Cartier Tank: A Revolution for Our TimesBy Felix Scholz
Few watch designs have the staying power of Cartier’s geometric masterpiece, the Tank. Fewer still have the breadth of appeal that makes them a style staple — worn by royalty, warriors and artists, men and women alike. In fact, you could very easily argue that the Tank stands alone in this regard. The question then is — how did it happen? How did a watch, designed at a time when watches were typically worn in pockets, not only survive, but thrive in the digital age? While there is no single factor, Cartier’s dedication to quality and the ability to create a design that is both distinctive and universal goes a long way to explaining the legend of the Tank.
The Tank, like many of Cartier’s most iconic shapes, was born at the dawn of a new era in watchmaking: the advent of the wristwatch. Of course, wristwatches have been around for a long time in various guises — there’s even an account from 1571 of Queen Elizabeth I being gifted an “arm watch.” And while one-off historical examples such as this exist, they all exist as outliers in a time where the pocket watch reigned supreme. As the nineteenth century ticked over to the twentieth, that all started to change. The reason for this broader societal shift was, of course, war. Modern conflicts were increasingly mechanized and large scale. In this context, timing mattered more than ever, and a watch worn on the wrist was found to be far more effective. Of course, the practicality and utility of a wristwatch wasn’t limited to the battlefront, and, as soldiers returned to civilian life, the habit and convenience of wearing a timepeice on the wrist came too, and in numbers great enough to disrupt the already troubled hegemony of the pocket watch.
Cartier was, of course, ahead of the curve. The jewelry house founded by Louis-François Cartier saw early that timekeeping’s future was on the wrist and had already made an impact with designs like the Santos from 1904, followed by designs like the Baignoire and the Tortue. But the global conflict of World War I had a profound and direct impact on the future of Cartier’s watchmaking, perhaps even more significant than normalizing the wristwatch; the war directly inspired one of Cartier’s most lasting and legendary designs. And rather than being a design cribbed or converted from the existing pocket watch designs, this bold geometric shape offered something completely new. It gave rise to a shaped watch, perhaps more famous than any other; a watch that, in its 100-plus years of history, has been worn by the great and the good of the world. That watch is, of course, the Tank.
At the forefront of modern design
The design of the Tank dates back to 1917 — though it wasn’t sold commercially until 1919. As the name suggests, Louis Cartier’s design was inspired by the war machine which dominated French battlefields at the time, specifically the compact French tank, the Renault FT. Cartier’s design looks like a bird’s eye view of these new vehicles, with the central case and dial resembling the body and cockpit, and the strong, elongated brancards bearing a remarkable resemblance to the distinctive tank tracks.
This new form was perfect for a new age and a new way of interacting with time. The Tank, with its defining lines, was remarkable in that it allowed for almost infinite variation and versatility, while still maintaining its clear personality. What is perhaps most impressive about all these watches is this cohesion, from the ur-Tank, the 1922 Louis Cartier, with its perfect proportions, smooth edges and rounded lugs, through to more radical designs like the digital display of the Tank à Guichets or the off-kilter Losange (which became the Asymétrique). Regardless of how Cartier plays with the fundamentals of what makes a Tank (and with over 100 years of Tank, the variations are truly immense), the watch is still instantly recognizable and an enduring symbol of what Cartier stands for.
Of course, this combination of longevity, style and versatility means that the Tank has adopted a mass of diverse followers over time, and the famous fanbase of the Tank started early, with no less a figure than American general John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I. Louis Cartier presented General Pershing — one of America’s greatest military leaders — with a prototype of the Cartier Tank. And while this might have been the first Tank to honor the general, it wasn’t the last, as the U.S. Army named an actual tank after him during World War II. Another early adopter of the Cartier Tank was as famous as Pershing, but for very different reasons. Rudolph Valentino was one of the silver screen’s earliest sex symbols, a silent movie star with smoldering good looks, who was destined to die too young, but not before wearing the instantly recognizable silhouette of the Tank in his titular role in 1926’s The Son of the Sheik. And while early endorsements such as these can’t have hurt the Tank’s burgeoning reputation as the timepiece of note, positioning it as both the watch for the man of action and the man of style, it’s worth remembering just how scarce the models were in the first half of the 20th century — with under 6,000 Tank watches being produced in the first 50 years of its existence.
