Launched in 2000, the Chanel J12 watch is arguably the most enduring aspect of the legacy of Jacques Helleu, grandson of the belle époque portrait painter and the third generation of his family to be associated with Chanel (his father, Jean, was responsible for the iconic bevel-cut shape of the No. 5 bottle). 

Jacques was Chanel’s artistic director of watches and fine jewellery for more than half a century until 2007 and, of his many achievements, the J12 is one of the greatest. It came to life because Helleu dreamt of having a watch for himself – masculine, sporty, yet elegant – and then, finding that the technology didn’t yet exist to deliver it in a glossy blackness of obsidian depth and adamantine hardness, went in search of the solution himself.

With his shock of white hair and black polo neck, Helleu was the masculine embodiment of Chanel’s monochrome aesthetic. The effect of the two non-colours throwing each other into relief is what makes Chanel Chanel. It was, therefore, no surprise to see the J12 appear in white three years after the first black version. Like so many of the house’s signature creations, the J12 was conceived in the masculine world and adopted hungrily by women; it became a part of the Chanel vernacular to be interpreted by future generations – which is where Arnaud Chastaingt comes in.

Chastaingt is director of Chanel’s “watchmaking creation studio”. Having spent four years working on 2019’s 20th-anniversary redesign of the J12, he understands the watch better than anyone alive. His redesign touched almost every aspect of this icon (80 per cent of the components are new), and yet was of such subtlety and sensitivity that one would need to be a forensic horologist to identify the differences. This year plunges the J12 into the polychromatic world of the rainbow setting.

Chanel J12

Chastaingt’s new collection, Electro, emerges from the “universe of the night”. Electro was the music of Chastaingt’s 1980s youth but, he says, “it is as fascinating for its aesthetic as much as its music”. And, indeed, there is something of the hauntingly trance-like and transcendental about the hero of the collection, the X-Ray Electro (€630,000), which unites the rainbow setting with a crystal case allowing the coloured stones to appear to float. For him, Electro is about the phosphorescent neon palette that he describes as “punctuating the black”. While certainly not what Helleu had in mind, it is entirely coherent with the versatile creature the J12 has become.  

Chanel J12 Eternal Instant by Nicholas Foulkes is published by Thames & Hudson at £65

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