Chanel announced the original J12 in 1999 and released it for sale in September 2000. Inspired by the "J-Class" racing yachts, the watch combined the classic dive watch shape with a fashionable combination of materials, colors, and styling. The watch was designed by Jacques Helleu and combined masculine and feminine design cues to create one of the first unisex watches. It was Chanel's first model with an automatic movement. Development of the J12 took 7 years, and the ceramic case was a key breakthrough.
The original J12 was a trend-setter in its use of "ultraceramic" tungsten carbide in the case and bracelet. Rather than emphasizing the strength of the material, Chanel focused on the unique texture and color of ceramic, which was available only in black. The watch was larger than historic models from Chanel and other fashion houses as well, and this successfully established the company as a watchmaker, though they had been making watches since 1987.
The J12 movement was a COSC certified chronometer starting in 2002. A white J12 was added in 2003. Quartz movements were also added at this time. In 2011, the "Chromatic" J12 was created, a new ceramic color which includes titanium.
The watch was an instant success, finding its way mainly onto the wrists of women rejecting the jewelry watch look. Hillary Clinton chose the white ceramic J12 as her daily-wear watch as Secretary of State of the United States of America, for example.
A "Superleggera" J12 Chronograph appeared in 2005 with subdials only at 3 and 9 and a 41 mm case. The case mixes black "micro granule" ceramic with anodized aluminum. A "Noir Mat" version of the Superleggera was added in 2013.
A tourbillon model was introduced in 2005. The J12 Tourbillon features a new case similar to the original J12 model, with a display caseback showing the ceramic plate of the movement with rubies or sapphires used as functional jewels for black and white models, respectively. This was the first time a tourbillon movement ever used a ceramic ebauche, in this case a specialized 2 mm thin ceramic plate machined to a tolerance of 1/100 mm.
The tourbillon is located at 6:00 on the dial and is visible through an open heart with inscribed sapphire. The dial was simplified relative to the previous J12 models, as was the rotating bezel.
The J12 Tourbillon movement was developed with Magma Concept.
In 2008, Chanel and Audemars Piguet created a unique movement for the J12. Cal. 3125 was based on the Audemars Piguet Cal. 3120. It was limited in production, and only a few J12 models got this movement. Retailing for 19,000 Euro, the J12 Calibre 3125 used a black ceramic case and bracelet with yellow gold accents and case back. It measured 42 mm, the same as the J12 GMT but much larger than previous models.
A J12 Noir model, introduced in 2009, used faceted blocks of ceramic in place of diamonds or other precious stones, giving a unique pavé look. It was to celebrate the "10th anniversary" though the watch did not go on sale until 9 years earlier.
2010 saw another complicated J12 model launched. The Rétrograde Mystérieuse featured a tourbillon and retrograde minute hand. The movement, Cal. RMT-10, was produced by Renaud et Papi and was visible through the full skelton dial. The 47 mm case was very different, with ceramic blocks replacing the spaces in the bezel and no numerals apart from "Chanel J12" over the date complication. This becomes an obstruction to the minute hand, which slowly moves counter-clockwise between 10 and 20 minutes past the hour. The time during this period is displayed on a digital disc at 5:00.
The crown is located inside the dial at 3:00, and extends vertically up through a notch in the crystal. When the crown is pressed, it rises above the crystal so it can be turned. Pressing the ceramic inserts at 2:00 and 4:00 select the function of the crown, setting the time or winding, respectively.
Just 10 examples each were made in black ceramic and white gold or white ceramic and pink gold. A single white ceramic and white gold example was also made.
In 2010, Chanel also introduced a true dive watch version of the J12. The Marine features a rubber strap and unidirectional rotating bezel in ceramic or sapphire. It is water resistant to 300 meters. The Marine was available in 38 mm (blue or white) or 42 mm (blue or black) sizes.
A smaller J12, measuring just 29 mm diameter, was also introduced in 2010. It features a quartz movement and is available in black or white ceramic, with diamond indexes, or mother of pearl or black lacquer dials.
By this time, the J12 was also available in 33 mm, 38 mm, 41 mm, and 42 mm diameter cases.
The J12 Moonphase model was added in 2013. It features a subdial at 6:00 which indicates the current moon phase by pointer according to four icons at the cardinal directions. It uses the 38 mm J12 case and is available in various executions in black or white ceramic, some with inset diamonds.
J12 Skeleton Flying Tourbillon
2015's J12 Skeleton Flying Tourbillon was another step forward for the brand. Although not the first J12 tourbillon watch, the movement is a new design and features a flying tourbillon with a diamond-covered star at 6:00.
The J12 XS model measures just 19 mm diameter but is placed on an extremely wide cuff strap. This 2016 piece inverts the traditional watch style, emphasizing Chanel's non-watch assets. One version features a long strap that snakes up the entire forearm of the wearer.
In 2019, Chanel's joint venture with Tudor, known as Kinessi, introduced Cal. 12.1. This was an in-house automatic movement shared with Tudor, and it was designed for the J12 line. The winding rotor features an off-center circle motif unusual in such a movement and some are diamond-studded.
The J12 was also redesigned at this time, with a softer and more curved case. The links of the strap are longer and the bezel is slightly slimmer, with more knurled elements to make it easier to grip. the dial is also subtly redesigned.
In 2020, Chanel introduced a skeletonized version known as the J12 X-Ray. It combines the look of a mystery dial watch with a fully transparent inner dial, through which the new hand winding Cal. 3.1 is visible. This movement had previously appeared in the Boy Friend model in 2018, and is entirely created in-house by Chanel. Calibre 3.1 is rearchitected in a circular shape to fit the look of the J12 X-Ray. The watch measures 38 mm diameter overall.
A highly unusual J12 was 2020's J12 Paradoxe. It appears identical to the regular white ceramic J12 but is rendered in black ceramic in a vertical line from the inside of the lugs on the crown side. It is constructed in multiple parts and bonded together to form a single piece.