For any designer, regardless of product type, the holy grail is to create an object that so perfectly balances form and function and so elegantly expresses an aesthetic that it will not only last for many generations but will forever look as modern as it did when it left the drawing board. Among those rare products are Le Corbusier’s Chaise LC4, Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair and Cartier’s Tank wristwatch.
Louis Cartier’s practical, no-frills design has not only become one of the most successful and enduring watches of all time, it has accepted tweaks, updates and experiments without ever losing its integrity. And it is loved equally by men and women – for the not-so-simple reason that it’s perfectly suited to both.
It’s hard to think of a less likely time than 1917 – three years into the havoc of World War I – for launching an object that would become a symbol of 20th-century luxe et chic.
Before the war, Cartier’s fame had grown, thanks to its boldly modern jewellery designs and the marketing instincts of Louis-Joseph Cartier. In 1904, he designed a wrist-worn watch for his friend, Brazilian aviator, Alberto Santos-Dumont, to enable him to read the time more easily while flying. It was not the world’s first wristwatch but it was a catalyst: clearly these, not pocket watches, were the future.
The Santos-Dumont watch was also a catalyst for a major shift in taste. Louis Cartier couldn’t abide the fussiness of Art Nouveau – and his next two watches, the Tonneau (1906) and Tortue (1912), were equally clean-lined.
Then, in 1917, came the prototype of the Tank (the model now known as Tank Normale), its design a radical step beyond its predecessors. The bold, square case was visually ‘stretched’ into a rectangle by the brancards that extended its sides to form the lugs; Roman numerals on a simple, creamy-white dial offset the strong lines.
The romanticised version of what inspired Louis Cartier is compelling (and, having a nose for marketing, Cartier did nothing to dismiss the story): the shape of a Renault FT-17 tank seen from above – so the story goes – gave Cartier not only the design codes for the simple, stripped-down form of the watch but also its name. The brancards represent the tracks of the tank and the square case its main housing, while the chemin de fer minutes ring was a stylised version of tank tracks. When Cartier presented the prototype to General John Pershing, Commander of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe, the story became inseparable from the watch.
As the Jazz Age played out in a streamlined Art Deco setting, wristwatches became de rigueur for stylish men – albeit sometimes worn in addition to a pocket watch. 1926 brought the Tank a moment of high-camp incongruity as Rudolph Valentino swashed and buckled all over ancient Araby in Son of the Sheik, Tank watch strapped to wrist. Not a faux pas by the wardrobe department; the actor was so in love with his watch that he refused to take it off during filming.
In 1921 Cartier offered the first variation on the ‘Normale’ – the Tank Cintrée, which slimmed the square into an elongated rectangle and curved the case to follow the shape of the wrist. Made in small numbers, its elegance was personified by Fred Astaire, who bought one in 1928.
In 1922 came the Tank Louis Cartier – which has become the ‘default’ Tank, with its beautifully proportioned rectangular case and rounded angles. Also that year, as a craze for Far Eastern exotica swept Europe, Cartier introduced the Tank Chinoise – its brancards shaped like the lintels of a Chinese temple portico.
As the decade rolled on, Duke Ellington was packing them in at the Cotton Club and giving even Jay ‘the Great’ Gatsby a run for his sartorial money. His suits were made on Savile Row by Anderson & Sheppard and (like the equally dapper Maharajah of Patiala) he wore a Cartier Tank à Guichets on his wrist. It showed jumping hours and minutes through small portholes in the brushed-gold case.
The decade fizzed with creativity: in 1922 came Tank Allongée, in 1926, Tank Savonette and Petite Tank Rectangle (one of just a few models aimed specifically at women), and as the decade drew to a close, the square-faced Tank Obus. As throughout Tank’s history, some models created a big splash, others remained little-known (until, in some cases, being revived in the early 2000s by Collection Privée Cartier Paris – CPCP – of which more, later).
The 1930s and 1940s
Rather than dampening Cartier’s creativity, the Great Depression seemed to have the opposite effect. The 1930s opened with three new variations: the little-known Tank Forme Baguette (an elongated rectangle), the Tank Étanche – with a lunette over the dial and a lockable crown that made it waterproof (étanche being French for impermeable) and Tank 8 Jours, with a double-barrelled movement that provided an eight-day power reserve – an outstanding technical feat at the time. Produced in very small numbers, the 8 Jours is highly coveted by collectors (estimated at more than $100,000 by Antiquorum way back in 1996).
As it became chic to participate in sport, Cartier (hot on the heels of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Reverso), introduced a Tank that was ideal for the rough and tumble of the tennis court or polo field. The case of the Tank Basculante (1932) pivoted lengthwise to hide the glass and expose the metal caseback. Then came the brief appearance of the Tank Mono-Poussoir, an elegant square-faced chronograph.
The Tank Asymétrique of 1936 was a bold experiment in aesthetics (seen again in the 1963 Tank Oblique) as well as an essay in functionality: with the case and hour markers rotated by 45 degrees, it was designed for drivers, corresponding to the angle of their hands on the wheel.
This was to be the last significant Tank variation for several decades, as the outbreak of World War II was followed in 1942 by the death of Louis Cartier.
