Internationally known for its fashion-statement watch the J12, as well as its inspiring collaborations with movement powerhouse Audemars Piguet Renaud & Papi, Chanel started to work on in-house calibres 10 years ago. Since acquiring a share in the Le Sentier-based Romain Gauthier manufacture in 2011, the brand has stunned the watch world with 2016’s Calibre 1, housed in the Monsieur and featuring digital jumping hours with retrograde minutes, and Calibre 2, which powered last year’s extraordinary incarnation of the Première – the GPHG Award-winning Camélia Skeleton. And now, Baselworld 2018 sees the launch of the proprietary movement named, unsurprisingly, Calibre 3, housed inside the Boy.Friend Skeleton.
According to Gauthier, after deciding to work together, Chanel made an amicable acquisition of a portion of his manufacture. Speaking of the relationship, he says: “This offer from Chanel immediately struck me as the best solution. Chanel has always attached great importance to developing, supporting and working with the greatest craftsmen and designers, the real experts in their sphere. My team and I have the perfect platform to make components for the watch industry as well as timepieces bearing the ‘Romain Gauthier’ name for watch collectors, who will have extra peace of mind knowing that we are on solid foundations.”
With Calibre 1, the aim was for Chanel to express its own vision of a masculine movement, hence the large open caseback, which allows a clear view of the beautiful calibre within. The movement itself is notable for two points – firstly, the emphasis on gears, with the bottom plates being circular and very thin, so you almost believe they are wheels themselves and secondly, the three tones of black that allow the play of light to emphasise the wheel shapes. With Calibre 2, on the other hand, which by nature is feminine, Chanel’s designers did the absolute opposite, designing the bottom plate as a flower and then asking the watchmaker to build the movement so that the gears and wheels are integrated within the motif of a camellia, hidden within and behind the petals.
“If Calibre 1 was our masculine approach and Calibre 2 showed our feminine interpretation, our new Calibre 3, is androgynous,” says Nicolas Beau, Chanel’s International Business Development Watch & Fine Jewellery Director, with a chuckle. So, what constitutes an “androgynous” watch? Well, Calibre 3 is housed in the lozenge-shaped Boy.Friend case, reminiscent of the signature No. 5 bottle stopper and the Place Vendôme. As with Calibre 2, it is a skeleton movement, but that is where the similarities end. On first sight, there are two features that immediately stand out – there is only one visible screw, while all the screws that are usually on the bottom plate have disappeared, and the wheels are solid, without the usual ‘arms’, something rarely seen in a watch movement.
“Interestingly, these features are solely for the purity of design, nothing else,” explains Beau. “The idea is that nothing should divert a person’s vision. Traditionally, watch wheels have cut-out spaces, divided by spokes, and this is for two reasons. Firstly, to reduce weight, and secondly, because the wheels are so thin it is incredibly difficult to make them totally flat when they are produced – even more so when the metal is a solid disc. When they are plain, it’s virtually impossible to flatten them if they have a slight deformation.”
But Chanel found the answer in a new technology borrowed from micro-technology industries: galvanic growth. Here, instead of cutting one shape of metal from a solid block, a component is produced through particles of metal undergoing a chemical process that allows material to actually “grow” layer upon layer – a type of chemical 3D printing – enabling perfect flatness to be achieved. Galvanic growth was, for Chanel, the only solution to a problem thrown up by the maison’s resident watch designers who were firm about the fact that they must have plain wheels.
“It is as if you are plating with gold,” says Beau. “You do one plating and then another and so on until you have a certain thickness. It’s a complicated process but it is used in a few different industries. It was the only way to make those plain wheels, I cannot say it’s the first time it’s ever been done, because in watchmaking you never know, but I haven’t seen it before.”
And through the application of this process, Chanel has been able to strip right back to a deceptively simple movement that emphasises the central style of the House – the play on black, a core colour of the maison; the use of the circle, which is such an important shape for watches; the lack of visible screws; and the fact that the movement is attached from the top and the bottom which gives the impression that it is somehow floating in the case.
