This iconic timepiece by Cartier is not only one of the most coveted classics in the world, but is also a fascinating part of watch-making history. The manufacturers of two of my favourite timepieces, the Cartier Tank and the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso, have a relationship that dates back to the early 1900s. When Louis Cartier decided to add wristwatches to the house’s repertoire, he appointed Edmond Jaeger, Parisian watchmaker to the French navy, as the supplier of the movements for the Santos and Tank watches. Jaeger engaged the services of Swiss manufacture LeCoultre & Cie to produce the ultra-thin movements; thus began the relationship that would later lead to the formation of Jaeger-LeCoultre.
The Tank, however, predates the Reverso by 24 years, and celebrates its 100th anniversary in September. This timepiece is elegant yet masculine, and representative of an early fascination with mechanical form. Although the Cartier Santos, launched more than a decade earlier, was the first wristwatch with a square or rectangular dial, the Tank became emblematic of that innovative era, a modern classic with enduring appeal. The first tank was designed at about the same time, and it is believed that Cartier himself modelled the watch on the plan view of a tank with its brancards — or sidebars — evoking the treads, and the case representing the cockpit.
At the beginning of the last century, Cartier’s jewellery designs had a unique aesthetic, quite unlike the excessively elaborate Art Nouveau style of the period. As one of the pioneers of Art Deco, his jewellery was geometric and abstract, a style that translated well into timepieces. The lugs and case of the Tank are understated and functional, and seamlessly integrated as an extension of the strap. The brancards are a huge stylistic departure from what most manufacturers were doing in adapting pocket watches for the wrist. Although there have been some deviations, the majority of classic Tank watches are characterised by their bold Roman numerals, and graphic double line chemin de fer minute markers on the dials, evoking train or tank tracks.
Cartier was the leader in quartz movements in the 1980s and ’90s, with most of its watches in the ’90s having in-house quartz movements. For more complicated, larger pieces the house used Jaeger-LeCoultre, Piaget, and Girard-Perregaux. With the increase in demand for mechanical watches, the company decided to introduce its own in-house movements in 2008, with the flying-tourbillon calibre 9452 MC first featured in the impressive Ballon Bleu Flying Tourbillon.
Cartier is one of the biggest-selling watch brands after Rolex, and a first look at some of its commemorative releases indicates some expected updates to the core range — the Tank Louis Cartier, Américaine, and Française. But the most exciting development of all is the reintroduction of the elongated 1921 Tank Cintrée — the forerunner of the 1987 Américaine — in a limited edition, this time revealing the skeletal in-house manual winding 9917 MC movement, which magically follows the curves of the case.
The Tank has been the watch of choice for kings and queens, artists, musicians, and Hollywood stars. It’s been worn by Gary Cooper, Andy Warhol, Madonna, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (her square-dialed 1962 Tank sold at Christie’s in June for $379 500, to Kim Kardashian West, apparently), and Rudolph Valentino: the Tank is like a codeword for those in the know. Although there were only a handful of original Tanks for sale, the range now includes models to suit all tastes and wallets, from smaller quartz-powered to more impressive, complicated, in-house calibres. cartier.com