The Centenarian

The Centenarian

In World War I, Winston Churchill put his faith in the power of the tank to overcome the challenges of fighting in the trenches. The success of the armored vehicles became readily apparent, and the tank soon became the shining example of innovation for a modern military campaign. Louis Cartier was a humble military driver for the French military and was able to witness the power of the tank firsthand during his service. Released from duty in 1917, Cartier returned from combat with an appreciation for the powerful machines and an inspiration based on their unique rectangular silhouette as viewed from above. The popular Cubist movement had its imprint on Cartier’s designs as well, inspiring him to stray from the narrative of round watches.

Portrait of Louis Cartier
Portrait of Louis Cartier

Cartier was an artist, but he was also a savvy businessman who knew his way around a marketing campaign. His grandfather was Louis-François Cartier, founder of the Cartier company, and Louis and his brothers were running the business. Using the successful design concepts from his earlier iconic square model, the Santos, as a starting point, he designed the first Tank watch. The brancards were said to represent the treads of a tank and the square case resembled the main housing. To further solidify the connection of this watch to the war machine, he presented the prototype to General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe.

Cartier Santos-Dumont from 1916
Cartier Santos-Dumont from 1916

The Roaring ’20s

Through 1919 and 1920, only six of the Tank Normale models were sold. By the early 1920s, wristwatches had become a standard accessory for fashion-conscious men, and the Cartier Tank saw several popular iterations to keep up with the trends. The world was fascinated by Asian heritage, and so a Tank Chinoise was created with lugs that resembled the architecture of a Chinese temple. The Cartier Tank enjoyed its first cinematic appearance when Rudolph Valentino insisted on wearing his Tank during the filming of The Son of the Sheik. Fred Astaire bought his Tank Cintrée in 1928, an elongated version with a gently curving case that was only released in limited editions and remains one of the rarest models today. Duke Ellington sported a Cartier Tank à Guichets as he packed the Cotton Club.

Above from left: Cartier Tank Louis Cartier from 1925; Tank Cintrée from 1929; Cartier Tank à Guichets; Tank Chinoise Depression.
Above from left: Cartier Tank Louis Cartier from 1925; Tank Cintrée from 1929; Cartier Tank à Guichets; Tank Chinoise Depression.
Vilma Banky and Rudolph Valentino in the 1926 film, The Son of the Sheik. Valentino insisted on wearing his treasured Cartier Tank during the filming
Vilma Banky and Rudolph Valentino in the 1926 film, The Son of the Sheik. Valentino insisted on wearing his treasured Cartier Tank during the filming

A rare find today, the Tank à Guichets featured the familiar rectangular shape but only had two apertures on the dial for the hour and the jumping minutes.

The 1930s and ’40s

Cartier released several new models through these decades including the Tank Basculante from 1932 that was created in response to the growing trend for robust sports watches. The Basculante was visually very different with its innovative mechanism that allowed the case to pivot by 360 degrees and nest into a second case for protection during strenuous sport.

Cartier Tank Basculante in 1932. The innovative mechanism allowed the case to pivot by 360 degrees and nest into a second case for protection
Cartier Tank Basculante in 1932. The innovative mechanism allowed the case to pivot by 360 degrees and nest into a second case for protection

The Tank Asymétrique of 1936 featured a large dial and flat ribbed crown, its lines wavering from the rigidity of the previous models. Additionally, the markers were rotated so that the 6 and 12 were in the corners of the case for an asymmetric design that gave the watch a surreal aspect.

Tank Oblique
Tank Oblique

Cartier was not immune to the economic impact of the market crash that spiraled the world into the Great Depression. Just as the wristwatch had fully replaced the pocket watch, the demand for high-end products took a significant downturn. The company had grown accustomed to a business of 500 wristwatches a year in the 1920s, but that number had fallen to 130 by 1932.

As the world recovered, Cartier began to introduce new models that experimented with their identity. The iconic railroad track shrank to a single line or disappeared altogether, and shapes grew heavier. Louis Cartier passed in 1942, and there followed a sustained decline in new variations for the Tank that would last several decades. Some notable exceptions were the Tank Rectangle of 1946 with its “thick” design and the Tank Carrée of 1944.

The ’50s to ’70s

The 1950s saw a resurgence in demand for the square Tanks of old as the popularity of the round wristwatch experienced a resurgence. The Cartier Tank became the favorite of those who wished to stand apart and display an independent spirit. As the ’60s and ’70s introduced social upheaval and a complete disruption to the rules of fashion, the Tank stayed true to its roots with great success. A variety of celebrities across all different walks of life continued to show loyalty to the classic timepiece, including Elizabeth Taylor, Muhammad Ali, Ingrid Bergman and Clark Gable.

