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In Conversation With Chanel’s Watchmaking Creation Studio Director Arnaud Chastaingt

Arnaud Chastaingt. Photo: Courtesy of Chanel

Arnaud Chastaingt was appointed director of the Chanel Watchmaking Creation Studio in May 2013. Since then, the graduate of the Strate School of Design in Paris has produced the Code Coco, Monsieur, Boy·Friend, and Première watches in all of their incarnations, as well as the Mademoiselle Privé pieces honoring Chanel’s Métiers d’Art. Each year, Chastaingt creates an outrageous capsule collection that fuses modernity and femininity, such as Chanel Electro, Wanted De Chanel, and Chanel Interstellar Capsule Collection, offering the pinnacle of his vision for watchmaking and haute horlogerie. He has created five in-house calibres, including the 2016 release of the Monsieur watch’s Calibre 1. Vogue Arabia caught up with Chastaingt on the sidelines of the Dubai Watch Week. 

You have spent around a decade as director of the Chanel Watchmaking Creation Studio – what has changed and what hasn’t?

I started working for Chanel in 2013. I always had a passion for the maison and it was the only brand that I was ready to leave my work for. When I was offered a job to work on the Chanel watches, it was for me impossible to decline the opportunity. In 10 years, the collection is growing year after year, and different icons were added to the celebrated J12. When I started, J12 was in the center of the collection and even today it is still in the center of my collection. So, in retrospect, a lot of things have changed since my arrival. Whether it is about giving new looks to timeless watches like J12 or Première, or proposing some transversal capsule collections like I did with Electro or Interstellar or introducing new watch signatures like Monsieur de Chanel equipped with our first in-house movement the Caliber 1, Code Coco, Boy-Friend. And last but not least the Mademoiselle Privé Haute Horlogerie collection, which is a fantastic field of creation when it’s about Mademoiselle Privé Bouton or Pique-Aiguilles. I love to think that I progress alongside my watch muses.

What is it about the J12 that makes it stand apart from other watches?

J12 is a legacy. It made me connect with the watchmaking world and is an endless source of inspiration. The first time I met J12 was when I was a young designer student; I was impressed by its authority and style and the way she was featured through the Chanel ad campaign. I was impressed on how a brand born from couture can make such a real impact. This timepiece gave me another vision of the time object. Then, when I joined Chanel she immediately became my muse, my obsession. And it was quite a huge challenge to me, when it came time in 2019, almost 20 years after its creation, to reconsider it in order to make sure, like for all icons, that she was still relevant to cross the time. I have the aesthetic responsibility of this icon, often copied but never equaled, in that sense, I’m the guarantor of its future. And I decided to change everything but nothing. Meaning to change 80% of the watch but without changing the essence of its design. For example, I changed its back with a sapphire glass preserving her from scratches and we did equip her with our new automatic Caliber, the 12.1 produced by Kenissi. Today my fascination as one of its fans is undiminished and this watch never ceases to inspire me!

Photo: Courtesy of Chanel

Where do you find inspiration? And what is your design process?

When you are a designer, people are interested to know what’s your inspiration. For that I always say that I never wake up in the morning and say, today I must find the inspiration. That’s never happened. Creation is the only thing I can do in my life. Inspiration for creators comes from all the surrounding details that you catch, and you transcribe in a design. It’s a personal touch blended with the DNA of Chanel. What is amazing about the maison is that you always can be inspired by the brand. My obsession is to have enough time to design all the things I have in my head. So before starting, I always try to know who is the person that is going to wear these creations. Then I write my own story that I transcribe into sketches that I share with my team to explain and to develop the idea to be able to communicate and to share it with the manufacturer. From the maquette, prototype and different technical element, the project grows with time. It’s a long process, it could take years, especially when you work on a new caliber.

The collection gives us new interpretations for existing models. How do you ensure that the studio remains innovative and creative while doing so?

