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A Guided History Lesson of the Cartier Tank

In all of watchmaking, there might be no design as instantly recognisable as the Cartier Tank. For a piece that is, by horological standards, so unimpressive, it is strange to think that the Tank could be both the most famous and versatile watch in the world, one that can play the role of black tie companion, everyday beater, or status symbol depending on by who and where it is worn.

Some measure of the Tank’s success can be attributed to its trusted, timeless design, but beneath the simple and satisfying refinement of its slender case and rectangular face lies a long history of people, places and events that transformed a simple gold watch into an object without peer. To understand the full impact of the Tank today, we first need to understand where it has come from and where it has been – an exercise that requires a visit to the 19th century.

Setting the Scene: “The Jeweller of Kings and The King of Jewellers”

A portrait of a young Louis Cartier. Source: The Jewellery Editor

Today and throughout its history, the Cartier name is associated above all else with fine jewellery, though its origin is rather more Dickensian. Born in 1819 to a washerwoman mother and metal worker father, Louis-François Cartier’s working life began, as it did with most children of the pre-Victorian era, at an early age, in the apprenticeship of a master jeweller, Adolphe Picard.

In 1847 and still only a tender 27 years old, Cartier took over his master’s workshop at 29, Rue Montorgueil in Paris’ 1st arrondissement, just a few blocks away from the Louvre and the Jardins des Tuileries. Ensconced in the heart of Paris and having inherited both the knowledge and premises of an established master jeweller, Louis-François began to build a reputation as a craftsman of royal patronage: in 1856, Princess Mathilde, niece of Napoleon Bonaparte and cousin of Emperor Napoloen III, purchased her first piece from Cartier, propelling Louis-François into Parisian high society.

In 1873, Louis-François was joined in the business by his only son, Alfred, who took control one year later and would work to grow Cartier into the de facto jeweller of not just the French royalty, but the rich and royal the world over. Assisting Alfred in this quest were his own sons, Jacques, Pierre and Louis, who joined Cartier in the 1890s, and each of whom would come to play a vital role in the years to come. As the 20th century beckoned, Alfred dispatched his three sons, instructing them to carry the Cartier name across the world in search of new business. Pierre went to New York and Jacques to London, while Louis remained in Paris, having established a new flagship in 1899 at 13 Rue de la Paix, an address that Cartier still occupies today.

Jacques and Pierre followed with boutiques of their own: the first, on London’s New Burlington Street (later relocating to New Bond Street – where the store can still be found) in 1902, and the second, on New York’s prestigious Fifth Avenue, in 1909. Credit must be given here to Alfred’s vision, for the clientele that these stores attracted was no less than the era’s wealthiest and most notorious names: Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Ford and Morgan in the US, and a slew of royalty back in Europe, from the King of Albania to the King of England, Edward VII, who ordered 27 tiaras for his coronation in 1902, while also issuing Cartier with a royal warrant – the first of many.

A Pioneering Predecessor - The Cartier Santos

Alberto Santos-Dumont & the Cartier Santos prototype. Source: Horobox

At the centre of this burgeoning empire was Louis Cartier, the creative heart of the family and the man responsible for the Tank. But while the Tank is Louis’s most enduring creation, it was not his first.

In 1904, spurred by a conversation with his Brazilian friend and aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont, who complained of the difficulty of reading a pocket watch in-flight, Louis designed a watch that would lay flat against its wearer’s wrist, allowing for easy readability during any activity, aeronautical or otherwise. The Santos, as it has been known ever since, is a clear predecessor to the Tank in everything from its oblong case geometry to the expanding Roman numerals and delicate railroad indices that adorn its face.

It is also important to note that the Santos we know today – a decidedly chunky slab of steel that can measure anywhere from 35mm - 46mm in diameter – is significantly larger than the 25mm x 35mm dimensions of the original 1911 production run. As such, the Santos as designed by Louis Cartier pioneered the petite form factor that the Tank is now known for, while also marking the first instance of a rectangular watch.

At a time when watches were both round and overwhelmingly attached to the end of the chain, both of these aspects of the Santos and the Tank are small but significant parts of their history and enduring appeal – though they do not tell the whole story.

The Watch To Wear


The first Cartier Tank Normale. Source: Monochrome Watches
Following a visit to the Western Front, Louis Cartier designed the Tank Normale in 1917, supposedly inspired by an aerial view of the Renault FT-17 tank, a machine whose protruding treads were echoed in the slim brancards of the Tank’s case. Fittingly for a watch with military origins, the very first Tank (one of only six made) was presented to General John J. Pershing of the American Expeditionary Force in 1919. Designed in a 23mm x 30mm platinum case, with elongated polished sides, the same Roman numerals we have become accustomed to today, the railway track minute counter, blued-hands and the blue sapphire cabochon on the crown. The Tank Normale came on a leather strap that incorporated a folding buckle, designed by Edmond Jaeger.


