December 25, 2016
by Ariel Adams
I’d like to experiment with a new column where I talk about interesting specimens of high horology that perhaps should have never made it beyond the concept phase. It isn’t that they are bad watches per se, but rather that they lacked a few important elements that would have allowed them to be a lot more successful. Today, let’s look at the 2010 Chanel J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse Tourbillon, which is also known as the Chanel J12 RMT.
From about the year 2000 until 2015, the watch industry released an unprecedented number of very high-end watches. This was fueled by the perception of big watch industry growth in new (mostly emerging) markets, and by major corporations pumping cash into brands which allowed for watch makers to experiment with new production techniques, designs, and materials. Some of these watches will be classics and some were of course duds. We have the benefit of hindsight to look back on these still modern creations and learn some valuable lessons about what works, what doesn’t, and what was a valiant effort but ultimately a failure.
Chanel has enjoyed a long relationship with APRP. The latter stands for Audemars Piguet, Renaud & Papi, and is dedicated to designing and producing very complicated exotic mechanical movements. In 2010, Chanel released a very strange and high-end watch for men known as the Chanel J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse Tourbillon. It was based on the popular J12 collection of mostly black or white ceramic-cased watches that became popular in the early 2000s. The J12 was popular for taking a vintage sport watch design and rendering it in modern materials (ceramic).
Chanel intended for the J12 to be popular with both men and women, but it was really the latter group of people who make the collection famous. For years, a white ceramic Chanel J12 was the fun and sporty luxury watch to have for women, and still today Chanel continues to enjoy success with the J12 collection. The few men’s models are still really cool, in my opinion, and I always encourage people to check them out.
The Chanel J12 started to lose steam as more lower-priced ceramic watches hit the market. What was first a novel luxury (even though Rado had been doing it since the 1980s) became a material that more and more fashion watch brands were able to produce. Thus, the market became saturated with look-alike J12 watches that cost a few hundred dollars instead of a few thousand.
The Chanel J12 enjoyed its first moment in the high-horology light when Chanel released a few versions of the J12 watch that used an Audemars Piguet movement. I personally think that these rare watches will become major collector’s items in the future. The Chanel J12 with Audemars Piguet movement was initially debuted in 2008. That was a fancier version of the J12 in ceramic with gold that included an automatic movement by Audemars Piguet versus a more standard one produced by ETA. Two years later, they released the Chanel J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse Tourbillon in cooperation with APRP.
A few years ago, I heard a rumor that APRP designed the movement independently and was searching for a brand to “buy” the concept and to produce a watch. That happens a lot, as the movement designers and engineers tend to think of interesting concepts first and then try to match them with a brand who will produce them later. I don’t have a lot more evidence of this, but it is not too difficult to fathom that based on their working relationship together, APRP might have pitched the idea to Chanel who at the time was eager to see its watchmaking division as moving increasingly toward the high-end and connoisseur-approved. Chanel arguably did this much better in 2016 with the release of the Chanel Monsieur watch (hands-on here).
At 47mm wide, the Chanel J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse Tourbillon came in a handful of versions mixing black or white ceramic with a base 18k yellow or white gold case. In most ways, it fit the mold of a standard Chanel J12 watch but with precious metal accents and a larger size.
The larger dimensions were necessary in order to accommodate the very strange movement that was known as the caliber Chanel RMT-10. That name simply meant it had the the retrograde minute hand, tourbillon, and about 10 days (237 hours) of power reserve. I don’t know how well it worked or how reliable it was, but the movement’s sheer effort and functionality is impressive – even though it is arguably pure chronological obfuscation. In essence, the entire point of the movement was an exercise in engineering. APRP created a problem that didn’t exist before, and then devised a way of solving that problem. Herein lies the real problem with the Chanel J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse Tourbillon timepiece, in that the problem it seeks to resolve is both totally made up, hard to explain, and the solution to it makes understanding and operating the watch strange at the least. If there is ever a good example of a watch being an answer to a question no one raised, it is the Chanel J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse Tourbillon.
The problem which the watch was meant to solve was “what if we stick the crown in the dial of the watch?” The larger question I believe was “how can you remove the crown from the side of the watch in order to have a more elegant case design?” That former question has been answered a number of times. My favorite is by Ulysse Nardin with the Freak collection, which also lacks a traditional crown. Thus, the real question the RMT-10 was trying to answer was “how do you make a watch with analog hands indicate the time if you totally disrupt the dial by sticking a crown in it?
APRP took this question and the eventual answer to great distances. The utter volume of engineering is staggering, especially when you realized the mechanical problems which require solutions are odd and random at best. What APRP did was say, “since the minute hand is blocked by the crown stick in the dial, let’s make it simply skip that 10 minute section of the dial. The rest of the watch is more or less designed around what that means.