In a true mark of timeless design, one hundred years on and the Cartier Tank looks as fresh as ever.
Celebrating its centenary in 2017, this was a watch born just after the turn of the twentieth century during a time when the world was coming to grips with modernisation and power.
In the early 1900s, men of discerning taste still bore pocket watches to mark their social standing as gentlemen, however, World War I introduced a shift in necessity. No longer a means of convenient time telling, the pocket watch’s predominance in everyday life was slowly but surely usurped by the wristwatch — formerly an instrument designed primarily for women. For soldiers fighting in the trenches, time was of the essence, and the requirement to pull out a chain-strapped watch would not have been conducive to warfare, thus the move towards a wrist strapped device.
Having created Cartier’s first men’s wristwatch in 1904 (dubbed the Santos) for an aviator who complained about the inconvenience of using a pocket watch while piloting, there was no one who better understood the soldiers’ needs than Louis Cartier. At the same time, Louis Cartier — the grandson of Cartier founder Louis-François Cartier — was establishing a new aesthetic for the brand, moving it away from the popular Art Nouveau style of the era. Choosing the modern appeal of Art Deco, with its geometric lines and abstract forms, Cartier began concentrating on the alignment of shapes to achieve the ideal wristwatch. By bringing the circle of hours in line with the strap, the Maison was attempting to seamlessly integrate the watchcase and the watchstrap via the subtle use of lugs.
Upon witnessing the new Renault tanks, which were being used in battle on the Western Front, Louis Cartier found a source of inspiration for a new line of watches that encapsulated restraint of form and modern design. According to a story that is now watchmaking legend, Louis Cartier reportedly designed the Cartier Tank after having viewed Renault’s tanks from the top. As such, he saw a circle within a square that integrated a rectangle, hence the perfect design to reflect what would become the Cartier Tank’s signature chemin de fer — the railway-style minute track central to the dial — and brancards — the vertical bars that frame the case and incorporate lugs enabling a strap or bracelet to essentially become an extension of the instrument. The original Tank also included other beloved features that are still visible in today’s iterations, such as the graphic Roman numerals and the cabochon capped winding crown.
Once designed, only a small number of the Tank Normale — as the original model was known — were manufactured. One of these was said to have been gifted to General John J. Pershing of the American Expeditionary Force, which fought alongside the French and British against the expanding German empire. General Pershing would be the first in a long line of dignitaries, VIPs, and celebrities that would go on to sport the Cartier Tank in its many versions. From actors and directors to artists and designers to politicians and royalty, the Tank has adorned the arm of such names as Rudolph Valentino, Alain Delon, Andy Warhol, Yves Saint Laurent, Diana Princess of Wales, and Jackie Kennedy. More recently, the Tank has been seen on the wrists of Angelina Jolie and Michelle Obama, while Jackie Kennedy’s watch was apparently purchased at auction by none other than Kim Kardashian.
The Tank has enjoyed a variety of iterations since its inception, including the Tank Louis Cartier, the Tank Chinoise, the Tank Française, the Tank Basculante, the Tank Américaine, and the Tank Cintrée. Though these models each showcase specific styles — such as a more elongated rectangular form or a curved casing or precious stone embellishments — all versions maintain the collection’s original design principals. Considering that 100 years on, this watch remains a fashion staple for both men and women, as well as a sign of elegance and class, the Cartier Tank can truly be called a timepiece of universal style that transcends such boundaries as gender and time.
See our collection of Cartier watches here.