The blueprint of the Renault FT-17 tank which inspired the Cartier Tank's design. Source: Monochrome Watches

A simple interpretation of the Tank’s success since that day might rest on a number of things: its uncomplicated, modernist design; the jeweller’s flourish of the sapphire cabochon crown, or even the plain juxtaposition of a dress watch that draws its references from a weapon of war.

Although these are all fair points that no doubt contribute to the Tank’s appeal, the real reason lies in the same place as it does for any luxury good: exclusivity and desirability. Ever since the very first model was gifted to General Pershing, the Cartier Tank has been unshakably linked with the world’s most important and impactful people. In the context of Cartier, this isn’t unique to the Tank, but an extension of everything that Cartier had been doing for the preceding 20 years – the effect of which was magnified by a rapidly modernising world.

General John J. Pershing, the very first owner of the Cartier Tank Normale. Source: Monochrome Watches

By contrast, one of the Tank’s first unofficial ambassadors was Rudolph Valentino, one of the Silent Era’s biggest stars and a man whose image was known to many. When Valentino insisted, rather anachronistically, on wearing his Tank in every scene of his final film, Son of the Sheik, he served as Cartier’s first-ever live-action billboard – the effect of which was magnified by his death shortly after the film’s release.

The same is true of every public figure that has ever worn the Tank, and this celebrity association is a large part of why it has become so desirable. In fact, almost every article ever written about the Tank mentions its long list of celebrity owners well before any aspect of its history or design. To put it simply, the Tank has endured because it has been worn by Muhammad Ali, Andy Warhol and Princess Diana – their ownership is inextricable from its story.

The Many Faces of the Tank

To add to its A-list appeal, Cartier ensured that the Tank stayed fresh and exciting with a string of releases throughout the 1920s. While comparisons could be drawn between this approach and modern-day hype culture, it seems more likely that the Tank’s various iterations – the Louis Cartier, Cintrée, Chinoise, Obus, and more – were exercises in expression by Louis Cartier, a man who was as much an artist as he was a businessman.

Although many of these new models were commercial failures, they speak to another aspect of the Tank’s enduring appeal – namely, its sheer variety. While this is part of the appeal of watch collecting more broadly, where other brands will riff endlessly on a small number of core models, the Tank is not one model but a whole family of radically different designs all drawn from a common language.

However rare a particular Submariner, GMT or Daytona may be, it will always be a Submariner, GMT or Daytona, and this is in part what drives the incredibly minutiae-focused collection of these models. With the Tank, however, each iteration reimagines the watch in a way that is wholly unique, yet never entirely disconnected from the DNA of the original.

Moreover, unlike most of its competitors, Cartier has continued to release new interpretations of the Tank in the modern era, including the Tank Américaine (1989), Tank Française (1996), Tank Divan (2002) and the Tank Anglaise (2012), all of which have contributed to an extensive and ever-evolving back-catalogue for collectors and customers alike.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves, because while the Tank now occupies a position of first-name notoriety and desirability, it very nearly didn’t make it.

The Two Bobs: Robert Hocq and Robert Kenmore

The Cartier Mansion in 1920 in New York City. Source: Bloomberg

Only a decade after the Tank debuted, Black Thursday signalled the start of the Great Depression and plunged the world into the deepest economic crisis of the 20th century. Although the fortunes of an elite Parisian jewellery empire will not elicit much sympathy in comparison to the destitution of the global working class, even a company such as Cartier could not escape the impact of the Depression.

In the 5 years from 1929, only 102 Tanks were sold – less than the yearly production number for the second half of the 1920s. Though watches may have only comprised a small part of Cartier’s business, their sales are representative of Cartier’s downturn as a whole at this time. In 1930, Pierre Cartier told the American media that:

“Eighty percent of our orders were cancelled” with the remainder needing to be granted credit terms “varying from six months to a year.” - Pierre Cartier

As the effects of the Depression subsided towards the end of the decade, they were replaced by the outbreak of World War Two and the German occupation of Paris, isolating Cartier’s renowned workshops and severing them from their wealthy clientele in New York and London.

All of this is to say that, by the 1940s, Cartier was suffering both financially and emotionally, following the death of Jacques and Louis Cartier in 1942. Faced with a company that had been gutted by the war and hobbled by France’s subsequent austerity measures, Pierre Cartier sold the New York and London outposts to investors, ending the line that had been started by his grandfather and effectively killing the allure of the family name for the next two decades.