Each season, by inventing scenarios inspired by my watch muses, like the J12 or Première and once again because I have a total freedom of creation… Take the J12 Interstellar for example: the entire watch is enrobed in the deepest black, highlighting the dial, which I imagined as a view looking out into space and through a porthole. Devoid of numbers or hour markers, sparkling and accentuated by diamonds, this star-studded sky has a surprise in store when worn in the dark, as Super-LumiNova pigments emerge like new stars. This sky is crossed by a shooting star that forms the counterweight of the second hand. The J12 Night Star offers the same codes as the J12 Interstellar but in a more precious version, enhancing the impression of the dizzying view from a space station porthole: baguette-cut diamonds form the hour markers and encircle the sparkling black dial, while a star, counterweighing the second hand, streaks through the glittering night.
The Première Lucky Star shares the same inspiration with the dial evoking a star-studded night sky. Set on a velvet-soft black strap and trimmed with a row of diamonds, it is adorned with a small star in white gold set with diamonds, like a lucky star charm. To continue the cinematographic metaphor in which each watch of the Chanel Interstellar capsule collection plays a part, the Premiere is – if you’ll excuse the pun – a star. Why? Because without following all the principles of classic watchmaking, it possesses a combination of seductiveness, mystery and liberation that lends itself to all scenarios, such as this adventure in space. The story continues with the Première Robot and a plot twist featuring an android newcomer, the case with its cut corners becomes its body, while the head echoes the profile of the N°5 perfume bottle cap. The diamonds forming the elbows and eyes seem to bring it to life. And for Boy·Friend and Code Coco, the Boy·Friend becomes the Boy·Friend Cyberdata, with a dial featuring a printed circuit board punctuated with round-cut diamonds. The decorative effect is enhanced by the graphic quality of this all-black watch, and especially by its glossy blackened steel case. The Code Coco, meanwhile, sports a gold quilted leather strap to become the Code Coco Cybergold. I imagined her as a space heroine!

Photo: Courtesy of Chanel

Why science fiction, space, and time travel?

For the brand, the first capsule collection with a theme was Electro. This year, we launched Interstellar. Interstellar was born from an inspiration of a collection that she designed in 1932, Bijoux de diamants. The collection was revolutionary at that time with its aesthetic and graphic world created at this time. So Interstellar is a capsule collection inspired from the past 1932 but created from the future 2032. This is why you can find in the timepieces the codes from the past but taken into the future.

What are the challenges in the process of designing and creating elements such as the pixelated motif?

I drew my inspiration from the basic building block of these images: the pixel. A digital image may be made up of hundreds of thousands of pixels, each tiny square associated with a single color. Pixels on a completely different scale feature on the right-hand side of the dials of these two watches, as well as on the case around the lugs. One watch is in black and white ceramic, the other in black ceramic and diamonds. They are the product of a real technical tour de force that we first developed in 2020 at La Manufacture de Chanel with the J12 Paradoxe, when we successfully fused black and white on the same watch for the first time. This was a big challenge that the technical team succeeded in. And as a designer, I feel lucky to work with such a team who understands that creation is in the center of the house and who tries to find solutions about what the creation dreams up. They perfectly know all the traditional codes of watchmaking.
Another example is the Mademoiselle Privé Pique-Aiguilles Watch. I dreamed of this creation as a blank canvas for the most audacious Métiers d’art. I have imagined five tableaux for this collection: a lacework of camellias, a composition of iconic bags, jewels strewn on black tweed, a diamond embroidery, and a jacket at the pattern stage. The difficulty was then to give life to these tableaux.

Photo: Courtesy of Chanel

Do you think that there is any intersection between couture and watchmaking

I would say, first it’s about allure and style, which is the essence of Gabrielle Chanel’s vision in fashion and is my endless motto when it’s about creating timepieces. Secondly, the savoir-faire, perfectly illustrated this year with the Pincushion watch, which is a Couture Watch by essence in a format as surprising as it is harmonious: a format that spells out the vocabulary of couture according to Gabrielle Chanel, while at the same time giving voice to the finest artists in watch design. These artists, that when I met them in the atelier, impressed me with their white dress and wearing this beautiful jewel on the wrist. Thirdly the excellence of this savoir-faire, which is also crucial when you speak about watch calibers giving time and when you decide to equip them of rotating diamonds, or when it’s about dressing up the tourbillon of Monsieur with a fragment of a real comet since its dial is made of meteorite and equipped with an in-house Chanel movement, the Caliber 5.1 from the J12 Watch but adapted to the dimensions of Monsieur. Another intersection example is the Mademoiselle Privé Pique-Aiguilles Tweed Motif Watch, where the precious pattern of a tweed jacket is trimmed with 92 diamonds. Thimble, scissors, tape measure: the tools of the seamstress are meticulously created in sculpted gold, bringing this scene from a couture atelier to life. The dial is delicately trimmed with a chain just like the one sewn inside every Chanel jacket to ensure it hangs perfectly. To bring it to life we collaborated with the Cadraniers De Geneves artisans and of course this piece of excellence is only limited to 20. In the end, whether in haute couture or haute horlogerie, the magic is the same!

How does Chanel make use of its expansive archives and couture history when it comes to watches?

I think it’s not so different from what happens in fashion, fragrance and beauty, or jewelry. It’s first about emotion and inspiration and the Chanel legacy is so huge! It’s also about capturing the essence of time. Crazy ideas that you are free to achieve whatever the time and the challenge required to do so. Gabrielle Chanel was a visionary and avant-gardist creator, and it’s really amazing to follow in her footsteps!

Read Next: Drawing from Past and Present, Virginie Viard’s CHANEL is Capturing the Maison’s Timeless Allure 

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