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Watches - Feature Article

100 Years of the Cartier Tank

A few words in honour of possibly the most stylish watch ever made, the Cartier Tank, in its 100th year, and a look at the new models.

Perhaps the best way to convince you of the Tank’s esteem is to offer you a glance down its list of famous patrons from over the decades. Names include the likes of Princess Diana, John and Jackie Kennedy, Muhammed Ali, Michelle Obama, the Duchess of Cambridge and Andy Warhol (who had a collection of them and didn’t even set them because he just considered them pieces of art). But also, and perhaps more tellingly, a who’s who of the fashion world, including Calvin Klein, Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy and Tom Ford. Indeed, the Tank is a serious contender for the most stylish watch that ever lived, and its original design has barely changed since it first flashed across Louis Cartier’s inspired mind. This year it has turned 100 and to celebrate Cartier is releasing a selection of new models. We thought it would only be appropriate to write a few words in its honour.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1969 wearing her gold Tank. In June this year Christie’s New York sold the watch for a record-setting $379,500.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1969 wearing her gold Tank. In June this year Christie’s New York sold the watch for a record-setting $379,500.

Louis Cartier wasn’t the first person to make a wristwatch, he was the first to make it cool. It started in 1904 when he designed a piece for his friend, the budding aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont, who wanted something more practical than his pocket watch. Cartier designed a wristwatch with a square case with rounded corners, which was both entirely original and smart enough to be put into production. Although the Santos still a top-seller today it was a slow burner and it was its younger brother, released a little over a decade later, that hit the mainstream and put the wristwatch in the spotlight.

In 1917, when Cartier designed the Tank, wristwatches were typically women’s jewellery watches or merely pocket watches with straps tacked on. The men’s pieces mostly looked clunky and unsure of themselves. Cartier’s design, meanwhile, was quite radical. For a start it was rectangular and it had integrated lugs, which means the strap was actually part of the watch and not just an afterthought. It was also Art Deco in a time of Art Nouveau. Like the Santos, its lines were decidedly linear and sharp and the dial was sparing, relying on the train track minutes (the “chemin de fer”), angular Roman numerals and minimal sword hands. What’s more, this instantly modern, minimal look was gender-free.

The Tank had other distinguishing features, such as the cabochon in the crown and the brancards, the bars running down the flanks of the dial, which bear the shape of a tank’s treads (and in a time of World War!) But it wasn’t referred to as the Tank at first, only behind the scenes at Cartier, where the employees gave it the nickname.

TANK AMERICAINE 18K YELLOW GOLD LADIES
The Cartier Tank Americaine 18K Yellow Gold Ladies

Nowadays, Cartier’s original design is best reflected by the Tank Louis Cartier or Tank Solo collections, but there have been many other imaginations of the Tank that have been equally if not more popular. Early renditions included the Tank Cintrée, in 1921, a curved, elongated version that later inspired the Tank Américaine (which became the first to feature a Cartier in-house movement in 2009). There was also the Tank Française, in 1996, with its metal bracelet shaped like a tank’s caterpillar track and sharp shoulders, which has arguably become the most popular Tank for women, worn by the likes of Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton and the Duchess of Cambridge.

Centenary Models

This year, naturally, to mark its centenary, Cartier has released a handful of new editions. At the top end of the scale is the limited edition Tank Cintrée Skeleton (as in, skeletonised), which has a curved in-house movement to match the case and comes in either pink gold or platinum. It starts at around £42,000. But there are also 11 new models from the following families: Tank Américaine, which will now come in polished and brushed steel for the first time and start at £3,000 for the small model with a quartz movement; Tank Louis Cartier (starting at £6,800); and Tank Française (starting at £5,300). Across the new offerings there will also be diamond-set versions and pink and white gold editions and various strap options. Our thoughts on these new models are that they are still distinctive and cutting and it’s great to see options now coming with in-house movements.

TANK FRANCAISE 18K YELLOW GOLD GENTS
The Tank Francaise 18K Yellow Gold Gents

To conclude the celebrations, Cartier is also releasing a new 232-page book that replaces the previous 2012 revision. If it’s anything like the previous edition it will be a fascinating read, full of rare and interesting Tanks and some great insights for collectors. More details of the book and new watches can be found at Cartier.com

For more information on variety of Cartier Tank models check out our piece Know Your Cartier Tanks