The relative exclusivity of the Tank in its earlier forms makes its social and cultural reach even more remarkable. The rakish Duke Ellington, the legendary pianist and composer of the Cotton Club, wore a Tank à Guichets, adding to the aura of sophistication around the design. Over on the other side of America, the Tank was solidifying its status as the watch of style and taste, making its presence felt in Hollywood on the wrists of Clark Gable and Gary Cooper. And while the perfect form and straight lines of Cartier’s icon paired well with a well-tailored suit, men did not have a monopoly on the Tank.
Scroll through the photographic records of famous, stylish women and there’s a good chance you’ll spy the unmissable profile of the Tank. In a lineup that sounds a lot like a verse from Madonna’s “Vogue,” Greta Garbo, Brigitte Bardot and Grace Kelly sported Tanks. On the wrists of these women, the Tank walked a fine line between strength of character and sensual form, but for many, the image of a woman wearing a Tank brings to mind royal and political power. For the former, it is the enduring images of Diana, Princess of Wales, one of the original Sloane Rangers in a lavender blazer, with the discreet-yet-recognizable square of gold that is the Tank LC on her wrist. Princess Diana also wore a gold Tank Française on a bracelet — a watch which recently, and poetically, made an appearance on the wrist of Meghan Markle. In this instance, worn by both Diana and Meghan, the enduring strength of Cartier’s design takes on a greater symbolic meaning.
A Cartier Tank from 1962 was also a staple on the wrist of that leading figure of American political royalty, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. It’s a design that pairs perfectly with Jackie O’s casual classic, WASP-y style. The watch was gifted to her by her brother-in-law Prince Stanislaw Radziwill, and was auctioned by Christie’s New York in 2017 with a realized price of USD 379,500. In an interesting postscript for this historically significant Cartier, the buyer was reportedly Kim Kardashian, who owns a number of significant Cartier pieces. From the design of Louis Cartier to the wrist of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and most recently Kim Kardashian, it is quite a journey and a real testament to the timeless appeal of this classic rectangular watch.
Cartier and the cultural shift
The Tank experienced something of a moment in the 1970s. The decade was one of great social, political and cultural upheaval, and these changes were felt across all strata of society. In fashion, the ’70s was an era of changing gender expression in clothing or indeed doing away with gender altogether. Pierre Cardin, Paco Rabanne and others traveled to the future for inspiration and came back with a vision of clothing that eschewed traditional gender norms in favor of bold new forms. Halston and Yves Saint Laurent, on the other hand, were busy subverting gender norms in other ways — creating garments traditionally coded as menswear for women, as evidenced in the Le Smoking tuxedo and the Ultrasuede shirtdress. Meanwhile, men embraced feminine drape and flow like never before. From Diane Keaton’s buttoned-up Annie Hall through to the free-flowing sleeves of Jimi Hendrix and the consciously articulated androgyny of David Bowie, the ’70s was a decade where we truly discovered that the lines between “men’s” and “women’s” were not as hard and fast as we once thought.
While all this was happening in the wider world, Cartier was experiencing changes of its own. The watch industry at this time was in the throes of the Quartz Crisis, and traditional makers needed to shift focus to thrive. In 1973, Cartier — paying attention to the winds of change — created Les Must de Cartier, an entire ecosystem of accessories, apparel and watches for the affluent or the aspirational. Today, Les Must would have been referred to as a diffusion line, and while from a business perspective, it’s true, this clinical term does little to accurately describe the impact of the diverse line for Cartier. Writing instruments, lighters and leather goods, all bearing Cartier design codes, preceded the introduction of the Cartier Tank Vermeil, a colorful, typically quartz-powered watch with a Tank Louis Cartier style plated case. Released in a range of eye-catching dials, Les Must de Cartier was a hit. The design, some 60 years old at this point, had already stood the test of time, and, like all good design, wasn’t particularly coded as male or female. Add to this the fact that this new generation of Cartier’s was significantly more accessible in price and was powered by an exciting new technology; it’s easy to see why the line was a hit. Certainly, the renowned pop artist Andy Warhol was a fan, exclaiming, “I don’t wear a Tank to tell the time … I wear a Tank because it’s the watch to wear.” And, if ever you were looking for an example to end the ongoing debate around watch size — look no further than the heavyweight champion of the world, Muhammad Ali, wearing a petite (and perfect) Tank wristwatch, the ’70s equivalent of the Tank LC. The watch worked well with contemporary women’s style too, as the loose tailoring of Charlotte Rampling and the laid- back rock-aesthetic of Patti Smith proved.
