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Why not...? - The theory of gender and the Chanel J12

Why not...? The theory of gender and the Chanel J12

Tackling gender fluidity in watchmaking with the androgynous Chanel J12.

Man or woman? Or another gender? Or no gender? It’s a topical debate that raises a number of issues and makes us think about some fundamental questions, such as “who am I?”. As such issues are today being discussed openly, I thought it important to see how things stand in the world of watches and watchmaking.

In my native French, the word for watch (montre) is feminine. Yet the watch was born to accompany activities that had for a long time been considered masculine. It was an object of war, of navigation and was above all a tool used for economic, political or military means. It was only in 1811 that Abraham-Louis Breguet designed a “feminine” watch intended for the Queen of Naples, Caroline Bonaparte.

This was when the watch first met jewellery, or indeed became jewellery. Because one of the characteristics of a ladies’ watch is that it can meld with the jewellery and become a dual object, a unique combination of jewellery and mechanics.

But let’s come back to the present and ask the question: is a watch feminine or masculine?

For a long time things seemed clear: a men’s watch was mechanically more complicated, with bigger dimensions and a more virile construction and appearance. Ladies’ watches were always dainty with classic yet more refined, colourful, decorated or gem-set designs.

And then, the lines started to blur…

First there were “men’s” watches that started to appear on ladies’ wrists, at a time when watches were getting bigger. Think of Panerai, for example, which started to appeal to women. It was no longer a rarity to see these imposing diver’s watches on a ladies’ wrist, to such an extent that the Florentine brand soon started offering a choice of colourful straps to make its offering more feminine. Because colour was the preserve of women. Men’s watches had to have black dials, steel cases and a limited choice of straps in classic colours. That was until the martial NATO strap won us over and offered watch fans an infinite choice of colours.

Colour was no longer associated to a single gender.

By daring to wear watches that were thought to be masculine, women broke another code – that of size. The ladies’ watch had always been small, yet now watches with a diameter of 44mm or even more started to appeal to them. This trend was also reversed. For a few years now, watches have been getting smaller and diameters more contained. So much so that small cases (39mm, 38mm and even 36mm) are back in demand and appealing to… men.

Size was no longer associated to a single gender.

That only left jewellery.

Ladies’ watches necessarily had to become jewellery by covering themselves with all kinds of precious stones in all forms of setting, or by adding drawings, engravings or other forms of artistic crafts. But jewellery would also start to appeal to men. It started with kings, sheikhs, princes and maharajahs, who dared to wear precious stones. Then came rappers, who loved to rebel by wearing “bling”. At first it was a shock, then it gradually became a trend. At the last Super Bowl, Adam Levine was seen singing bare-chested but with a Rolex Rainbow on his wrist. There are numerous other examples. Enough to say that…

Jewellery is no longer associated with a single gender.

Nevertheless, in an industry as classic as that of watchmaking, it is more the customer who is responsible for such trends than the brands themselves. In fact, some brands have slipped up by associating some of their watches too much with a specific gender. Thinking of one of my favourite brands, Omega, two examples spring to mind: The Speedmaster “White Side of the Moon” and the Seamaster Planet Ocean 39mm in Sedna gold with chocolate-brown dial. These two models were launched and positioned as ladies’ watches at the very point that watch fans were starting to break down these gender barriers. These two watches should ideally have been presented as unisex models.

So the brands who dare to break such codes are few and far between. There are still watches for women and watches for men.

Some, however, are trying to break free of such constraints. Maximilian Büsser has just presented a grand complication watch “for” women, the beautiful FlyingT. But even though it’s a fascinating timepiece, it is clearly positioned as “feminine”.

So is a watch a masculine or feminine object? The answer is slowly becoming apparent and it is a sign of the changing times. But one thing is certain: The movement is mainly about men’s watches moving to women’s wrists. Very few watches designed as feminine are found on men’s wrists.

And that is why I am so interested in the famous J12. Because I had always thought that this Chanel watch was a ladies’ piece that could interest a lot of men, and become a pioneer.

So let’s take a closer look...

Why Chanel?

Of course, the brand set up by Gabrielle Chanel is by no means a watch brand. But the name stands for a lot of different things: style, revolution, ability to break rules, pride, but also femininity.

The brand was born in 1910 as a specialist in hats. But Coco Chanel soon developed her own high-fashion creations taking inspiration from men’s clothing. The brand was already ahead of its time. It wanted to offer high fashion that could liberate women by offering clothes that were easy – and practical – to wear.

After high fashion came perfumes, with the legendary Chanel No. 5 launched in 1924. Although the brand disappeared during the second world war, it was reborn after and continued to grow under the ownership of the Wertheimer family, which became the majority shareholder in the company in the 1950s. In the early 1980s, Karl Lagerfeld (who we talked about in a recent "Why not…?") joined Chanel. Their destinies were henceforth linked.

We had to wait until 1987 for Chanel to enter the watch industry.

The theory of gender and the Chanel J12

The Boy∙Friend Tweed, the Première Velvet and the Code Coco © Chanel

Today, Chanel has a few solid arguments in watchmaking. Its offering is based around several collections, including the Première – with a case inspired by Place Vendôme, the Boy∙Friend – another attempt to banish boundaries between male and female, the Code Coco, the Monsieur de Chanel and the Mademoiselle Privé.

The theory of gender and the Chanel J12

The Monsieur de Chanel and the Mademoiselle Privé Camélia Skeleton © Chanel

Chanel also offers fine watchmaking and high jewellery pieces that stand out for their originality and have won several prices at recent editions of the GPHG.

