Almost 30 years since it launched its first timepiece, the Première watch, Chanel finally debuted its first dedicated men’s collection, Monsieur de Chanel, at Baselworld 2016 earlier this year. Previously, all of its masculine watches, such as the J12 Marine, J12 Superleggera Chronograph and J12 Rétrograde Mysterieuse Tourbillon, only existed within the unisex J12 collection.
“Our first objective is not to capture men’s attention,” explains Nicolas Beau, Chanel’s international watch director. “The ambition is not to go after women, men and then children one day. I’ve always said that our goal is to create all kinds of beautiful watches…with Monsieur de Chanel, we offer men a vision of Chanel.”
Monsieur de Chanel is decisively masculine and bears no semblance to previous collections, such as the iconic J12, Première, Boy.friend and Mademoiselle Privé watches. It features an elegant and round 40-mm case in white gold or its proprietary beige gold, a slightly domed sapphire crystal, a classic opaline dial and a set of numerals that were exclusively designed for the line. Time is presented via an oversized jumping hour indication, a retrograde minutes display and a small seconds subdial.
Despite the extensive effort put into creating its handsome exterior and deliberately designed dial, these serve only to complement the impressive engine that was entirely conceptualised and manufactured in-house. Christened the Calibre 1, this is the first movement that was entirely designed and manufactured within the brand’s watch manufacture, G&F Châtelain SA. Previously, the brand relied on ETA movements and entrusted its high-end movements, such as the AP 3125, the ones equipped with flying tourbillons and the RMT-10 calibre (on the J12 Rétrograde Mysterieuse Tourbillon) to watchmaker Renaud & Papi (APRP SA).
The entire project took five years to come to fruition, with its first major challenge being the assembly of an expert and talented team. “We are an independent company and we don’t like to depend on other companies,” says Beau. His first task was to meticulously put together a team of watchmakers, movement specialists and technicians, one of which was Romain Gauthier, the eponymous independent watchmaker and engineer.
Chanel had acquired a stake in Romain Gauthier earlier in 2011. Gauthier, who produces for some of the world’s best known watch brands, is responsible for the expertly done key components (such as the gears, balance wheel and pinions) on the Calibre 1. “He doesn’t interfere with our movement making,” emphasises Beau. Although the component supplier will be contributing to all of Chanel’s future proprietary movements, he has the freedom to continue expanding his company on his own terms. “Like how it is with the other houses, we don’t want to intervene with their business. We just want to secure the know-how,” he continues. Beau is referring to Maisons such as Lesage, Massaro and Michel, three of the eleven businesses that Chanel has acquired since 1985.
Out of the five years it took to conceive the Monsieur de Chanel, the first three were dedicated to the Calibre 1’s development. “It was only in the last two years that we designed the case and the dial. They are meant to support the movement, which is the star of the watch,” he says. The Calibre 1 is an integrated movement that features an unusually designed retrograde minutes complication with a 240-degrees arc (typically, the zero to 60-minute retrograde scale extends only to 180 degrees). According to Beau, this layout offers a more instinctive approach to reading the minutes.
Unfortunately, going ahead with this approach brings about its own set of challenges. A wider arc means that more force is required for the minute hand to revert to its original position at zero, thereby potentially snapping the hand into two. Chanel’s watchmaking department found a technical solution that manages the minute hand’s speed at the last micro second, allowing it to travel further (and hence, faster) without incurring any damage.
The team also ensured that the minutes could be adjusted forwards and backwards, with a blocking mechanism put in place to prevent the hand from going beyond zero. Typically, retrograde hands only advance in one direction to protect the mechanism from unnecessary trauma. “We told our technicians: ‘Look, our customers will not understand that. It is only natural to tune your watch in two directions’,” explains Beau. In the end, a solution was found and, along with it, a patent to protect its ingenuity.
Although the Calibre 1’s lengthy incubation period suggests that it could potentially be used as a base for more complications to be added, Beau nips this speculation in the bud. “Is this calibre going to be used with other functions? The answer is no, because with different functions, there will always be a compromise,” he stresses. He adds that the movement’s reliability, accuracy and energy efficiency will always take precedence.
With so much emphasis placed on the Calibre 1, there was no doubt that it would come fitted with a transparent case back to expose the exquisitely finished movement. The ADLC-coated movement in anthracite features a modern architecture befitting of Chanel’s identity as a watchmaker. “Our focus was to make the movement beautiful. Since we had no past, we were totally free to design every single component to achieve a made-to-measure movement,” says Beau.
Subtle touches such as the finishing and colour on the wheels (reminiscent of the trimming on a Chanel jacket), the small lion motif located on the movement, buckle and crown, as well as a star-shaped balance wheel, offer references to the couture house. The mighty lion, regarded so dearly by its founder Gabrielle Chanel as a talisman of strength, will be present in all of Chanel’s future in-house calibres as its faithful guardian of time. “You don’t need to be a specialist to find this [watch] beautiful…but you should love what you see. It’s like when you see beautiful mountains: You don’t need to see the rocks [nor do you] question why there is snow. It’s just an emotion,” Beau concludes.