The Luxury Report editor James Buttery speaks to Nicolas Beau, Chanel’s international watch director, about the brand’s supremely confident men’s watch debut.
For an industry that so often concerns itself with precious metals and gemstones, it could be argued that one of the most scarce commodities to be found in the world of horology is a genuine surprise.
But that’s just what Chanel managed to pull off at Baselworld this year when it broadsided everyone by showing the company’s first watch for men, the Monsieur de Chanel.
The Monsieur de Chanel project began life five years ago with Chanel’s international watch director, Nicolas Beau, assembling a team of eight watchmakers with a singular mission ahead of them: “To design a beautiful movement,” Beau shrugs. “The idea for our first movement was an exercise in style. We just had to decide one thing, what function, so that the creative studio could work on the design of the components with the technicians. We decided to make a jumping hour because at Chanel the numerals are very important, so we felt that an intuitive reading of the time through a numeral would be nice for Chanel.”
That jumping hour – or Heure Sautante – is presented at the six o’clock position using a large numeral and window, surrounded by a gold frame in the shape of Chanel’s beloved Place Vendome.
Once that aspect had been selected, the team quickly decided upon the rest of the watch’s functionality; retrograde minutes through a 240 degree arc with a hand that resets to zero as quickly as the jumping hour numeral snaps into place. The addition of a central small seconds also makes the Monsieur de Chanel a regulator of sorts, recognisable by the fundamental principles but cleverly twisted out of shape by Chanel.
“From that we told the team to develop a beautiful movement, full stop. Since the beginning our mission has been to investigate the whole field of watchmaking. The masculine movement side was probably the most difficult one to address, because you have companies hundreds of years old, very famous, already doing beautiful things. So we took our time, we chose to do it ourselves, which is another part of the story, and instead of trying to do what other great masculine brands are doing, let’s do it our way, our vision of style for a masculine watch.”
Beau’s team at Chanel essentially reverse engineered the traditional structure of the watch movement with an eye on boosting its visual style. Wheels were identified as the main constituent part of the movement and so the team set out to make the ‘most beautiful wheels possible’. However, traditional movement bridges would obstruct the view of these newly beautified wheels so they were open-worked to the point of resembling two interlocking circles, allowing for an unobstructed view of the movement’s gear train.
To further add to the visual impact of the monochrome Calibre 1, Chanel’s first in-house designed movement, three finishes of black were decided upon to catch the light in different ways; matt, satin and circular brushed.
Finally the bridges are edged with an elevated trim of contrasting finish; it’s the horological equivalent of the piping used in Chanel haute couture.
While primarily driven by style, Beau has been careful to ensure that the Monsieur de Chanel has the technical prowess to proudly hold its head up in the company of its competitors. Notoriously fragile, movements with retrograde minutes can only usually be adjusted forward.
“This to me was not acceptable. Unless you’re an expert, it’s hard to understand why you can’t fine tune your hand in both directions.”
Chanel’s latest watch is the first in the world with retrograde minutes to allow for adjustment in both directions and the system has been patented. The minute hand can be adjusted in both directions using the crown between 0 and 59 minutes. When the hand reaches the 59th minute marker the jumping hour mechanism is engaged and the hand is locked into a forward-only state to protect the system.
The simultaneous advancement of the jumping hour and reset of the retrograde hand might not be unique to the Monsieur de Chanel but the brand’s method for achieving it is and has resulted in a second patent. Such sudden movement is certain to use a lot of energy, which is why the Calibre 1 features twin mainspring barrels mounted in series and yet lists a power reserve of just three days. Watches using two barrels will usually provide a much greater power reserve and Beau points out that the Calibre 1 will indeed operate for longer, but he prefers to certify the three days during which isochronism is preserved.
As we speak, seated in an impossibly glamorous lounge on the uppermost floor of Chanel’s New Bond Street jewellery and watch boutique (Chanel also has a larger fashion boutique further along on Bond Street and a fragrance and beauty boutique a few metres away on Burlington Arcade) I realise I am surrounded by statues of lions. Born a Leo in August 1883, Coco Chanel carried the sign’s lion with her throughout her life as a spirit animal.
Coco’s lion leaves its paw prints, in the form of a newly stylised lion’s head, on both the Calibre 1, the crown of the watch and upon its pin buckle.
“Once the movement was designed we said let’s design a case that highlights the movement as much as possible. That’s why the case is round and when you turn it around it is very simple, there is no bezel, the case is almost invisible. What you see is the dial, which remains very simple – because again the key story is the movement – the dial is just there to make the functions visible.”
Beau massively undersells the allure of the Monsieur de Chanel’s dial, its design is a masterclass in understated masculinity, aided by the use of Chanel’s subdued beige gold alloy and neutral 40mm case size.
If Maximilian Büsser’s outlandish MB&F timepieces stem from a nostalgic love affair with Japanese cartoons, the Monsieur de Chanel must surely have been created by someone with a fondness for the films of Stanley Kubrick. The devil is truly in the details, whether that’s the silvery grained dial, the finely recessed registers for retrograde minutes and running seconds or the prominence given to minutes because, as Beau puts it, “you always know, more or less, what time it is”.
It would be impossible to discuss the Monsieur de Chanel’s dial without mentioning the boldly retro typeface used for the minute numerals, the jumping hour and lettering. The font channels the nascent days of computing and is only the second typeface to have been designed specifically for a watch, the first being used by Hermes on last year’s Slim d’Hermes.
“What I find interesting is the contrast between the modernity of the movement on the back and the more classic, almost vintage, feel of the dial.”
There is a design sensibility at work, that while rooted in the 1970s, somehow manages to decouple itself from the kitsch of that particular decade; an era distilled, its impurities removed.
Chanel assembled a team of eight watchmakers for the Monsieur de Chanel project but decided against manufacturing the components itself, instead putting in place an arrangement that is often used at Chanel to bring new knowledge and skill into the company.
“Five years ago I met Romain [Gauthier] in Basel,” explained Beau. “A friend of mine told me I should meet this guy, he’s got a very interesting design with his first watch. I found him stunning because there [are] not many watchmakers who can not only make a movement but design a case or design a dial.”
When Beau discovered that Gauthier not only produced his own watches but was more involved in producing components for other haute horlogerie watch brands, Chanel acquired a shareholding in Gauthier’s business. Gauthier has been tasked with producing the components for the Calibre 1, while Chanel’s watchmakers assemble and test the finished watches.
Chanel has a history of acquiring companies to acquire their knowledge and expertise such as embroiderer Lesage and jeweller Goossens. It’s not an exercise in empire building and the companies maintain their independence, even being able to work for Chanel’s competitors.
“We really acted like an independent,” he explains. “Because we are independent. Chanel is an independent company not part of a group, so with eight people and the help of Romain Gauthier we have been able to make a watch the same way Max Büsser would do or Laurent Ferrier would do, that same spirit.”
While they might not look anything alike, Chanel’s first true watch for men owes a lot to the success of Chanel’s sporty predecessor, the J12.
Beau agrees: “The J12 was the first mixed watch – for men and women – it was our first mechanical watch, it was the first ceramic watch for us and then it was one of the first all-white watches. Thanks to the J12 we really became a player in the field of watchmaking. The last stone that was missing was the masculine movement, which was the most sophisticated and complicated to achieve.”
The Monsieur de Chanel will be available in next month in beige gold (£23,250) and white gold (£24,500) with 150 pieces being produced in each material.