Twenty Years of Timeless Glamour: How Chanel’s iconic J12 watch went on to make horology history

As the legendary timepiece celebrates its 20th anniversary, we take a look at how the J12 went from fashion favourite to cult classic

Fashion brands have always struggled to be taken seriously by luxury watchmakers. For what place can fashion – fast, fleeting, frivolous – possibly have in the world of haute horology, which is all about timelessness and permanence? That is, unless you happen to be Chanel. As usual, the French fashion house has managed to defy convention and blaze a trail all of its own – this time, in the world of elite watches – with the launch of the latest iteration of its iconic J12 watch: the J12 X-Ray. Released to celebrate the watch’s 20th anniversary, it’s nothing short of a work of art, as is clear from the latest ad campaign, where it’s displayed on the wrists of Chanel muses Naomi Campbell, Lily-Rose Depp and Claudia Schiffer.

Chanel J12 Xray WatchPin
The J12 X-Ray, with a white gold bezel and baguette-cut diamonds

The Parisian maison first stepped onto the horology scene in 1987 with the launch of its octagonal-case Première cocktail watch, created by Jacques Hélleu, who at that point had been the house’s artistic director for nearly three decades. But it was the all-ceramic J12, released in 2000 and also designed by Hélleu, that saw Chanel firmly earn its seat at the table. Arnaud Chastaingt, who became director of Chanel’s Watchmaking Creation Studio in 2013, calls the J12 “the first revolution of the watch world in the 21st century.”

While that may sound like PR speak, the J12 was indeed revolutionary. Named after the J-class racing yachts of the 1930s that inspired its sporty design, the J12 turned industrial, hardwearing ceramic into a precious material, while its all-black debut redefined feminine – and unisex – watchmaking codes. By the time the all-white model followed in 2003, the J12 had firmly cemented its reputation as an industry icon.

Numerous iterations over the past 20 years have only further upped Chanel’s haute horlogerie cred. On the complications side, the J12 has housed a chronograph, GMT, tourbillon, moonphase and full diamond-set flying tourbillon (complete with a comet, a motif beloved by Coco Chanel). The boundary-pushing materials have likewise kept pace, keeping competitors on their toes. Cue the Noir Intense, which saw a block of pure ceramic cut like gemstones into 724 baguettes and set all around the watch; or the titanium ceramic behind the J12 Chromatic’s stormy, reflective sheen. Fun, too, has come into play – this is fashion, after all – when Coco Chanel herself was immortalised on the dial in 2017, hat, pumps, tweed and all.

In honour of its fast-approaching 20th birthday, the J12 was given a barely-there but fully redefining overhaul last year – channelling that impactful minimalism that only Chanel can pull off. Subtle tweaks, such as a slightly thicker case and typography redesign, made the J12’s silhouette sleeker, stronger – and ready for the next 20 years.

The house celebrated with a star-studded bash at Chanel’s Paris flagship on Place Vendôme, which was attended by the maison’s long-standing muses, including Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer, Liu Wen, Ali MacGraw and mother-daughter duo Vanessa Paradis and Lily Rose Depp. These six women are also behind the new J12 ad campaign – taglined “It’s all about seconds” – as they reflect on the last 2o years and reveal what that period of time means to them. Campbell muses that “20 years is not enough to change the world”, while MacGraw hopes for two decades “with a sane feeling on the planet among all of us”. Depp and Paradis, meanwhile, are a sweet dynamic: Depp, aged 20 herself, says, “You have so much life ahead of you”, as her mother dreamily adds, “The best thing would be to stay 20 for 20 years”. Indeed.

Twenty Years Of Timeless Glamour: How Chanel’s Iconic J12 Watch Went On To Make Horology HistoryPin
The J12 X-Ray, with a white gold bezel and baguette-cut diamonds

Shot in black and white, with the muses dressed to match, the campaign’s pared-back palette fits the J12’s signature monochrome scheme. Naturally, the new anniversary watches embrace this signature code, but with an ultra-fresh new addition: the J12 X-Ray, a 12-piece numbered edition crafted entirely in see-through sapphire. Neither black nor white but now transparent and coolly urban, the X-Ray notably features a strap with links cut from raw sapphire – a first in high-end watchmaking. Add to that the cut-sapphire dial, with its floating-like diamond baguette indicators, sapphire plate, timer bridge and cog bridge, and yet again Chanel doesn’t disappoint in its quest to challenge existing watchmaking materials. The new X-Ray is of-the-moment yet instantly timeless – and a through-and-through Chanel J12.

Main image: Naomi Campbell is wearing the new J12 watch
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