Chanel’s recent timepieces are serious and successful attempts at watchmaking, and we can expect much more from the Maison in the years to come.
Mention high watchmaking, and what comes to mind immediately are the various age-old maisons that have long served as stalwarts in the field. A close second will probably be the newer, independent artisanal watchmakers out there, each offering their own interpretations while producing timepieces in limited quantities.
There is a third, oft-overlooked category: high fashion houses that have forayed into watchmaking, with designs that are informed by their respective heritage. Of course, not every brand that has made this “crossover” is serious about its efforts. The few that are, however, have much to show, so you can expect heavyweight offerings from brands like Louis Vuitton and Hermès, from high complications to grand displays of métiers d’art.
Building the House of Chanel
Chanel is one other brand that has entered the fray. True to its roots, the maison’s watches are relatively understated, but showcase classic, elegant designs that are made possible with solid technical expertise.
The maison’s entry into high watchmaking began in 1993, when it acquired G&F Châtelain SA, a Swiss maker of watch cases and bracelets. There was little change following this: the two remained largely separate, and G&F Châtelain continued to supply its products to external clients.
In 2011, Chanel made the decision to develop its own watchmaking capabilities, to possibly wean itself off external partners (such as Renaud & Papi) completely. A high watchmaking department was created within G&F Châtelain to achieve this – this section would focus on movement design and production exclusively for Chanel, essentially developing the brand’s in-house technical expertise.
Chanel also invested in independent Swiss watchmakers Romain Gauthier that same year. This partial ownership secured the brand’s access to Romain Gauthier’s component-making business, and Chanel now has a secure supply of wheels, pinions, barrels, and other parts.
Movement development takes time though, and things were quiet for a while.
The next updates from Chanel, however, came quickly and successively, with three in-house calibres unveiled one after the other at Baselworld from 2016 to 2018.
Calibre 1 was first. Unveiled in 2011, the movement was synonymous with the watch it came in, the Monsieur de Chanel.
The watch was a simple time-only watch, with the “complications” being how time was displayed. The digital hour is displayed in a single large aperture, while the retrograde minutes are marked on a large 240-degree sector.
What’s important to note here is how Calibre 1 was designed and built as an integrated movement. The atypical display format wasn’t achieved using modules or modifications of existing movements.
With this calibre and timepiece, Chanel declared its intensions to tango with the old boys.
Calibre 2 came a year later, housed in the Première timepiece for ladies. The focus this time was on design: the movement has been skeletonised and its bridges shaped into circles, which are then arranged to form a camellia.
Skeletonisation is already an art unto itself.
To do so while forming a specific motif using what’s left of the movement’s components is quite a feat, to put mildly.
This year at Baselworld, Chanel followed up with Calibre 3, yet another movement that was conceived, developed, and produced in-house.
Like Calibre 2, it’s a skeletonised movement, albeit a simpler one with the bridges arranged in a vertical line a la baguette movements.
Once again, the bridges and main plate are dominated by curves.
This time, they lend visual contrast to the Boyfriend watch that the movement is fitted in, thanks to the case’s bold lines and stark angles.
Chanel also played with contrasting surfaces – note how the main plate and bridges have two-toned black and gold surfaces that bridge the contrast between the wheels and case.
Given how each in-house calibre discussed so far appears to be developed for the watch it is housed in, it seems like Chanel’s modus operandi is to approach each pairing as a complete product.
Well, not really. Chanel has adapted Calibre 2 into two new movements, and fitted them into round cases, thus demonstrating its versatility.
Calibre 2.1 has had its main plate swapped for a round one, alongside other minor changes to accommodate this adaptation.
The movement was then used in Chanel’s Mademoiselle Privé jewellery watch collection, in the Camélia Skeleton timepiece.
Here, the camellia appears to float within the round case instead of being more “fitted” inside the Première, where it was originally.
Calibre 2.2, on the other hand, is the result of fitting Calibre 2 with a much larger main plate, to increase its diameter to a whopping 39.2 millimetres.
The movement is then housed inside a unique pocket watch that comes with its own display arch complete with a lion, an emblem for the maison.
With its technical expertise in atypical displays and skeletonised movements already established, who knows what Chanel will be showcasing next? It may be a complication, or another novel way of telling the time.
One thing’s for sure: there is much to expect from Chanel in the years ahead. This is especially certain given the latest development at the maison – Chanel has just announced its acquisition of a 20 per cent stake in Montres Journe SA, better known as the entity behind F.P. Journe timepieces.
Like previous times, things are apparently status quo at F.P. Journe. With Chanel’s modus operandi, however, connoisseurs can look forward to internally sourced components, movements, and/or complications now that the house has a stake in this staunchly independent watchmaker.