BUILT TO LAST
Cartier celebrates 100 years of its Tank watch by looking back and forging ahead with new models
NO DOUBT EXISTS in anyone's mind that Louis Cartier was a revolutionary. We've sung his praises and commended his designs countless times in the pages of #legend, yet still, we come back to gaze at Louis Cartier's work and ponder the genius of the grandson of the founder of the brand. This is another occasion to do so.
This year is the 100th anniversary of the Cartier Tank, and Louis Cartier's design – not quite square, not quite rectangular, by turns masculine and feminine – remains as relevant today as it was when introduced in 1917.
The advent of the Tank heralded a new era of watchmaking that produced timepieces different in form and function from what went before. Wristwatches were still a novelty in the early 1900s. Most were worn by women as decorative accessories, adjuncts to costly bracelets with elaborate clasps. Men of the era carried pocket watches.
Louis Cartier altered the norm by designing a wristwatch for men. In 1904 his best friend, Alberto Santos-Dumont, a well-known aviator, complained that pocket watches were difficult to read while piloting the primitive aeroplanes of the day. Louis Cartier promptly set about designing a flat wristwatch with a square bezel for Santos-Dumont.
It was named, naturally enough, the Santos. It was the first Cartier man's wristwatch.
When the Tank came along, its design was based on the treads of the French army's new weapon for fighting the First World War: a Renault tank. Much as in the Santos, the lugs of the Tank were an integral part of the case. The strap was attached to vertical sidebars on the sides of the case called brancards.
The design broke away from the Art Nouveau style that was fashionable at the time, setting the trend in contemporary watchmaking. Louis Cartier famously employed the geometrical patterns and abstract forms of Art Deco in his designs. The rectangular Tank contained a movement made by Edmond Jaeger. It had sword-shaped blue steel hands made by Breguet, Roman numerals on the dial, a chemin de fer chapter ring and a crown surmounted by a sapphire cabochon.
The Tank was an instant success. It appealed to every free-spirited man and woman, becoming an essential accessory. The watch has decorated the wrists of Gary Cooper and Andy Warhol, of Madonna and Catherine Deneuve. The Tank was the watch of its time and the watch of eras since, loved by artists, actors and film directors.
Rudolph Valentino insisted on wearing a Tank watch in every scene of the film The Son of the Sheik (1926). The watch is visible today in stills from the film, looking amusingly out of place, in view of the setting of the movie. While filming Un Flic, Alain Delon and Jean-Pierre Melville discovered they wore identical watches, each having a Tank Arrondie. Warhol, who loved his Tank so much he sketched it in 1985, once said: “I don't wear a Tank watch to tell the time. In fact, I never wind it. I wear a Tank because it's the watch to wear.”
Other devoted wearers of the Tank were Yves Saint Laurent, Diana, Princess of Wales and Jackie Kennedy Onassis. The Tank owned by Kennedy Onassis recently fetched US$379,500 at auction, the winning bidder being Kim Kardashian. The 18k gold square wristwatch is inscribed on the back. Her brother-in-law, Prince Stanislaw Radziwill, gave Kennedy Onassis the watch to commemorate the completion of an 80-km walk that the Kennedy family undertook in Palm Beach, Florida, as part of a campaign by her husband at the time, President John Kennedy, to get Americans to exercise more. Kennedy Onassis treasured the watch, and was often photographed wearing it.
Sofia Coppola, director of the recent Cartier film featuring the Panthére de Cartier, made the Tank her first Cartier purchase. “I remember buying my first Cartier watch, a Mini Tank, after I'd finished filming Marie Antoinette (2005). I often do that after a big project. I buy myself a treat to remember it by. I went into the store and found this really delicate miniature one.”
The Tank came in numerous versions, including the quintessential Tank Louis Cartier, created in 1922; the Tank Française, created in 1996; the Tank Américaine, designed in 1987; and the Tank Cintrée, the precursor of the Tank Américaine. To celebrate 100 years of the Tank, Cartier has introduced new versions of each type of Tank.
The Tank Cintrée Skeleton is a work of art, available in pink gold or platinum. It has a skeleton movement which follows the curve of the rectangular case. Two new versions of the Tank Louis Cartier are available. Both are driven by the 8971MC mechanical movement with manual winding. One comes in a choice of pink or white gold and has brancards set with diamonds. The other comes only in pink gold, without diamonds. The Tank Française is now available in steel set with diamonds, while retaining its curved case and bracelet. The Tank Américaine is also now offered in steel. It comes with a new folding buckle which allows the strap to be adjusted to fit the wrist precisely.
Clockwise from top: A drawing of the Tank by Jean-Charles de Castelbajac; Catherine Deneuve in 1984; the Tank Louis Cartier new versions; the Tank Cintrée and Tank Louis Cartier