The Two Bobs would enter the picture in the late 1960s. An investor and high-powered businessman, Robert Kenmore had acquired Cartier New York (known at the time as Cartier Inc) through his firm, the Kenton Corporation, in either 1968 or 1969, adding it to a host of retail holdings that included both department stores and luxury brands.

Kenmore believed (rather presciently) that retail was stratifying into high-end luxury goods and low-end department stores, and used Cartier Inc as a vehicle to explore both ends of the market: for instance, by selling another of his brands’ fur coats inside the 5th Avenue flagship, while also selling inexpensive, gold-plated Tanks through his and other department store chains. This second decision would end up being one of the most significant in Cartier’s modern history.

At the same time that Kenmore made his acquisition of Cartier Inc, Robert Hocq was the head of a French lighter company called Silver Match. Believing there was room in the world for lighters a step above a Bic but still below a Dunhill, Hocq had commissioned an elegant, columnar design known as the Oval, and was shopping around for a more prestigious name to licence for the design when he approached Cartier, who happily obliged.

The Oval was an immediate hit and was the must-have accessory of the late 60s and early 70s. By 1972, its success led Hocq to partner with the Rembrandt Group – another Cartier licensee that is better known today as Richemont – and purchase Cartier Paris. The group would also purchase Cartier London in 1974 and Cartier New York in 1976, reuniting the outposts under the same ownership once and for all.

“Cartier, it’s a Must!”

A pair of recently sold Cartier Tank Must De Cartier's. Source: Wynn & Thayne

Despite the Two Bobs never meeting, their stories would intersect in the early 1970s. Inspired by the success of the gold-plated Tanks that Kenmore had been selling in the US, Hocq’s right-hand man, Alain Dominique Perrin, saw an opportunity for further Cartier-branded products and launched the Must de Cartier line.

Initially selling licensed accessories such as sunglasses, scarves, pens and leather goods, the Must de Cartier line launched its first in-house offering in 1977 with the Must de Tank. With a slew of models available in seemingly endless options – including some incredibly disco-friendly blue, red or black lacquered dials – the Must de Tank was as classic as it was contemporary and ready-made for the consumer age, eschewing the cheap gold plating of Robert Kenmore’s earlier experiments for the fancy-sounding (but still affordable) gold vermeil. With the Must de Tank, the once elusive timepiece had been transformed into a mass-market piece of jewellery, and it was exactly what Cartier needed.

As with the rest of the Must de Cartier line, the Must de Tank led to an immense revival of interest in Cartier and exploded sales throughout the range, with lifetime sales of the Tank surpassing 160,000 by the end of the 1970s. Aiding this resurgence was the Tank’s immovable presence on the wrists of the decade's biggest stars, including Andy Warhol, who encapsulated its appeal with an enduring quote:

“I don’t wear the Tank to tell the time. In fact, I never wind it. I wear a Tank because it’s the watch to wear.” - Andy Warhol

The Tank Today

The current Cartier Tank line up from extra large to small. Source: Watches of Switzerland

More than 100 years on from its first release, the Tank is an undeniable classic. Elegant, versatile and genderless, the Tank has become a near-automatic addition to the collection of enthusiasts everywhere and the de facto dress watch for collectors worldwide.

Few can appreciate just how revolutionary the distinctive square shape of the Tank was upon its release, helping Cartier stamp its mark on the world of horology, and elevating its brand with one of the most recognisable timepieces worn by icons of our time.

At a time when brands like Rolex were pursuing performance, Cartier was pursuing art, releasing ever more inventive designs despite their lack of commercial success. As watches made their way onto the wrists of the public in greater numbers, Cartier kept its most famous model reserved for its most exclusive customers, conducting a decades-long exercise in branding that few of their competitors have ever been able to match.

And when it came time to cash in on the Tank’s legacy, a series of inspired individuals did so in a way that captured the spirit of an era and capitalised on far-reaching social and economic changes.

Although the Tank may only be a small part of the grander Cartier story, it is symbolic of everything that has led Cartier to its present position. Despite its period in the wilderness, Cartier is today one of the most recognisable luxury names in the world, thanks in part to the timeless appeal and desirability of the Tank. The secret to Cartier’s success, and certainly its comeback, has relied on proud traditions, a willingness to take risks and the understanding that a good design will always stand the test of time.

To learn more about Cartier view our range of books: Shop Cartier Books & Reading Material
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Written by Nick Ainge-Roy
Edited by Sam MacKinnon

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