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Time Marches On, Expensively : Watches: Chanel's new solid-gold Mademoiselle Collection gets a champagne reception at South Coast Plaza.

November 30, 1990|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COSTA MESA — Most people's idea of a fun watch is a Swatch, something made of only the finest plastic that costs about $40.

"This is our fun watch--if there is such a thing," explains Holli Perone, director of fine watches for Chanel in the United States. She is pointing to an 18-karat, gold-plated watch with a chain and leather strap that costs $1,250. It's the lowest-priced piece in the entire Chanel watch collection.

Chanel watches are such luxury items that they recently warranted their own champagne reception at the new Chanel store in South Coast Plaza.

Perone works in New York City and was visiting Chanel boutiques around the country to toast Chanel's new Mademoiselle Collection, three watch styles of solid, 18-karat gold.

Each style comes in some combination of black, white and gold, the "Chanel color code." The top-of-the-line model has a bracelet of cultured pearls. It's the one most likely to join quilted purses and long faux pearl necklaces as a Chanel classic.

"Chanel decided to create a pearl watch because pearls were (founder Coco Chanel's) favorite gem. She liked to mix fake ones with real ones," Perone says.

The strap consists of five strands of small pearls mounted on 18-karat gold chains. The watch has a square face with a matte white lacquer dial and black Roman numerals, surrounded by a gold bezel with a cultured pearl at the crown and at the clasp.

Even with a price tag of $5,200 to $5,400 (depending on the length of the strap), the cultured pearl model is in demand. After five days in the stores, Chanel was already taking pre-sale orders of customers who want the watches and warning people of a limited supply before Christmas.

The watches take time to make because of the complicated process developed by Chanel for adhering the pearls to the gold chain. Each pearl--and there are more than 100 on the strap--must be the right size and have the same pink-white tone and high luster.

"The cultured pearl watch is going to be very difficult to purchase," Perone says. "There's not too many on the market. It's new and feminine, and we hope we'll have the supply to fill the need."

The other two models in the Mademoiselle Collection have identical black lacquer dials with Roman numerals in gold and white mother-of-pearl in the center.

One has a strap in black patent leather, crocodile skin or quilted leather and sells for $3,750. The other has a gold chain bracelet entwined with leather--Chanel's trademark--and sells for $6,700, $7,000 or $7,300, depending on the size of the strap.

"Coco instigated the interplay of leather and gold. She thought it was the perfect combination for day and evening," Perone says.

The collection was designed by Jacques Helleu, Chanel's creative director, in honor of Coco Chanel. The watches' design harks back to the 1930s, her heyday. Unlike other Chanel watches, all of the Mademoiselle styles have old-fashioned square faces with a flat crystal and Roman numerals.

"It's a completely different look," Perone says.

Watches in Chanel's first Premiere Collection have emerald-cut crystals, reminiscent of the stopper from the Chanel No. 5 perfume bottle. They also have contemporary solid black dials with no numerals.

One has an 18-karat, white gold bezel set with diamond baguettes. Chanel can produce only 25 of the baguette watches a year because of the labor that goes into cutting and matching the diamonds, so they are always in limited supply.

The most expensive model remains a diamond-encrusted gold watch that sells for $42,000.

"It does sell very well, even at that price point," Perone says.

Indeed, shortly after its debut, demand for the watch was so great that customers had to wait a year to get one. Setting the diamonds is painstaking business, and Chanel can produce only one or two of the watches a month, Perone says.

Watches aren't the only Chanel accessories in big demand. Its belts, handbags, scarves and jewelry have all become status symbols with staying power.

The quilted leather handbag with the chain-link strap that Chanel introduced in the 1950s remains a classic and is enjoying renewed popularity. At $600 to $6,000 a bag, however, Chanel is an easy target for copycats. Imitation Chanel accessories can be found in most department stores and boutiques.

"It's their fabulous design," Perone says. "They're worth copying."

Since entering the watch market in 1987, Chanel has become the No. 1 watch company in Japan and one of the leading watch companies in Europe. All of the watches are manufactured at La Chaux de Fonds in Switzerland.

Will the Mademoiselle Collection join the ranks of the much-copied Chanel classics? One could almost set his or her watch by it.

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