However, despite there being only minor tweaks – the Tank Carrée of 1944 and the Arrondie about the same time – the Tank continued to draw devotees. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor bought each other matching Tanks, while Clark Gable and Gary Cooper helped to preserve its status as the choice of Hollywood royalty.
The 1950s to 1970s
As the 1950s segued into the ’60s and ’70s, bringing radical change to the social order and shaking up the rules of fashion, the Tank remained impervious to trends, adopted by vastly different tastemakers and celebrities. How little Muhammad Ali, Pierre Balmain, Warren Beatty, Ingrid Bergman and Stewart Grainger had in common, yet how well the same watch worked for them all.
For most, Tank meant the classic Louis Cartier Tank. And, despite only a few new variations during this period – the Broad Rectangle of 1952, the JJC (standing for Jean-Jacques Cartier), Elongated of 1966 and, for women, the Mini Tank Allongée of 1962 – the watch became more entrenched as a stylistic icon. Andy Warhol summed it up: “I don’t wear a Tank to tell the time. In fact, I never wind it. I wear a Tank watch because it’s the watch to wear.”
In 1959 Simone Signoret gave her husband, Yves Montand a Tank for his birthday; he wore it in the 1960 musical Le Milliardaire opposite Marilyn Monroe. Alain Delon wore his Tank Arrondie on set during filming of Un Flic in 1971 – only to discover that the director, Jean-Pierre Melville, had the same watch. Hubert de Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent were among the fashion luminaries who also wore Tanks.
Truman Capote, an avid Tank collector, interrupted a 1972 interview because he couldn’t stand the watch the reporter was wearing. “Take that ugly watch off your wrist and put this one on,” he said, unbuckling his Tank and handing it over. “I beg you, keep it. I have at least seven at home.”
Following the launch of the Must de Cartier collection in 1977, the Must Tank (with that most ultra-modern of inventions, a quartz movement) swept numerals off the dials, replaced the classic creamy white with lacquer in deep red, followed by blue, black and a series of other strong shades, and made the watch much cheaper, using gold-plated silver (vermeil) rather than solid gold. More than just an aesthetic change, it was a bold, early move in the democratisation of luxury that we now take for granted.
The 1980s to 2000s
Even as the mechanical-watch revival gained momentum, the Tank (by now mostly quartz-powered) remained the watch for many buyers. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” could have been Cartier’s mantra. The maison focused on new Tank designs rather than mechanical innovation: Tank Américaine in 1989 was a bigger, bolder take on the elongated rectangle of the 1920s Cintrée; and the Tank Française in 1996 introduced an assertive square case and chunky metal bracelet. In 2002, Cartier flipped the Tank on its side with the Divan. This striking design had a relatively short life and is now very collectible. The trilogy of models representing Cartier’s three international divisions (based in Paris, New York and London) was eventually completed by the Tank Anglaise in 2012.
In 2012 Cartier also introduced the Tank Folle (imagine a regular Tank locked in a room with Salvador Dalí and a pile of diamonds) and a revival of the Tank Louis Cartier, which had remained in the catalogue from 1922 (with a minor update in 1944) until 1998. The new Tank Louis Cartier XL Slimline, carrying Cartier’s hand-wound in-house calibre 430 MC and measuring just 5.1mm thick, was a triumphant return of the design that had become a point of reference for all rectangular wristwatches for nine decades.
Meanwhile, it had been left to Cartier Paris to fulfil watch enthusiasts’ desire for mechanical sophistication. For a decade, from 1998, Cartier Paris Collection Privée (CPCP) revived a series of original Tank shapes (as well as other cases), issuing them in very limited runs with mechanical movements sourced from the likes of Piaget, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Gérald Genta, Techniques Horlogères Appliquées (THA) and Frédéric Piguet. Cartier reassembled these high-quality movements and gave many watches a clear sapphire caseback to display its signature finishing, which included Côtes de Genève and the double-C Cartier logo. Everything released by CPCP is now highly collectible. Among the most coveted prizes: the Tank Mono-Poussoir with a new movement co-developed by François-Paul Journe, Denis Flageollet and Vianney Halter (yes, really!); Tank à Vis (an adaptation of the Étanche with a four-screw bezel); and a Tank Double Fuseau with an Arabic-numeral and Chinese-numeral dial.
A few years into the new millennium, Cartier realised that the key to a seat at horology’s high table was to develop and produce its own movements. And so, the Cartier Fine Watchmaking division (led by the brilliant Carole Forestier-Kasapi) took over from CPCP. The 2009 launch of the Tank Américaine Tourbillon Volant (with calibre 9452 MC, the first Cartier movement to carry the Geneva Seal) set the scene for what has followed, with various Tank cases hosting a series of haute horlogerie movements – not least the sublime Tank MC Skeleton and the Tank LC Sapphire Skeleton.
The fact that every variation has looked and felt so utterly right, so very Tank, is proof that Louis Cartier’s original was not just a good design but a truly great one. The question, it seems, has always been: can a Tank be better than a Tank? Can an icon outdo itself? The story isn’t over yet.