The Chanel J12 watch.

PARIS — It’s a twofer of an unusual sort, at least for luxury house Chanel.

Offering a preview of the new edition of the ceramic J12 watch, Chanel also introduced artistic director Arnaud Chastaingt.

Director of the Chanel watch creation studio since 2013, like many people in such positions in the high-end watches and jewelry industry, the design graduate has kept largely in the shadows.

Why didn’t Chanel introduce him before?

“It’s not the tradition of the watch and high-jewelry business to introduce designers — I think that’s often linked to the fact that many houses use a lot of external designers — which is not our case,” Nicolas Beau, director of Chanel’s international business development for watches and fine jewelry, told WWD, speaking from a vast salon overlooking the Place Vendôme.

But even the luxury houses are changing their ways, opening up parts of their businesses as they sharpen their storytelling skills to suit a digital era.

Arnaud Chastaingt of Chanel

Arnaud Chastaingt of Chanel.  Courtesy

Chastaingt is the creative force behind the house’s recent watch models: the Boy Friend, Code Coco — which borrows the signature, rotating lock of Chanel’s quilted 2.55 handbag — and Monsieur de Chanel, recognized by the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie in Geneva first in 2017 for the Première Camélia Skeleton and then for the Boy Friend skeleton. 

Originally from the French countryside, he moved to Paris in 2000 as a design student, and nabbed his first job at Cartier, realizing with a bit of disappointment that his recruiters were more interested in his drawing skills than his pitch. 

“I don’t think I came to watchmaking through the same door as a certain number of my peers. One thing is certain: for me, measuring time had never been an obsession — style, much more so,” he said. Over a decade at Cartier, he gained experience creating traditional watches and high-jewelry watches — which he describes as “pretty much opposite ways of designing, that are also rather complementary.”

When he joined Chanel, the J12, designed by Jacques Helleu, was the reigning timepiece, a model that he recalled had caught his eye as a young student — he was drawn to its “authoritative posture and androgynous look.”

He sought to take it to unexpected territory — which he did by shrinking it, attaching it to gloves, making it into a ring and fixing it to cufflike bracelets — the XS rendition.

“I needed this freedom to play around with it — perhaps that’s a bit of a clumsy way to put it — but to take a lighthearted approach, sometimes even with a bit of irreverence,” he said, likening his relationship with the watch as similar to that of a muse and a designer.

But he would eventually have to consider the original model itself.

“I think it’s one of the most complex exercises I’ve ever been entrusted with in my career,” said Chastaingt.

“I would even go so far as to say that for me, starting with a white page, from zero, like for the Boy Friend or the Monsieur, it’s easier than reworking an icon like the J12, I felt a certain apprehension,” he said. 

“Finally I decided to change everything without changing anything,” he said. 

Tinkering with the details — he likened it to surgery — the result is a streamlined, modern version of the watch, issued in both black and white versions. Added notches to the bezel and ring — from 30 to 40 — and a slimmed down crown give the timepiece a slightly more delicate feel. The numbers, however, have become a tad more prominent, now drawn in ceramic, which wasn’t technically possible when the first version was released two decades ago. On the bracelet, longer links also give for a streamlined appearance. The back is covered in sapphire crystal for viewing the new 12.1 caliber automatic movement, developed by Kenissi, a Swiss-based maker of automatic timepiece movements that Chanel purchased earlier this year.

“I put down my designer’s hat and put on a surgeon’s frock and tried to operate on this watch down to the very details, what were the strong points and what were the weaknesses — in today’s context,” said Chastaingt.

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