By  on March 24, 2011

PARIS — For the launch of the latest version of its cult J12 watch, Chanel built an elaborate set in the basement of the Palais de Tokyo contemporary art museum that conjured Stanley Kubrick’s film masterpiece “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

After passing through a dark corridor, visitors emerged onto a pristine white circular space dotted with 12 doors, each the gateway to a room featuring installations including a giant white pendulum and a fascinating ferrofluid sculpture by Japanese artist Sachiko Kodama.

It was reminiscent of the mythical black monolith in “2001,” and almost as mysterious. As for the J12 Chromatic, Chanel is billing the watch as the most important development for its top pillar since it was launched in 2000 and spent four years developing a ceramic compound mixture containing titanium. Dubbed titanium ceramic, the material is nearly as scratch-resistant as sapphire, giving it the light-reflecting qualities of steel but without the wear and tear usually associated with metallic watches.

“It is a living material with one great advantage, which is that, depending on the hour of day, depending on the light, it veers lighter, darker or more chrome-colored,” said Nicolas Beau, international director of watches at Chanel. “But a new material is perfectly useless if it doesn’t bring something new in terms of comfort or aesthetics.”

Beau noted that, in addition to being durable, titanium ceramic adapts to the wearer’s body temperature, making it eminently comfortable on the wrist. The downside is that working with the material can be difficult.

“Once the watch is polished, however, its luminosity and brilliance never fade,” Beau explained. “The word ‘timeless’ really has a meaning in this case. It’s not just a concept; it really is physically timeless.”

Come June, seven versions of the J12 Chromatic will go on sale alongside the brand’s iconic black and white versions, the brainchildren of Chanel’s late artistic director Jacques Helleu, which have been credited with popularizing the use of ceramic in watch manufacturing.

“I think we are the house that transformed ceramic into a precious material,” said Beau.

The J12 Chromatic comes in three sizes — 33 mm, 38 mm and 41 mm — priced $5,200 to $5,800. Four additional versions, in 33 mm and 38 mm, feature bezels set with either round or baguette-cut diamonds, with matching diamond hour indicators, retailing for $11,600 to $50,000.

Beau said the idea was to start with a pared-down assortment, which will be gradually built on to add to the pillar’s 50 references. Titanium ceramic will also feed through into Chanel’s high jewelry collections. It’s part of the house’s strategy of creating products designed to withstand the test of time.

“Some years, people tell us: ‘You don’t do enough launches.’ We do, but at our pace. There is no point launching products if they don’t add anything,” said Beau. “It’s almost an act of faith to buy a watch that costs 10,000 euros or 5,000 euros. It’s something you buy for the duration, that brings you pleasure, that you desire. It has to be creative and to have a little substance.”

Beau hopes the approach will also reap dividends in cementing Chanel’s credibility in the world of watchmaking, a category it entered 24 years ago with the launch of the Première.

Its haute horlogerie division is based in the watchmaking cradle of La Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland, and Beau bristles at the notion that some still consider the company a maker of “fashion” watches.

“It’s up to us to show them that we are in it for the long run, that we are serious and that we bring things to the market,” he said.

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