How The Chanel J12 Watch Became The Model Y2K Timepiece

by Noelle Loh  /   September 14, 2022

Born in the year 2000 with a gender-neutral design so ahead of its time, the Chanel J12 has stuck coolly by its original look and identity, no matter how wild its makeovers get in the name of creative expression. This month, Chanel will hold an interactive exhibition on it right here in Singapore. As a teaser, FEMALE and the maison offer a primer on this Y2K icon.


The Chanel J12 watch was the brainchild of Chanel’s late artistic director Jacques Helleu, who was behind some of the brand’s most unexpected and powerful campaigns (check out his simple yet enigmatic print ads for Chanel N°5 starring a 20-something Catherine Deneuve, or the surreal, Ridley Scott-directed TV commercials for the perfume, from the ’70s and ’80s).

Designing the timepiece with himself in mind, Helleu drew from two worlds that he was obsessed with: those of automobile racing and sailing. Even the name J12 was borrowed from the yachts that compete in the America’s Cup.

Far from being purely sporty though, the results were considered trailblazing and fashion-forward, thanks to the use of slick and highly resistant ceramic, first in all-black and then in all-white. The two colours are signature to the maison and had never previously been used in the same way in watchmaking. Today, both styles remain not just the bedrock, but are also bestsellers of the entire J12 collection.

One elemental aspect of the maison is ease – and this quality is manifested in how each J12 model is fitted with an automatic movement (read: it winds as it’s being worn, eliminating the need to do so manually). The 12.1 calibre automatic movement found in the 38mm styles, for example, boasts a 70-hour power reserve, while the 12.2 calibre movement in the 33mm watches offers 50.

chanel j12
Credit:Stefan Khoo

Left: J12 Wanted De Chanel 33mm ceramic and steel watch, Coco Crush 18K white gold single earring and matching small ring, Chanel Watches & Fine Jewellery. Tweed Coat Chanel. Right: Chanel J12 33mm ceramic and steel watch with diamonds, Chanel Watches & Fine Jewellery. Jacquard dress with sequins, Chanel

Incredibly – and as a testament to its rep as an enduring horological piece – the J12 has never had to undergo any serious facelifts since its debut. The only time it had any major, albeit visibly discreet, makeover was in 2019 when 70 per cent of the watch design was revamped.

For that outing, the bezel, hands and crown were refined, for example, while additional indicators were added to the inner railway on the dial. Another enhancement that made what’s special about the watch even better: tone-on-tone Superluminova (read: glow-in-the-dark) hour and minute hands – black against the black J12, and white against the white version – to make its lustrous monotone shade even richer.

Till this day, the most celebrated feature of the J12 since the debut of the OG in 2000 remains the watch’s signature sleek ceramic construction that is used for the case (38mm and 33mm remains the two main sizes, FYI), dial and bracelet. The high-tech material is known for such exceptional hardness that it’s scratch-proof and resistant to the signs of wear even after years – a quality that makes it all the more dependable.

chanel j12
Credit:Stefan Khoo

Chanel J12 33mm ceramic and steel watch with diamonds, Chanel Watches & Fine Jewellery. Jacquard dress with sequins, Chanel

The monochromatic palette offers Chanel plenty of creative license for experimentation when creating its sought-after limited-edition J12 releases which have become cult classics among collectors. Clock the miniature edition of the J12 from 2016 that was attached to leather gloves or the whimsical J12 Mademoiselle design from 2017 that featured a cartoon figure of Coco Chanel with spread out arms that served as hour and minute hands.

Two years ago, the brand revealed a first-of-its-kind J12 that celebrates everything the watch stands for. Dubbed the J12 Paradoxe, the mostly white 38mm number features a section of its dial and bezel in contrasting black ceramic, offering not only the beauty of both colours, but also a technical triumph for the seamless fusion.

chanel j12
Credit:Stefan Khoo

Left: J12 Wanted de Chanel 38mm ceramic and steel watch, Chanel Watches & Fine Jewellery. Leather dress, Chanel. Right: J12 Paradoxe 38mm ceramic and steel watch, Chanel Watches & Fine Jewellery. Leather dress, Chanel

And more recently, in June this year, Chanel launched the limited-edition Wanted capsule collection that cast its signature watches through the lens of logomania. These interpretations can be said to underscore how quintessentially Chanel the J12 is, with its pure monotone finish and understated elegance. Both the bezel and the dial of a white 33mm J12, for example, are artfully swathed in a metallic filigree made up of the brand name repeated – the graphic yet sophisticated results only possible because of the versatility of the J12 as a canvas.

To showcase the full J12 journey since its beginning 22 years ago, Chanel will be hosting an immersive pop-up titled Always In Motion. Taking place from Sep 17 to Oct 2 at L1 Main Atrium of Takashimaya S.C., a guided tour is open to the public via private appointments. Click here to sign up for a session.


Photography Stefan Khoo Photography Assistant Alif Styling Damian Huang Styling Assistant & Video Editing Pang Jia Wei Hair Tan Eng Chong/Kizuki+Lim Makeup Sarah Tan Model Macky/Misc Management


This article is adapted from a story in the Sep 2022 The Kids Are Alright! edition of FEMALE