The crown itself is also an interesting feat of engineering, even though it seems to create more problems that it solves. Most of the time, the crown isn’t accessible being placed between 2 and 4 o’clock on the dial. You need to push in the crown to release it, and it pops up. You then need to press “hidden” buttons on the case (the ceramic pieces at 2 and 4 o’clock in order to change whether the crown winds the watch or acts to set the time. This used a clutch system, which is around in various forms on watches that have “function selectors” versus a crown that pulls out in various stops to wind the watch or adjust functions.

Thus, you needed to learn how to just set the time and wind the watch all over again, and you probably needed to be extremely careful with it or else you could probably break the fragile movement. And don’t forget that the RMT-10 has a tourbillon-style regulation system in there – just for good measure. In fact, the inclusion of the tourbillon can be seen as the most straightforward way of communicating to audiences that “yes, this is an expensive watch,” as the rest possibly seen as horological obfuscation.

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I don’t think it was until I actually wrote this article that I understood how the Chanel J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse Tourbillon worked. For years, I never wrote about it because to be honest I was embarrassed that by looking at it, at a glance, I wasn’t immediately sure how it worked. I then thought about it and decided to revisit the concept in this article, which prompted me to spend way too much effort in simply understanding how the movement tells the time.

So let’s talk about that, since the brand itself did it’s best given the circumstances to explain the watch to most audiences several years ago when the Chanel J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse Tourbillon was first released. The dial has hour and minute hands, a tourbillon, a 10-day power reserve indicator under 12 o’clock, and a digital minute display near 6 o’clock.

Reading the time is… well, mysterious. The hour hand works as normal since it’s circular movement is not blocked by the crown. The minute hand, on the other hand, is clearly blocked by the impediment in the dial. So the solution is that it basically just skips that 10-minute zone on the dial between 10 minutes and 20 minutes. It does this by acting as a retrograde hand. So when it reaches 10 minutes it just reverses its direction and over a several-minute period moves backward in a counterclockwise direction to the 20-minute marker.

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In order to read the correct time during the retrograde phase of each hour when the minute hand is moving to the 20-minute marker to resume “standard” operation, the time is read via the hour hand and the digital display with the moving disc at 6 o’clock. That way, you can read all the minutes that the minute hand is skipping. So another necessary calculation that the Chanel J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse Tourbillon presents to wearers is that not only can you not always read the time at a glance, but you must take the time to look at the positions of a range of things before reading the time. To make things a tad bit more simple, the digital display is blank or on zero when it is not being used. Still, because this system presents more calculations than it attempts to easily solve, it was a logical step backwards in utility. In nature, such attempts often lead to quick reversal in thinking, meaning that such new ways of telling the time aren’t carried over into other products.

Aesthetically, the Chanel J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse Tourbillon was not on par with Chanel’s typical high-degree of elegance and symmetrical beauty. While the exposed movement, with its matte-black surfaces was high-tech and cool-looking, it lacked symmetry and elegance. Not being able to read the dial easily didn’t help a lot, and the complexity of understanding the theme behind the concept didn’t help either. Mechanically, the movement and concept is spirited, and would make for a fun educational product. I am sure some collectors would find this interesting in the future if the watch is offered at the right price. But as a modern success that combines the engineering prowess of APRP and the refined beauty that people come to expect from Chanel, the J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse Tourbillon was arguably seen as a major departure from what Chanel usually offers even on the day it came out, as well as looking back on it years later.


The rear of the watch did offer a view of the movement, though it was just a back-plate with a few rubies, which is nothing as special as the dial-side. The RMT-10 movement was produced from 315 parts operating at 3Hz (21,600bph) with, as I mentioned, a power reserve of about 10 days between two mainspring barrels. This was truly impressive execution of a strange concept, and in a sense, I respect Chanel for even taking a chance.

My understanding is that Chanel and APRP produced less than 50 of the Chanel J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse Tourbillon watches in total. The various models mixed black and white ceramic with 18k white or yellow gold. Moreover, there were polished and matte ceramic versions added to the mix. Each version of the Chanel J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse Tourbillon was limited to just 10 pieces.


Even though the J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse Tourbillon was not a commercial or image success for Chanel, I want to stress a very important point. That point is that exercises such as this can never hurt the brand. Experimentation and risk is good. I don’t dislike Chanel in any way because they released a watch that I think was not an amazing idea. I would dislike Chanel if they never took chances. When it comes to art such as this, risk is necessary in order to get reward. Chanel and APRP tried something avant-garde, and in this instance, it was arguably the most amazing success – though they deserve serious accolades for trying. History will see the two as more dynamic and interesting for trying something like this.

Let’s quickly recap and ask ourselves what really didn’t go so right with the Chanel J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse Tourbillon collection. Was it poorly made or rendered? Not at all. What we see here is a logical problem in pushing forward with practical horology. Machine lovers are the ones who will most like this watch. But for them the machine must be useful and elegant, which it is not because it presents unnecessary calculations to the user (by making the time more difficult to read as opposed to less difficult to read). The movement in the watch creates a totally arbitrary problem, and then seeks to work around it in a way that is just as arbitrary as the initial problem (the crown sticking in the dial). It would have made more sense if the watch attempted to solve a problem that exists in most mechanical movements or standard ways of reading the time that exist in most watches.


The Chanel J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse Tourbillon was also not a particularly pretty watch compared to what I most think of when I pictures the products from the proud Parisian brand. The larger 47mm wide size did not lend itself too well to the J12 case (which usually maxes out at 41-42mm wide) and the dial was simply not elegant or harmonious. People look at aesthetics first when deciding to wear a watch, so a lack of pure beauty is here arguably a departure from what brand fans are looking for. It is actually a tough position for Chanel to be in as it limits their ability to act like an independent watch maker and try unique new design directions like a boutique operation with less of a global image might be able to get away with.

Chanel has learned and adapted since the J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse Tourbillon was released, but it has been interesting (at least for me) to revisit this watch a few years later, get to know it a bit better, but also to ask myself what went wrong with it and how watch designers can avoid these mistakes in the future. I also understand that a few of these timepieces are still available for sale from Chanel – so if you get lucky you might be able to find one at a Chanel boutique. The retail price of the reference H2971 Chanel J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse Tourbillon was 210,000 euros.

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