Recently Retired: Chanel J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse Tourbillon Watch


Today, let’s take a look at the 2010 Chanel spinning, retrograde bookstore Taubilen spinning mechanism, which is also known as Chanel Spinning, RMT.

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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.

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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.

Chanel’s spinning, began to lose steam more cheap ceramic watches listed. The first novel is what luxury (even if the radar watch has been doing since the 1980s) has become a material, more and more fashionable brand watches can be produced. Therefore, the market becomes full of similar spinning, watches, cost hundreds of dollars instead of thousands.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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 darn 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 is just awfully confusing.

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 its weirdness unnerved me. 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 struggled 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, weird. 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 “normal” operating, 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 problem 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 problems than it attempts to solve, it was a logical step backwards in utility. In nature, such attempts often lead to quick extinction, which is what happened here.

Aesthetically, the Chanel J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse Tourbillon was not a beautiful watch. 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 hurt a lot, and the difficulty 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 dead on arrival.

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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 special. 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.

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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 a failure – 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 went wrong with the Chanel J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse Tourbillon collection. Was it poorly made or rendered? Not really. What we see here is a logical problem. 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. 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 be like asking ourselves “what would life be like if we took off one arm and stuck it in our chest?” It is absurd to ask, and a bit more absurd to imagine solutions to the problem since it is so far from the problems we actually encounter in our lives.

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The Chanel J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse Tourbillon was also not a particularly pretty watch. 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 failure here is a big problem. 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. The retail price of the reference H2971 Chanel J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse Tourbillon was 210,000 euros.