Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Andy Warhol, Clark Gable, Yves Saint Laurent and WWI American general John Pershing: It sounds like someone’s fantasy dinner-guest list, but these disparate famous figures have at least one thing in common – their taste in horology. These icons are among the many celebrity fans that the Cartier Tank watch has had since its debut a century ago.
Its 100-year history and the provenance of many vintage Tanks continue to exert a powerful attraction over watch buyers today. In June, a yellow-gold Tank Ordinaire – a rare model among the many Tank variants that have been created – previously owned by former US first lady Jackie O went for US$379,500 (S$511,000) at a Christie’s auction in New York, making it the priciest Cartier Tank to be sold at auction.
Many fans of the classic watch, as well as those of its original owner, however, were less enthused when it was revealed, days later, that the winning “anonymous” bidder was American reality TV star Kim Kardashian.
That said, its wide-ranging, time-tested appeal helps to explain why the Tank has remained such a popular icon. While the main focus of his vintage watch collection is Rolex, investment banker Timothy Yong (see “Roll Back the Years”) also finds classic Tanks compelling. He has seven pieces of what he smilingly describes as “a dandy watch”, ranging from versions from the 1970s to a Tank Louis Cartier he bought for his wife in 2009. He says: “The Tank has been a classic design for forever. It was not something expensive; it was simply something that people wore.”
While Yong finds the Tank’s colourful history interesting, he points out: “Even with its associations with famous people, it would not mean much if the watch itself were ugly. To me, what makes Cartier special is its design.”
Indeed, the Tank has stood out with its quiet elegance since it was first designed by Louis Cartier in 1917. Going against the era’s taste for Art Nouveau-style flourishes and dramatic curves, his designs were instead characterised by the geometric lines and abstract forms of the Art Deco movement. With the Tank, Louis Cartier sought to seamlessly integrate the lugs and the case, and allow for a smooth flow between these parts and the strap.
Legend has it that the design of the Tank was inspired by the Renault tanks used by the French military in World War I – the brancards, or vertical bars, of the watch are ostensibly modelled after the treads of the latter. Completing this military-inflected backstory, Louis Cartier was said to have gifted one of the first Tank timepieces to general John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe during WWI.
Since then, the brand has released many variations on its sleek signature design, ranging from models like the longer, curved Cintree (1929) and the reversible Tank Basculante (1932) to the Tank Francaise (1996), which has a metal bracelet rather than a strap, and the Tank Anglaise (2010), with its brancard-integrated crown.
Following the establishment of the Cartier Fine Watchmaking department in 2008, several Tank models now feature in-house mechanical movements, instead of the quartz movements or third-party Eta mechanical movements that were once the norm.
But one thing seems certain: Even as it moves into the next century with updates to its design and engines, the Tank’s minimalist, timeless codes will stand it in good stead among new generations of watch lovers, famous or otherwise.