Watches: Three O’Clock Roadblock

  • James D. Malcolmson

‘‘i went to Paris and learned how Coco Chanel approached fashion," says complicated-watch specialist Giulio Papi of his visit to the fabled house to discuss collaboration on a new timepiece. "It was then that I agreed to take on this project, because I like to work the same way with watches."

The synergy was particularly fortunate for Chanel. Papi’s company, Renaud & Papi, is one of the most sought-after complicated-watch-engineering firms in the world—and one of the only companies able to fulfill Chanel’s ambition of creating a summit-class version of its popular J12 model.

Chanel has created complicated J12s before. In 2005, the company released a tourbillon version of the watch, which was built at Chanel’s factory in La Chaux-de-Fonds. The watch contained a highly innovative application of ceramic (a core component of the J12) as a material for movement plating, but the very idea of a Chanel tourbillon was also derided in some quarters as a symbol of the overproduction of that particular complication. Papi, however, had no such misgivings. "Chanel changed fashion with new materials, comfort, and superb finishing," he says. "These [elements] became the basis for the watch."

The concept for the J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse began at a two-hour meeting between Papi and Nicolas Beau, Chanel’s international watch director. The sketches produced during that consultation provided the foundation for the project. "It was my idea to put the crown in the vertical position for comfort and ease of use," says Papi. However, Jacques Helleu, Chanel’s artistic director, wanted to put the crown inside the dial at three o’clock.

Helleu’s configuration posed some unique engineering and design challenges. The large crown, which was meant to rise out of the dial on command, became a physical obstacle at the three o’clock position for a conventional minute hand traversing the dial. To resolve this difficulty, Papi devised a sequence that enables the hand to stop in its tracks at two o’clock and reverse its course—a retrograde—for 10 minutes, until it reaches the four o’clock position, at which point it resumes its normal direction. A digital counter registers the minutes during the retrograde period for greater utility.

Although Renaud & Papi built the movement (also a ceramic-based tourbillon), Chanel contributed significantly to the technical underpinnings of the watch. "We developed the case as well as the rising-crown system, which is part of the case," says Beau. "The buttons that operate it are hidden, adding to the mystery of the watch." In fact, the ring of ceramic tiles surrounding the dial conceals two buttons that raise the crown and switch it from winding to time-setting mode.

A series of 10 J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse watches will be built in white gold and black ceramic, another 10 in white ceramic and pink gold, and one in white ceramic with white gold (prices available on request). "It is a large watch," says Papi, "but it looks good on a man or a woman, which fits Chanel."

Chanel, 800.550.0005, www.chanel.com

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