and has used the AP automatic caliber 3120 in several watches in the past.
Despite the number of times we’ve looked at Chanel’s watchmaking, we have somehow managed to (mostly) miss the J12 – a strange omission when you consider the importance of the J12 in modern watch design and for Chanel. In 2020, Chanel’s Nicolas Beau told The New York Times, that the J12 was ” … the vast part of our [watch] business, not far from two-thirds.” Writing about watchmaking at Chanel J12 without ever actually trying on a J12 – and without ever actually wearing one for any length of time – is a bit like writing about Rolex without ever touching or wearing a Submariner; you can do it but there are excellent odds you are going to miss something. After wearing a J12 on and off, in my own daily rotation, for several months, I feel that there is much more to the watch than you might think, especially once you’ve worn it long enough for the invisible but omnipresent veneer of “fashion watch” to wear off. The version of the J12 which I have been wearing, is, more or less, the most classic version – all-black ceramic, with a ceramic bracelet; this is the version of the J12 that was introduced in 2019 when the design was updated and relaunched. In person – that is, not glanced at in a vitrine at a store or during a trade show, which up until now has been the limit of my experience with the watch – it feels like something of high quality, designed and executed with thought and care. The dial furniture is really beautiful – the hands, with their openworked tips, the elegantly elongated Arabic numerals, and the general proportions and dispositions of the inner and outer hour and minute tracks, have all the deceptively easy elegance you’d expect from Chanel at its best.The J12 in this version is a 200M water-resistant watch with a one-way turning bezel, slightly on the small side by modern technical watch standards, I suppose, at 38mm x 12.6mm. Nevertheless, it didn’t look or feel noticeably petite on my seven-inch wrist – maybe that has to do with the material; the high-gloss ceramic case and bracelet, even in all-black, has a lot of visual punch. Speaking of ceramic – I’ve never spent as much time wearing a ceramic watch as I have wearing the J12, and one of the first things I noticed after a few days, was that I was not doing something I almost invariably do when wearing a watch with a highly polished or carefully finished case. That thing I wasn’t doing was worrying about scratching the watch. Ceramic is hard enough to pretty much shrug off any of the minor, and probably some of the major, impacts that normally leave a watch with an accumulated, silent testimony to owner carelessness, or at least, just the realities of daily life. This would be true of pretty much any modern ceramic watch but the highly reflective, oil-slick smooth surfaces of the J12 really underscored its ability to defy the inevitable minute scratches that you end up with in a watch made with more conventional materials. The Kenissi-made caliber 12.1 is not an elaborately hand-finished, traditionally designed and executed self-winding movement but at this price ($7150 at the time of writing) you aren’t going to get elaborate hand finishing and in any case, while I like the idea of a patiently and methodically hand-finished movement as much as the next person, the execution of the caliber 12.1 is probably much more appropriate to the J12. It has some of the technical features we’ve come to expect from Kenissi movements, including the balance bridge, but it certainly doesn’t remind me of Tudor or NORQAIN to look at it. The design of the rotor, in combination with the circles and semi-circles of the bridges and plate, have a very mid-century Modernist feel to them which is much more appropriate for the J12 than some half-hearted, automated attempt to simulate hand-finishing would be.
It probably won’t surprise anyone to read that the Chanel J12 is one of the most comfortable watches I’ve ever worn. The smaller size, and lightness of the materials used, make it a watch that you can wear all day, every day, as part of your daily uniform (if you have one) without ever once feeling like you need a break from its constant presence (there are any number of big, bold, burly watches out there that are a ton of fun to wear, but I use the word “ton” advisedly – maybe it’s my sedentary occupation but I find I need a little relief from the mass of a heavier watch – especially a dive watch – after a few days). It’s trivially easy to read the time but the J12 also has the property of giving real pleasure, thanks to its design, in the aesthetics department, as well, and it’s equally rewarding as a practical, comfortable, extremely durable watch, and a design object. While wearing the J12 I have occasionally run into fellow enthusiasts whose reaction leads me to believe that they thought the J12 was insufficiently masculine, and they seemed to be absolutely baffled as to why I’d want to wear one at all, much less habitually. The answer is a simple one: I love wearing it. I think it’s a great design; the movement is perfect for the watch in every respect (especially at the price) it’s incredibly comfortable, incredibly durable, and very satisfying as a design to boot. And at this point in my very long and occasionally tortuous journey through watches, watchmaking, and horology in general, it’s very nice to find out that I can still be surprised. Someone asked, for an episode of Hey, HODINKEE! not long ago, what watches have surprised me lately and while I didn’t mention the J12 then, I probably should have. I have heard some carping from time to time that the J12 is too derivative of the Rolex Submariner, but the experiences of the two watches are so dissimilar that I have to say I just don’t see it. The Chanel J12 is really its own thing – instantly recognizable, very much and very obviously a Chanel design, and a watch I think deserves a place in the somewhat cluttered pantheon of classic modern watch designs.