If we take a look back at the timepieces yielded by the house of Chanel over the past 30 years, one thing stands out: each of its watch collections are different in form and function, not just from one another, but from offerings by other watchmakers as well. This uniqueness in design and mechanics stems from the maison’s irreverent identity, and its dichotomy of “playful and serious”.
This motto can be seen from its ready-to-wear to haute couture, and it’s no surprise that it’s been injected into its watches as well. It’s perhaps best demonstrated by the Mademoiselle J12 watch launched earlier this year, which features a silhouette of Gabrielle Chanel telling the time with her hands. The whimsical timepiece instantly puts a smile on the face of its beholder, but belies the technical mastery needed to animate her hands.
Thirty years is not a long time in an industry that reveres tradition, but in the hands of Chanel, it’s been long enough to successfully carve its own niche and become a respected authority in timepieces that appeal to both men and women.
In 1987, the French maison began its horological journey with a distinct focus on its primary demographic: women. First, there was the Première, with its feminine case resembling the bottle stopper of the iconic Chanel No 5 perfume; the J12, which will go down in history as the watch that propelled ceramic to luxury levels; and the Mademoiselle Privé timepieces, which have served as canvas for Chanel’s artistic motifs and designs dear to founder Gabrielle Chanel.
It’s long shaken off its image of a fashion house merely dabbling in watches. By investing in manufacturing capabilities in Switzerland and staying true to its own identity, Chanel has become a respected voice in the horological industry. Its position was further solidified in 2016 with the release of its first in-house manufactured movement, Calibre 1, within the Monsieur de Chanel.
It’s an atypical watch with a retrograde minute counter that spans 240 degrees (instead of the typical 180 degrees), a jumping hour indication, and a font reminiscent of digital clocks. The watch was crafted from a carte blanche, which meant that the design came first, and then the Calibre 1 to service the aesthetic.
Following Calibre 1, the brand launched its second in-house movement this year, the Première Camélia Skeleton, which features a movement that has been shaped in the form of Gabrielle Chanel’s favourite flower, the camellia.
Like a jigsaw puzzle, both Calibre 1 and 2 fit in harmoniously in the Chanel family, combining Swiss horological savoir faire with the French maison’s distinct peerless beauty and exquisite craftsmanship.
Shaking things up at the maison is its president of watches and fine jewellery, Frédéric Grangié, who joined in 2016. He is focused on perpetuating Chanel’s legacy of craftsmanship and creativity, while keeping up with the modern times.
In an exclusive interview, he tells us how the long-term vision for Chanel is really to ensure the highest standards of excellence and beauty while establishing its credibility as a bona fide horological manufacturer.
Why was it important for Chanel to launch its first in-house movement last year? Frédéric Grangié (FG) It is a long-term vision for the house. It was very important to make sure that we have the capacity to make our own watches. Let me explain: because of the nature of the Monsieur watch, it took five years to develop. We have retrograde minute complication, which typically has a 180-degree retrograde counter. In this case, our designers felt very strongly about the counter being 240-degrees. So even if we go to the greatest manufacturer, we might be able to find this type of complication, but there is no way they will accommodate this design. So we wanted to ensure that we have the capacity to develop a movement that expresses exactly what the designer has in mind. And the only way to do so is in-house. This is no different from what we do in fashion.
The watch world is very male-dominated; what kind of gap were you intending to fill with the Monsieur?
FG We wanted to state to the world that not only is Chanel very serious about watchmaking—and we have been for many years—but we are able to bring something unique to the market, and we are able to do so in the world of men’s watches, which is a very innovative and tech-friendly environment.
But our priority from now on is women’s watches. Monsieur will continuously be animated, like with the recent black enamel dial, which is gorgeous. But future complications will be for women’s watches, and we see currently a clear trend on the market of women wanting more complications.
The year 2017 marks the 30th anniversary of Chanel’s watches. What would you say are some of the biggest milestones?
FG The Première, which was launched in 1987. It is really a very important watch in terms of the history of watchmaking. For the first time, a fashion luxury house designed a watch that was purely a women’s watch, and with a very specific design, and a very specific take on time. Before that, in most cases, women’s watches were just ladies’ sizes of men’s watches. The Première was a different exercise.
Then in 2000, we launched the J12. We did not pioneer or invent ceramic watches. However, for the first time, ceramic got that luxury status. In 2003, it was launched in white. Now, white at the time was revolutionary. First of all, there were no white watches on the market, and so it started a trend that was absolutely amazing.
You’ve mentioned before that more and more women are buying watches and jewellery for themselves. How does that translate for the demographic of Chanel’s watches?
FG I think it is a trend that started years ago, but interestingly, the first person who actually understood that was Gabrielle Chanel. Because if you think about it, 1932 was just three years after the financial crisis of 1929. The world was in chaos, high jewellery was pretty much gone and you had a bunch of old guys who were basically fighting to keep the business alive. But they were very, very conservative, and all of a sudden, you had a fashion designer, a woman, who came in and created the most amazing collection that went against all the rules if the market. Easy to wear diamonds with a fluid line, because the inspiration was from ready-to-wear. This was groundbreaking. At that time, Gabrielle had said, this world is now about empowering women, and women buying for themselves. She saw that in 1932, and obviously that is now very much part of the brand DNA; it is about young women who are successful and buying for themselves.
When you first joined the house last year, what were your biggest challenges?
FG I think that every single house will tell you that they are all about creation. And then you join Chanel and you see that this is true. So, it is not necessarily a challenge, but more of a priority. At Chanel, it really starts from design, and my job is to make sure that those designs become reality.
Meet the Family
The Premiere was inspired by the bottle stopper of the Chanel No 5 perfume, which in turn was inspired by the aerial view of the chicest address in Paris, Place Vendôme
Chanel is known for championing rarefied artistic crafts in its haute couture collections, and it does the same with its watches, in particular its Mademoiselle Prive collection. Here, all manners of artistic techniques come to life on the dial.
The Chanel Boy.Friend, launched in 2015, is an androgynous take on its Premiere collection, and is ultra wearable for both men and women.