It’s over a century old, but the Cartier Tank will forever be one of the most iconic watches.
In December 1916, France was mired in the First World War. In Paris, which was not too far from the front lines, the 41-year-old Louis Cartier was living at the Ritz Hotel on Place Vendôme, a few doors down from his office. He’d now been at the helm of the famous jewellery company his grandfather founded for 18 years.
Following the success of the 1904 square-shaped Santos de Cartier, which was acknowledged as one of the world’s first timepieces for the wrist, he was now sketching out ideas for something new and fresh. The clean lines, straight edges and sharper aesthetic that Cartier was aiming for were beginning to take shape. He was no fan of the fussiness of Art Nouveau and the plan was to create something more simple and elegant.
The watch he designed would finally go on sale a year after the end of the war, with six pieces added to Cartier’s stock register under the name Tank. A small run, but all were totally handmade. January 17, 1920. The average time a Cartier watch remained in the shop window was just three weeks, and the new Tank proved to be a success from the start.
The name came from the fact it looked like a top-down view of a military tank – the new war machines that had emerged on the battlefield, sent out across the trenches and launching the era of mechanised warfare.
Some say Louis based the design on the Renault FT-17, a French tank used during the war. Others believe it just got the name because it resembles, rather than being inspired, by one. But Louis knew all about the war, living close to the front lines. His two brothers fought for France and Louis himself was a reservist in the Red Cross. The new Tank watch, however, far from this being a ghoulish reminder of the horrors that just ended, was a timepiece that celebrated the new age that was just beginning. Art Nouveau was giving way to modern thinking of Art Deco and the design of the Tank was to become one of the design classics from the age.
The square case was flanked and stretched into a rectangle by the brancards that extended its sides (and look like Tank tracks) to form the lugs which the strap would be attached to. The face bore Roman numerals on a simple white dial, and the crown featured a single blue sapphire. It was the clean and elegant look he’d been striving for.
The production rose to 33 pieces and its popularity grew from there. Despite the effects on sales caused by the Wall Street Crash in 1929, the Tank was established, selling well and an instant design classic. And it would be there for the next 100 years present at key moments, starting the end of the Great War where one of the first watches was given to General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force. It would appear on the wrists of the good and the great.
The maharajas of Kapurthala bought a dozen of them in the mid-1920s, while the infamous Rothschilds were big Tank customers. It was also apparently William Randolph Hearst’s favourite timepiece, and it started appearing on the big screen.
In George Fitzmaurice’s 1926 silent film The Son of the Sheik’s leading man Rudolph Valentino demanded that he had to wear his Tank watch in every scene while playing the son of an Arab sheikh. Even though the costume department pointed out that it didn’t quite work with what the character was wearing.
Clark Gable wore his Tank in the 1932 movie Red Dust. In North by Northwest (1959), Cary Grant wore his while stars including Clark Gable, Rex Harrison, Warren Beatty and Gary Cooper were also seen wearing theirs in films. Steve McQueen – possibly the coolest film star of all time – wore a curved Cartier Tank Cintrée, while the Italian film star Marcello Mastroianni reportedly bought four Tanks in 1961 alone.
It has been worn by fashion designers including Calvin Klein, Yves Saint Laurent and musicians including Cole Porter, Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington. Boxer Muhammad Ali wore a Cartier Tank JC, and it wasn’t just men who loved it.
Given that the design of the watch is simple, linear and androgynous it has never been seen as a timepiece for either gender – later pink and diamond-encrusted models notwithstanding – and many women have also embraced the design. Diana, Princess of Wales owned two: a Tank Louis Cartier and an all-gold Tank Française, while the former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy was famous for wearing hers. It sold at auction in 2017 for $379,500, making it the most expensive Tank ever sold. Her late husband John F Kennedy was also a fan and was wearing one right up until the day he died in 1963.
The modern-day Tank comes in a range of models in different collections and price points but all are recognisable and carry that same DNA forward from the original design. The Cartier Tank is more than just a watch, it’s a signifier of a classic elegance that will never go out of style.
For GQ Magazine