The main plate itself is machined before being coated in black ADLC. Any edges are chamfered before the brand’s proprietary beige gold is applied. The wheels themselves are finished with diamond sinking, a circular satin finish and an ADLC coating – even around the teeth. “Although the watch is very complex in terms of technique, it appears simple,” says Beau. “And we are all about simplicity, it’s part of Chanel's approach as a brand.
“This watch needed to be gender neutral – and that’s the essence of the Boy.Friend. It is a watch that has stolen the masculine codes of horology, transforming them into a feminine model. That is why there is an alligator strap, a pin buckle and that sharp angular shape. And then we have softened it by removing numerals and indexes so that the ‘instrument’ aspect has disappeared. Also, in traditional masculine codes, the strap always has a visible stitch, but we have dispensed with this. So, that’s the story of the Boy.Friend, and Calibre 3 respects this story and plays on the ambiguity of the two genders.”
In deference to the case shape of Calibre 3, the movement itself is rectangular – a benefit of being manufacture and something that gives Chanel an advantage in a marketplace where, all too often, round movements are stuffed into shaped cases. And, with both a shaped and a round (Calibre 1) movement already in production, Beau sees endless possibilities in the future for the development and evolution of each. Other calibres are also currently being worked on and each, like 1, 2 and 3, will bear the mark of the lion – a signature symbol of the maison, that has become the mark of the brand’s in-house movements.
But with such a radical design to Calibre 3, how will future servicing be affected? “With training, any watchmaker will be able to repair the watch,” affirms Beau. “Whenever we make a new movement, we spend a year training our watchmakers before we launch. But you have to remember, Calibre 3 has complex components, so we recommend that the watches are always serviced in one of our service centres. In the initial launch phase all returned watches will go back to our HQ so that the manufacture can analyse any problems and replace the movement with a new one. For us, prototyping involves maybe 25 pieces, whereas a brand like Rolex may make up to 5,000 – it’s two totally different worlds, one industrial, one more handson and, in both, it is very important that any new movement has been tested and tested and tested.
“At the moment, in Paris, high-end watches are suffering from something called ‘Scooter Sickness’. A lot of people are using mopeds to go to work and, in some watches, movement screws are being shaken until they start to unscrew. This will never happen to an industrial movement because it is designed for this, but on a handmade, hand-assembled calibre this kind of thing can happen. This is high-end watchmaking!”
But, even as it stakes its rightful claim at the feet of the haute horlogerie gods, Chanel continues to take its most complicated movements and disguise them as pieces of wrist jewellery, hiding the fact that they are actually complex mechanical machines. Beau smiles at this observation. “I think this is something we learnt when we launched the Première Flying Tourbillon in 2012. It was designed in-house and then realised by APRP and featured the tourbillon in the guise of a flower. The success we had with this watch – not only in the press and the industry, but also among customers and clients – really showed that women are not seeking the same thing in a watch as men. They love the idea that it’s mechanical but the visibility of the mechanical components is not the issue, it’s more about the beauty of the entire watch, the movement plus the case plus the dial.”
This commitment to both design and watchmaking is something Gauthier, too, holds dear. “Chanel is very serious about its haute horlogerie projects and has its own team of engineers with whom we liaise,” he says. “Furthermore, the beauty of the mechanisms plays an importance. The brand has a particular interest in the aesthetics of the movements – not just the way in which the components we make for them are decorated, but also the shape of those components and how they fit together as an ensemble to form harmonious movement architecture.”
Before my time with Beau ends, I have, for my own curiosity, to reference last year’s Mademoiselle J12 – a delightful and humorous take on the perennial Mickey Mouse watch featuring Coco Chanel herself at the heart, her arms sweeping around the dial as they indicate the hours and minutes.
“This represents the real joy of Chanel,” Beau says, smiling. “If you have a thing or a person that has reached iconic status, you can start having fun with it. If you are too serious all the time it becomes boring. There was actually a lot of technology behind the piece. There is a .05mm crystal on which the character is printed so you can have the one hand underneath and the second on top. If you look at Gérald Genta’s Mickey Mouse, both arms are on top of the character. It really was an achievement to make our piece work.”
And it seems that Chanel’s achievements in the technical field, too, will just keep on coming – with a little help from its friends and always with a sense of purpose, a sense of style and a sense of humour. ■