This spirit of gender self-expression was something Cartier continued to embrace. Take, for example, the original 1983 release of their elegant bracelet watch, the Panthère de Cartier. While today it’s billed as a women’s watch, in the ’80s, the Panthère de Cartier was worn by Pierce Brosnan and the well-worn wrist of Rolling Stone Keith Richards. Perhaps we will see a new generation of male-identifying heartthrobs adopt the Panthère de Cartier watch. Certainly, the Tank has transitioned well into the 21st century. The design, now over a century old, continues to be a style staple, and not just with the peaked-lapel and dress watch brigade. From singer-songwriters like Troye Sivan and Billie Eilish, Dune star Timothée Chalamet and Schitt’s Creek creator Daniel Levy, a new generation of stars has seen the light of Cartier and are finding new ways to express themselves with the timeless designs.
This year Cartier’s Tank looked to the ’70s for inspiration, specifically the clean lines and rounded brancards of the Must. Cartier released a manually wound nod to the past in the form of two golden Tank Louis Cartier, with classical Deco-inspired dials in blue and burgundy. The focus on color didn’t stop there, as the Maison released a trio of quartz-powered Tank Must in very Cartier hues of blue, green and burgundy. But what really made this color-matched trio stand out was the fact that the design was surprisingly sparse, with nothing on the dial except the Cartier name; no numerals, no railroad track, nothing. And the effect was stunning. It was a masterful nod to the original Tank Vermeil releases. After all, we might have left the polyester and disco in the ’70s, but the lessons around the personal expression of style and the universality of quality are ones we still apply today. And, like the people who wear it, the Tank is moving with the times too.
The ethos of Cartier Tank
Evolving the legendary design isn’t something to be done lightly, as Marie-Laure Cérède, Cartier’s director of watchmaking design, explains: “Cartier heritage is an ever-evolving heritage. Our mission is to nurture and enrich said heritage by introducing the Maison’s vocabulary of tomorrow. Creatively speaking, reworking a jewelry icon like the Tank is incredibly difficult to do since, on the one hand, we need to take connoisseurs’ expectations into account, but on the other, we’re aiming to introduce new generations. For this new version, the challenge lies in the smooth evolution of its lines, rounded brancards and revisited dial proportions. All while remaining as faithful as possible to the historical model with modernized ergonomics that meet today’s requirements.”
However, the biggest change to the star of Cartier’s 2021 lineup, the Tank SolarBeat, isn’t on the outside, but rather on the inside. This new caliber is, as you might guess, solar powered. But rather than the clunky and obvious solar cells that are typical with this sort of technology, the Tank SolarBeat’s photovoltaic cells are subtly incorporated into the Roman numerals and railroad track on the dial, preserving that unique Cartier dial design while allowing for a more sustainable movement. And if you think the power source is impressive, the power reserve is remarkable — the SolarBeat movement offers autonomy for 16 years, a remarkable achievement and one which makes sense given the impressive staying power of the Tank design itself.
On the role of technological innovation at the Maison, Marie-Laure Cérède says: “At Cartier, technique serves aesthetics. The challenge presented to the creative studio and manufacture was to preserve the case’s finesse and the watch design. How could we harness solar power without distorting the Tank?” The smart integration of photovoltaic cells certainly answers this challenge and is an example of the sort of design-led thinking that has ensured the Tank’s status as a perennial favorite for over one hundred years.
Honestly, it makes sense. At the heart of the Tank’s appeal is its design. Good design is universal and isn’t limited by the vagaries of fashion, space or time. This is why the watch, born out of the mechanized innovations of World War I and constantly tweaked and evolved, has remained a style icon for men and women the world over for more than a century.