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Cartier - The Tank, a century of success

Cartier The Tank, a century of success

Cartier’s flagship watch has been a stalwart of its range since 1917, the year of its launch. Despite appearing in a great variety of models, it has never lost its soul, or its popularity. Retrospective of an icon.

Tank. It’s not the most obvious name for a watch. But it is highly symbolic. Today, everyone knows what a tank is, but these armoured vehicles were unknown before the First World War, when they made their first appearance on the battlefield. Despite their unfamiliarity, they were considered powerful symbols of progress and modernity. History tells us that Louis Cartier was impressed by the armoured vehicles made by Renault. But would he really have named a watch after them? It’s not impossible, because the Tank watch he designed does reflect the shape of a tank seen from above – a square framed by two parallel sidebars where the caterpillar tracks would be. The newness of these machines could also have been a factor for Louis Cartier who, after having made a wristwatch in 1904 for his friend, the aviator Santos Dumont, was interested in designing a new kind of watch. He wanted to create something that was free of tradition, stamped with modern design, which at the time was characterised by geometrical architecture and formal rigour. He wanted it to become a practical but elegant must-have accessory.

Tank, cent ans de succès

Tank model from 1919

Intemporal design

Today, one hundred years on, as the Tank celebrates a momentous anniversary, it has lost none of its distinctive flair or its power to charm. As unstoppable as the war machine that inspired it, it has continued to thrive through the years, adapting to different fashions and artistic styles, transformed into around forty different iterations, in a variety of sizes and materials, set with gems or plain, that have appealed to utterly different generations of men and women, while retaining its original features right up to the present day. The Tank watch is a fusion of square and rectangle. The bracelet is attached to the case via the lateral bars or brancards that continue beyond the case to form the lugs. The dial is generally white, with Roman numerals and a minutes track; the blued hands are sword-shaped (or, on early models, Breguet-style apples), and the crown is set with a sapphire cabochon.

Tank, cent ans de succès

Tank Anglaise © Cartier

Around the world

The Tank watch has travelled around the world, while remaining scrupulously faithful to its signature aesthetic. The Tank Chinoise of 1922 evokes the entrance to a Chinese temple; the Tank Américaine of 1989 is curved, the rectangle is softer and the brancards are rounded; the Tank Française of 1996 has a metal bracelet; and the Tank Anglaise of 2012, driven by manufacture movement 1904-PS MC, has its crown recessed into the bezel.
Following on from the Tank Louis Cartier model of 1922, with its softened rectangle, the Tank proceeded to play around with the rectangular shape, stretching it out horizontally (the Tank Divan of 2002) and vertically (Mini Tank Allongée, 1960), and even in both directions at once, with the Tank Asymétrique of 1936 and the Tank Oblique of 1963. In the heyday of the Must de Cartier in the ’70s it also took on some colour, with coloured dials in precious materials (onyx, coral), innocent of any numerals. It also succumbed to the futuristic vision of the 1920s, in a disconcerting dial-less version with apertures for jumping hours and minutes. Another original model that appeared at around the same time as the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso was the Tank Basculante of 1932, designed to protect the dial during sporting activities. The more recent Tank Louis Cartier Squelette Saphir and Manufacture Cartier Squelette, with manufacture movements, express the technological and aesthetic trends of our time.

Tank, cent ans de succès

Tank Divan

A photogenic watch

The first Tank was sold on 12 November 1919 – Louis Cartier wanted to wait for peace to return after the Great War before putting his new watch on sale. Nevertheless, the year before, he had given a prototype of the Tank to General Pershing, commander of the American expeditionary force in Europe. Since that time, legions of celebrities have been photographed with a Tank on their wrist. It was probably one of the first wristwatches to be seen on the silver screen; in 1926, Rudolph Valentino wore his during the filming of “Son of the Sheik”, and the anachronistic images became famous. There are also iconic snaps of Clark Gable, Mohamed Ali, Ingrid Bergman, Simone Signoret, Yves Montand, Catherine Deneuve, Andy Warhol and Princess Diana, all wearing Tanks.

Tank, cent ans de succès

Rudolph Valentino in the “Son of the Sheik”

Today, around 140 Tank watches are listed on the Cartier website, two-thirds of them for women. Prices range from CHF 2,300 for the small ladies’ Tank Solo, up to CHF 142,000 for a Tank Anglaise fully set with diamonds. There’s truly something for everyone.


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The brand

Characterised by audacity and inventiveness, Cartier’s watchmaking history reflects a unique state of mind: “jeweller of kings and king of jewellers”. Its renown is bound up in the tradition of excellence to which it is heir. Cartier was a forerunner in the use of platinum in jewellery and one of the pioneers of watchmaking.

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