Muhammad Ali with his Cartier Tank
Muhammad Ali with his Cartier Tank

Despite the introduction of only a few new variations in this long period, such as the Broad Rectangle of 1952 and the Mini Tank Allongée of 1962, the Cartier Tank maintained its status as an indisputable icon and timeless classic. Andy Warhol famously wore his without bothering to wind it because, as he said, “I don’t wear a Tank to tell the time. In fact, I never wind it. I wear a Tank watch because it’s the watch to wear.”

Cartier Tank Rectangle Broad
Cartier Tank Rectangle Broad
Tank Allongée
Tank Allongée

The Modern Era

In 1977, the quartz movement made its way into the Tank watch with the Tank Must de Cartier. The numerals disappeared entirely, and the familiar creamy white dial was replaced by a monotone lacquer in deep red and later blue, black and other colors. This model was exceptional for another reason as material changes allowed the price to drop into a range accessible by a whole new set of customers.

Must de Cartier Tank
Must de Cartier Tank

In 1993, the Tank Américaine up-sized the original Cintrée. Princess Diana was often photographed with her gold version of the Tank Française, and Michelle Obama wore a stainless steel Tank Française in her 2009 official portrait as First Lady.

Princess Diana wearing her Cartier Tank
Princess Diana wearing her Cartier Tank

Cartier has also ventured into the imagination with the Divan of 2002, which gave us a Tank that had been rotated 180 degrees for a horizontal take on the classic style, and the Tank Folle of 2012 with its recognizable Tank DNA warped into a Dali-esque whimsical shape. In the late ’90s, the appetite for mechanical watches drove Cartier Paris to release the Cartier Paris Collection Privée (CPCP) series of original Tank shapes with mechanical movements from partners such as Jaeger-LeCoultre and Frédéric Piguet.

Cartier Crash London
Cartier Crash London

With the release of the 2009 Tank Américaine Tourbillon Volant, the world saw the first Cartier in- house movement with the Geneva Seal under the Cartier Fine Watchmaking division. This successful milestone was followed by many more haute horlogerie movements including the Tank LC Sapphire Skeleton in 2014.

“The must watches are part of the maison’s heritage and legend… They have withstood the test of time thanks to their instantly recognizable style, but also their excellent craftsmanship, which cartier applies to all its creations right down to the smallest detail.”

Pierre Rainero, Director of Image, Style and Heritage at Cartier

The 2021 Collection

Tank Must, extra-large model with automatic winding caliber 1847 MC
Tank Must, extra-large model with automatic winding caliber 1847 MC

We’ve witnessed the entire evolution that brings the long history of the Cartier Tank updated with the most modern of innovation and sensibility. The 2021 Tank Must draws strong inspiration from the original Tank Louis Cartier, but brings in an element of sustainability with modern technologies. The Tank Must SolarBeat has successfully applied photovoltaic cells beneath the dial with hidden perforations in the classically styled Roman numerals that allow light to filter through.

Tank Must, large and small models, powered by SolarBeat photovoltaic movement
Tank Must, large and small models, powered by SolarBeat photovoltaic movement

The development team behind this innovation was able to integrate this SolarBeat movement that gives an average of 16 years’ lifespan. It’s the first watch to benefit from this technology. In addition, they’ve manufactured a strap 100 percent free of animal materials that delivers the quality and comfort that Cartier customers are accustomed to, with the sustainability that the modern consumer expects.

With the renewal of our fascination with all things ’80s and ’90s, the Tank Must is also paying homage to the successful monochromatic models of 1977 with three new models that harken back to the red, blue and green lacquered dials without ornamentation or markers. While they are powered by a quartz movement, the minimalist monochromatic colors with matching leather straps, at an entry-level pricing, make them a popular model in the Tank series.

Cartier Tank Must 2021 collection in red, green and blue colorways
Cartier Tank Must 2021 collection in red, green and blue colorways

The Tank Louis Cartier of 1917 gets a fresh revisit as well with two new limited edition models that add a touch of red or blue color to the classic original style. With the golden rail track, Roman numeral markers and faithful homage to that first design, the chromatic contrasts add a beautiful twist to a classic.

Tank Louis Cartier in 18K rose gold with manual winding caliber 1917 MC
Tank Louis Cartier in 18K rose gold with manual winding caliber 1917 MC

Eternal Elegance

With the unusual square shape and the elegance of the variations and designs, it’s no mystery that the Cartier Tank has been a perennial favorite for those with taste and sophistication. The Cartier family built a dynasty on finding beauty through good times and difficult times, and their lasting legacy is in the continued fascination with the classic sophistication of this timepiece. It will forever be “the watch to wear.”

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