Imagine for a moment that it is 1919 and you are wandering the streets of Paris. You were fortunate to have survived the Great War and are slowly rebuilding your life. Your life was changed in many ways, with the military issued watch on your wrist a testament to that upheaval. This converted pocket watch has been with you through many difficult times, with its wire lugs welded on the round case so that straps can attach it to your wrist. At first, you thought the idea of wearing a watch on your wrist ludicrous. Clocks were in bell towers, or on walls and mantles, or if needed carried in your pocket. But years of living outdoors made you realize the usefulness of that small, round watch on your wrist. So today, you are in the jewelry district looking for a new watch. You will never get rid of your military watch, but you would like to have a less beat up one to wear for business. Walking into the Cartier boutique, the clerk says you are in luck, as they have just introduced a new wristwatch. They call it the “Tank.”
The Tank is like nothing you have ever seen. Instead of round, it is rectangular shaped, with beautiful Roman Numerals and what looks like a thin train track on the dial. Looking closer, you notice that the number four, rather than being an IV, is in fact IIII. Nonsensical, but it balances with the flip side of the dial and makes perfect design sense. The hands look like small, blue swords and there appears to be a small jewel on the crown! But it is the case that is truly mesmerizing. Gone are the haphazard wire lugs. Instead, the lugs are invisible extensions of the sides of the case and blend seamlessly with the strap.
It is difficult to take ourselves out of our time to appreciate the first impact of something that never existed before but what we have lived with our whole lives. The Cartier Tank wristwatch was an impactful watch when it was first released, not only because of its novel shape, but mostly for its refinement. While we cannot fully appreciate what the watch meant for the world in 1919, because the Cartier Tank continues to impress people to this day with its unusual shape and refinement, it does not take a leap in imagination to appreciate its impact.
It is appropriate that one of the world’s most luxurious watch brands still bears the family name that created the brand, as its growth truly was a family affair. Cartier was formed in 1847, when the first Cartier took over the workshop of his master, later passing control onto his son who moved the shop to the jewelry district in Paris. The third generation truly made Cartier a worldwide brand when the three grandsons set up shop in Paris, London and New York. The innovative use of platinum by Louis Cartier inspired King Edward VII to entitle Cartier, the “Jeweler of Kings, King of Jewelers.” Louis also created one of the world’s first wristwatches for men after his pilot friend Alberto Santos-Dumont requested a practical watch to wear in his dirigible. The modern Santos Cartier watch owes its existence to this beginning. While the Santos watch was innovative, in 1919, Louis created the watch that Cartier is most renowned for producing, the Cartier Tank, inspired by the tanks of World War I. While the tank’s overall shape reflected the rectangular shape of the military tank, it was the watch’s Art Deco embellishments that made it an enduring favorite of world-renowned personalities and people of influence. A Cartier Tank watch continues to attract enthusiasts smitten with its old-world charm, luxurious refinements and unusual shape. When the last of the three brothers died in 1964, the Cartier company was divided up. While the original family was no longer involved, the Cartier brand’s influence did not fade. Individuals and groups of investors alike revived the brand and continued to explore new ways to introduce luxury to their products. In 1988, the Cartier group purchased the greater part of watchmakers Piaget and Baume & Mercier holdings and in 1991, Cartier established an international foundation to encourage the art of watchmaking. While Cartier is known throughout the world for luxurious jewelry and refinement, the company never lost its love of fine watchmaking, which is why watch enthusiasts continue to be attracted to Cartier.
With its familiar shape and dial, this Cartier Tank MC would be recognizable as a Cartier Tank watch by a 1919 citizen of Paris. The refinements are still present, with the silver-tone stainless steel case with a black (alligator) leather strap, silver guilloche dial with blued-steel sword-shaped hands and black Roman numeral hour markers. This modern watch is larger than those original watches and more suited to a modern sensibility. Also, the transparent case back now allows the owner to observe the beautiful finishing of the modern automatic movement. This Cartier Tank demonstrates why this watch continues to impress across the generations.