First time

Celebrating the redesign of its fine watch and jewellery division’s Parisian home, Chanel has returned to the cocktail piece that started it all – both named and shaped all-too appropriately

Photography Phil Dunlop

‘Première’: the first; the most exclusive; the female director of an atelier.

Chanel’s late, great artistic director Jacques Helleu must have had confidence in his creation, the first-ever watch to bear the Maison’s name, in order to choose a moniker with such power.

“I fought to make a design that was strong, that was unique, that – more than just launching a single collection – would become an eternal reference,” he said at the time. And it certainly was unique.

It’s easy to forget but back in 1987, women’s watches, as in watches designed specifically for women rather than downsized men’s watches, didn’t really exist. The fashion landscape was also not one into which a timepiece like the Première should have been launched. This was the 1980s. Ostentation was the name of the fashion game; minimalism meant maybe taking out your shoulder pads. However, the Chanel catwalks tell a slightly different story. In 1983, Karl Lagerfeld joined a business in need of a revamp, having become a brand that, in Lagerfeld’s words, was only worn by “Parisian doctors’ wives”. Charged with updating its look but not to alter its character, he went back to the archives, reviving the use of wool jersey for suits, bringing back the braid-edged suit, but subtly altering its proportions, bringing those recognisable elements of iconograph – the camelia, the double C motif, the chains – into the catwalk, where they hadn’t been before. This was restrained ostentation, “modern and chic-sexy, not Las Vegas sexy,” as Lagerfeld described it.

By 1987, Lagerfeld was comfortable playing with convention. The Chanel woman was no longer a doctor’s wife, but young, confident and sleekly sexy, as embodied by the new face of Chanel: Inès de la Fressange. This woman didn’t want a man’s cast-off, she wanted a watch designed just for her. Just being a timepiece created for women would have been enough to make the Première revolutionary, but everything about this watch was a radical alternative.

There was the octagonal case mirroring both the shape of the Place Vendôme and the top of the Chanel No5 bottle stopper; the decision to use the chain of the famous 2.55 bag as a strap; the lack of numerals, just a plain dial bearing the Maison’s name. It straddled the worlds of watches and jewellery in its aesthetic, was easy to wear, and, in its monochromatic minimalism, so very Chanel. For the launch in 1987, Chanel opened two dedicated boutiques, one in Paris at 40 Avenue Montaigne and the other in Geneva at 43 rue du Rhône, so it seemed appropriate 35 years later to celebrate the reopening of 18 Place Vendôme, home of Chanel Watchmaking and Fine Jewellery, with the launch of the Première Original Edition.

“The Première was the first page in our watchmaking history. It was born out of an absolute freedom of creation, and it initiated a vision,” says Arnaud Chastaingt, director of the Watchmaking Creation Studio. “In 2022, I wanted the Première to find its place again and to put it at the heart of our collection. This creation is our DNA and a CHANEL code through and through. Far more than a watch, the Première is a lesson in style.”

After the various iterations of the Première that have existed over the years, from coloured or pearl straps to using its case shape to house the Maison’s second in-house movement – the skeleton camelia-shaped Calibre 2 – it is striking how refined the original is; everything pared back to its essence. Nothing has been changed. The vinyl black of the dial still has no adornment except the hands and the words “Chanel” and “Swiss”; the latter chosen to show that, even in 1987, Chanel was taking its watchmaking seriously, combining sartorial brilliance with Swiss technology. The baguette-diamond structure of the case is emphasised by the sapphire crystal, which angles up and away from the bezel like a faceted stone. The leather-and-gold chain strap takes the design away from horology and into jewellery; its relation to Chanel’s iconic bag both hinting at the Première’s practicality as well as its uniquely personal connection to the woman who wears it. It is a timepiece that says so much with a few dexterously chosen details. Chastaingt is right, the Première is more than just a watch, it is a love letter to Paris – its style, its architecture and, most importantly, its women.


Photography Phil Dunlop

Creative and set design Serene Khan

Post production Marisa Canelas at Red Yolk Studio

This article is taken from Port issue 31. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here