You have been at Chanel for 13 years, how have the watch collections evolved over this time?
The J12 is still a pioneer in its class. It was born in 2000 at a time when there was a lack of creativity in the industry. Steel had become a precious metal in the mid 1990s thanks to the most prestigious watch brands.
Then we started to see a multitude of new materials being used such as titanium or magnesium. Ceramic was also being used but the J12 helped to show that these new materials could be finished to the same level as other precious metals with the result that it is now considered on the same level as such metals.
It also offers advantages in terms of quality as well as aesthetics and this opened the door to a whole new level of creativity in watchmaking with the arrival of other new materials such as carbon. It also allowed designers to look at watchmaking in a fresh light… almost to excess, because we now see such materials being used just for the sake of it, without them necessarily adding anything to the watch.
Do the design codes of Chanel prevent you from trying out other new materials?
Not necessarily. The most important thing is that the watch should look beautiful. There are, of course, some design codes that need to be respected. But I could also say that some codes are there to be broken and new ones need to be created. If a luxury brand tries to stick rigidly to the same codes, it will die.
“If it’s beautiful it deserves to exist”
Do you ever have to make any concessions to technology for your high-end complications?
If anyone talks of concessions then our designers will politely show them the door [laughs]. Our ideas have often met with some doubts from Giulio Papi. When we approached him with the idea for the J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse, for example, he thought we were a bit mad and told us that this was not traditional watchmaking. But when we stopped using the word “watch” and instead talked about “a beautiful mechanical object”, he started warming to the idea. And when we asked him to add a few extra grams on top of a flying tourbillon on our Première watch (which is already very difficult to manufacture), he understood that it was the right way to go. The final result led to some technical innovations, new ways of using materials and both the product and technological research are better off for it. Now Mr Papi actually approaches us asking whether we have any more "crazy" ideas for him!
“It’s kind of a false gift: something you can buy for your loved one so that you can later ‘borrow’ it.”
The name of the new Boy.Friend models suggests that is purely a feminine collection, which the boyfriend should buy for his girlfriend. But size and shape of the watch could surely appeal to men as well, couldn’t it?
The Boy.Friend is a pure product of design. Gabrielle Chanel often borrowed very masculine elements in her designs, taking materials such as jersey and tweed for use in ladies’ clothing. So this use of masculine elements is quite common in the house. In this case we started from our most feminine model, our Première watch, and added some masculine elements. We made it larger, we used a hand-wound mechanical movement for the larger size, but we kept a very sober dial with no scale or figures. So the watch is clearly aimed at women. If you see it in a photograph you don’t really get a sense of its proportions and some men have said to me that it is the first watch that they would consider borrowing from their wife. It’s kind of a false gift: something you can buy for your loved one so that you can later “borrow” it.
But you would not consider producing a purely masculine version of the Boy.Friend?
Not at the moment. We have products for men, mainly in perfumes and watches, and maybe 20 per cent of our customers are men. Who knows, maybe in ten years’ time things will be different. But we don’t create products based on market research.