All these watches have a very dressy look, that the sporty J12 nicely disrupts.

The Chanel J12: Crossing boundaries

The J12 was launched 20 years ago and has always interested me.

It was born as a sporty ladies’ watch, designed by the genius Jacques Helleu.

The theory of gender and the Chanel J12

Sketch of the J12 by Jacques Helleu © Chanel

It takes its name from the J Class yachts that were competing in the America’s Cup. At the time it was intended to appeal to men, with versions like the Superleggera Chronograph and the Chromatic “steel” ceramic version. There was even a rare and exceptional J12 powered by an Audemars Piguet calibre, the Chanel J12 H2129. When it was first launched, the J12 was offered in several sizes, including a very masculine 41mm.

The theory of gender and the Chanel J12

J12 H2129 © Chanel

But it nevertheless remained mainly a sports watch for women.

Maybe it was born too early. That’s the main question I ask myself today. With the relaunch of the J12, will Chanel attract more men as customers?

The watch still has its main assets: a 38mm diameter case that can now be considered unisex, a discreet diver bezel, a material that appeals to many (ceramic), a ceramic bracelet that is still comfortable on the wrist, a rather solid steel crown (although it is smaller on the 2019 version) that contrasts with the white or black of the ceramic, as well as a timeless sport-chic aesthetic.

The theory of gender and the Chanel J12

Arnaud Chastaingt © Chanel

This new J12 was designed by Arnaud Chastaingt, who has headed the Chanel watch design studio for the past six years. He knows his watches and is the man behind a number of the brand’s designs. He has also earned Chanel two consecutive awards at the GPHG, which is all the more noteworthy given that Chanel is not immediately thought of as a watch brand.

The theory of gender and the Chanel J12

The Première Camélia Skeleton (GPHG 2017) and the Boy∙Friend Skeleton (GPHG 2018) © Chanel

For the 2019 vintage, the watch is totally in ceramic and loses its steel case back.

The dial has been redesigned and has greater presence. The watch is also slightly thicker, but without losing any of its balance, and some design elements have been refined or reviewed. The typography of the numbers is slimmer, for example, while the links on the bracelet are slightly longer. The hands have also been brought up to date.

The theory of gender and the Chanel J12

J12, 2019 model © Chanel

But generally speaking the J12 remains THE J12.

One of the biggest changes, however, is the movement, which is produced by the Kenissi factory in which Chanel recently took a stake, confirming its intention to develop its horological creations.

So no more ETA, as with the previous versions, and hello to this almost in-house calibre with its COSC certification, fine finishing visible through a sapphire case back and a power reserve of 70 hours.

I particularly like the way that the case back has been designed, emphasising circles, including a surprising winding rotor in the form of a perfect circle, which is in keeping with the general style of this appealing Chanel watch.

The theory of gender and the Chanel J12

The 2019 J12 models in white and black ceramic © Chanel

So the Chanel J12 is back on the scene, and that’s great news.

Now we just need to see how Chanel will position its communication for this collection, 20 years after it was first launched. Will we see continuity, or rupture?

Society has changed a lot since. The Chanel J12 is back with even more going for it.

We will have to wait and see how it will be received. By women and men.

What does the devil’s advocate think?

20 years old is a nice age! It’s everything that the devil doesn’t like, so he can only ignore such a juvenile, amusing and appealing watch!

But on a more serious note, can we find anything wrong with the 2019 Chanel J12?

Let’s start with that notorious “Automatic” on the dial. I don’t know why brands continue to pollute their dials with this word. It is meaningless and adds nothing to the watch. On the contrary, it needlessly clutters the dial (which already has a lot of detail on it). Furthermore, for a brand that is used to surprising us while maintaining an air of classicism, this word just seems too obvious and not “disruptive” enough. In short, it’s not Chanel!

The theory of gender and the Chanel J12

© Chanel

Then there is the date. The Kenissi calibre has the date between 4 o’clock and 5 o’clock. To be frank, the J12 would have been much nicer without the date. Or it should at least have been designed in a more original way to make it stand out from the two neighbouring hour markers. Here, too, the result makes the dial more cluttered.

But apart from these two small things, there is nothing else to say. I like the black and white models in equal measure and it’s good that Chanel is relaunching the J12 in both of these colours.

How to wear the Chanel J12 with style ?

So, black or white?

Well, I’ve chosen the white. I think that the white Chanel J12 is perfect for lazing about in the Californian sun. It has an off-beat side to it that breaks with, or is even ahead of, its time, which is perfect for Californians. You get the feeling that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, while at the same time being disruptive, which might well appeal to the nerds of Silicon Valley.

So let’s go for the white model.

La théorie du genre et la Chanel J12

The J12 in white ceramic © Chanel

Match it with white jeans from Jacob Cohen and navy-blue espadrilles from Berluti, or white cotton trousers from Hartwood and summer moccassins in velours calfskin from Loro Piana.

For the top, there is nothing better than a light-blue shirt by Figaret, which will add the classic touch to complement the white of the J12.

Then, a blazer with tennis stripes. The choice might be difficult, but I think the jacket from a blue denim traveller suit by Suit Supply would be ideal. If you don’t like the stripes, a denim blazer by John Varvatos would go perfectly with our white J12.

And let’s end with a touch of Chanel. There is nothing better than their perfume. Things get personal here, but I would either go for “Pour Monsieur”, which is a sure bet, or the surprising – and unisex – Paris - Deauville.

All you have to do now is enjoy the sun and wait until it sets before changing your watch for the darker side of the Chanel J12, which is just as appealing.

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