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Architecture & Design

Celebrating the centenary of the Cartier Tank — the world’s first horological pop cultural phenomenon

Collectors have always been keen on the Cartier tank. It’s effortlessly chic, rectangular design is instantly recognizable. It’s association with the style icons such as Duke Ellington, Yves Saint Laurent and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis makes it eternally desirable.

By Rhonda Riche

The Cartier tank has appeared in many different forms since it was first introduced in 1917, the most famous models being the Tank Louis Cartier, the Tank Américaine and the Tank Française. Yet even at 100 years old, it has maintained its signature shape with parallel and vertical brancards that incorporate the lugs, the winding crown set with a pointy sapphire cabochon and Roman numerals surrounding a chemin de fer, or railroad, chapter ring.

1922 – Tank Louis Cartier

Owning a Tank was one of my earliest watch goals. In high school, my favorite timepiece was a vintage Timex that pretty much copied the look of a Tank Louis Cartier. Even if this homage was a pale imitation of the real thing, it still elicited constant compliments. (My favorite comment was this: “it looks expensive.”)

1989 – Tank Américaine

It started with the Santos

In the time before the Tank, wristwatches were not yet a thing. The first wristwatch was created by Abraham-Louis Breguet for Caroline Murat, Queen of Naples, in 1810. And the versions for men that followed were essentially pocket watches that had straps attached as an afterthought.

That changed when jeweler Louis Cartier designed one of the first modern watches designed specifically to be worn on the wrist for his friend, the dashing Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont. The timepiece was radical in its time because of its square dial and the way the strap was integrated into the case shape. In 1911, Cartier collaborated with movement maker Edmond Jaeger to mass-produce the Santos watch, using the adventurer’s name to market the timepiece.

1911 – Cartier Santos Dumont  © Paul Salmon / Alamy

Because Cartier was a modern man, he wanted to create a watch that was even more pared down. That watch would become known as the Tank.

1832 – Tank Basculante

Making Wristwatches Popular

Even though we live in age of constant digital innovation, technology in the 20th century changed society on almost every level. We may upgrade our iPhone every few years, but at the turn of the 20th century, most humans didn’t even have telephones (let alone radios, portable cameras or televisions). And most people didn’t wear wristwatches

1917, the world was at war, and things like ornately engraved pocket watches seemed frivolous. Cartier’s challenge wasto create a timepiece that was chic but Spartan. Cartier wanted to seamlessly integrate the lugs so that the case was an extension of the strap. The dial was simple: Roman numerals and a chapter ring on a white dial. Cartier was still a jeweler, however. So he added blued hour and minute hands and a sapphire cabochon on the crown.

1917 – Tank

Cartier was ahead of the curve when it came to another modern concept: Branding.

In the beginning, this new model didn’t have a name. Someone noticed that the shape of the case resembled another modern machine — the Renault Tank — as viewed from above. The name was cemented when Cartier presented American General John Pershing, chief of the American Expeditionary Force, with a Tank prototype.

By 1919, the world was ready to take the watch out of the pocket. The Roaring Twenties ushered in a new, democratizing era where pop culture was now the driving force behind fashion and wearing a wrist watch soon became the norm.

Seeing Stars

Within a decade the Tank was the watch of choice for the world’s chicest celebrities. In his most famous movie, The Sheik, Rudolph Valentino refused to take his Tank off during filming even though wrist watches did not exist in the time period in which the story was set.

Rudolph Valentino with his Cartier Tank watch during filming "The Sheik" movie

Any pop cultural phenomenon has to have a broad appeal. The Tank was not just admired by movie stars like Cary Grant and Warren Beatty, but also musicians (Duke Ellington), artists (Andy Warhol), and politicians (John F. Kennedy). My first Tank, a Must de Cartier from the 1960s, is the same model that designer Yves Saint Laurent wore.









Andy Warhol and his drawings

The spare, machine age design made the Tank a crossover hit with women as well. Greta Garbo, Grace Kelly, and Princess Diana all wore one. Catherine Deneuve and Michelle Obama still do. It became the first unisex watch.

Catherine Deneuve

Lady Diana

The Invention of Reinvention

Arguably two of the greatest pop icons of our time — David Bowie and Madonna — owed their lengthy careers to constantly reinventing themselves. And the Tank is no different.

1922 – Tank Chinoise

After the success of the original timepiece, Cartier rolled out the Tank Chinoise in 1922, followed in that same year by the Tank Louis Cartier. In 1928, Cartier introduced another collection in 1928 called the Tank à Guichets which was the first model without hands. Next came the odd Tank Obus (1929) the sporty Tank Basculante (1932). Over the years, Cartier has introduced many subtle variations on the Tank theme, but the signature collections are the Tank Louis Cartier, the Tank Américaine (1989) and the Tank Française (1996).

1928 – Tank à Guichets

1932 – Tank Basculante

In fact, Cartier is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Tank with special editions of these timepieces. For 2017, there are seven versions of the Tank Louis Cartier (in two sizes, available in Pink Gold or a Rhodium finish, with or without diamonds and all powered by the mechanical winding 8971 MC movement. Prices range from $9,150 to $20,800.

2017 – Tank novelties

There are also two sizes of the Tank Française in stainless steel with diamonds set in the brancards and a quartz movement. And Cartier has also created its first stainless steel version of the elongated Tank Américaine. You can choose from with small, medium and large sizes with automatic movements in the two bigger versions and quartz power in the small. Prices range between $4,000 and $5,750.

2017 – Tank Cintrée Skeleton Rose Gold

2017 – Tank Cintrée Skeleton White Gold

The biggest birthday present for Tank boys and girls, is the limited edition Tank Cintrée squelette.  There are two versions – in pink gold or platinum – of this classic, each skeletonized to reveal the manual winding 9917 MC movement that follows the curves of the case. And even though the dial is cut away, the design manages to preserve details that make a Tank the Tank: the blued hands, the chemin de fer and sleek brancards.Priced between $56,000 and $62,000, each edition is limited to 100 pieces.

2017 – Tank Louis Cartier

2017 – Tank Française with diamonds

For more information about the Tank collection :

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