In a hidden room on the second floor of the Chanel boutique in Paris’s Place Vendôme, world center for high jewelry treasures, Keira Knightley is sitting on a plush couch, glowing like the cat that caught the cream. She pats her belly and her almond eyes tease as she smiles, almost beckoning you to comment on the gentle swell nestled under a slip of silk chiffon. If talk of family is off-limits for some celebrities, mega-star Knightley needs no prodding to speak about her growing brood. The 34-year-old is pregnant with her second child and her nearest are on her mind, not to mention in the vicinity. Her husband, musician James Righton, is also in the store. It’s bustling with VIPs, clients, and, notably, nine Chanel ambassadors, including Lily-Rose Depp and Claudia Schiffer.
All are gathered for the relaunch of a house icon: the Chanel J12 watch. With her hair styled in loose waves framing her face, her smokey eye, and romantic empire-waist dress, Knightley appears like she has just stepped off the set of Pride & Prejudice, the 2005 literary drama that earned her the first of two Academy Award nominations. She is famed for her roles in period films and, visually speaking, she fits the part – her maiden-like features are a match for a vintage frock. And yet, there is absolutely nothing old-fashioned about her. It’s part of her cachet that has enticed Chanel for the better part of 12 years. Knightley first appeared for the maison as the teasing face of Coco Mademoiselle perfume in 2007. Next, she was the assured, fetishist visage of Rouge Coco lipstick; then, the alluring sophisticate of Coco Crush fine jewelry. In each role, she showcased a different side.
The constant of this dependable ambassador – “I hate to be late. I can’t bare the idea of people waiting for me” – is that confidence and control ooze through her invisible pores, as does a beauty beyond any Instagram filter. The door closes and the excited chatter of several hundred guests milling shoulder to shoulder and top to toe in Chanel is silenced. For a moment, the tick-tick-tick of seconds fills the space. Knightley flicks her wrist purposefully and a white Chanel J12 watch, its face outlined with diamonds, flashes. Sporty and solid on her dainty wrist, it looks just as bold as when it first appeared 20 years ago. Not quite “new,” this next-chapter J12 is a smart evolution of the original designed by the late Jacques Helleu, former Chanel artistic director.
Appearing in black ceramic and later white, it was inspired by his personal passions: fast cars and even faster sailboats. He christened the watch the J12, after the America’s Cup racing class. On the floor below, a half-dozen watches are perched in a pool of water like jewel lily pads while toy sailboats bob on by. The novelty on Knightley’s wrist, like those on display, bears the touch of Arnaud Chastaingt, director of the Chanel watch creation studio. Chastaingt ordered a number of discreet changes to the watch in keeping with new techniques while the design remains reassuringly familiar. The dial opening is larger; the bezel refined with notches increased from 30 to 40; numerals reveal a clean typeface while the width of the crown has been reduced by a third, along with its ceramic cabochon. Other modifications include a slightly thicker case, however with a rounded profile, it appears no larger than the original – maintaining the ethos that this is not a remake, it’s the same icon, having underwent a 2.0 polish to optimize finesse. Unlike the watch’s subtle evolution, Knightley’s relationship with time has drastically evolved since becoming a mother. “Prekids, if I wasn’t working, I wouldn’t have known what time of day it was or paid any attention,” she says. “Day was night, night was day, and I was out all the time.” Today, she lives by the clock. “I’m a routine mom when it comes to bedtime and my daughter responds well to that,” she says, adding that it’s a challenge – routine is not her nature.
It’s difficult to believe, however, that there is anything remotely spontaneous about Knightley. Holding in esteem now mythic luminaries like Katharine Hepburn, Isabelle Adjani, Bette Davis, and Jeanne Moreau, Knightley is strategic in her role choices and they have catapulted her to stardom. In the 17 years since becoming a household name for her role in Bend It Like Beckham, she’s chosen strong female leads that range from (almost) relatable girl next door in the romcom Love Actually, to swashbuckling aristocrat in four chapters of Pirates of the Caribbean, feminist auteur in Colette, maniacal fairy-gone-bad in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, and, most recently, morally tormented wife in post-second world war drama The Aftermath. “Everything in my professional life, every job that I take or don’t take, is a decisive moment,” she affirms.
On the subject of time, the actor insists that in today’s tech driven world, watches are resurfacing as the elegant way to stay on track. “I’m trying to look at my phone less,” she says. “Particularly, with my daughter, because I don’t want her to grow up to be…”Knightley pauses her rapid-fire delivery to mime a phone glued to her face. “Every time that I’m looking at it, it means that she wants to; so that has to stop,” she says. “I’ve got the watch and the phone stays in the bag.” Apart from its obvious function, Knightley is drawn to the J12’s chameleon style. “What I love about Chanel is being able to dress it up and down. You can wear it for day and night. The watch has that masculine edge that Chanel has always been famous for.” Referring again to her inner circle, she reveals, “I bought a black J12 for my brother’s 30th birthday. Whether you are a man or a woman, you can wear it and this way – [she offers a cheeky wink] – it stays in the family.”
Originally published in the July/August 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia