Why Watch Experts Believe Vintage Cartier Could Be The Next Big Thing
Cartier Tank Obus, 1940s. Photograph courtesy of Analogue/Shift
The world of vintage watches is a constant myriad of tastes and styles, from the impossible to nail down to simple trends. But certain brands and ideas do tend to “have a moment” from time to time. Our tip for 2021 and beyond? Vintage Cartier looks to be on the up. One of the biggest watch brands in the world today, Cartier’s back catalogue isn’t as well-known as you might think, and remains the preserve of a limited number of dedicated connoisseurs. We spoke to four of them to find out why it holds such mystique, what the key pieces are to look out for and where to start if you’re new to the brand.
From left to right: Cartier Cloche de Cartier, 1990s; photograph courtesy of Christie’s. Cartier London Crash Wristwatch, 1967; photograph by Mr Vincent Wulveryck, courtesy of Cartier Collection. Cartier Tank L.C. Wristwatch, 1925; photograph by Mr Nick Welsh, courtesy of Cartier Collection
“Cartier is a fascinating brand,” says Mr George Cramer, author of Cartier: The Gentleman’s Files. “Through the years, it has been the leader when it comes to style and trends. The Cartier look is always recognisable.”
It’s hard to argue. Where most watch brands are lucky if they have one case shape you recognise from across a room – a Monaco, Royal Oak or Luminor – Cartier has several – the many styles of the Tank, Santos, Pasha and Crash. Even its less well-known designs are completely original.
“Cartier always had fascinating cases, and the good thing is that Cartier still relies on those case designs from the past, unlike for instance Rolex or Patek Philippe,” says Mr Cramer. “Both brands have a nice, but currently unpopular, vintage back catalogue of rare case designs. Cartier has a rich history and they use everything so well in their catalogue.”
Its status as a jeweller as well as a watchmaker will always set Cartier aside from the grand maisons of Swiss watchmaking, but it played a huge part in watch history. As Mr James Dowling, collector, dealer and writer puts it: “First, Cartier has an excellent claim to have invented the wristwatch. To someone who loves the history of the wristwatch, that’s a damned good reason to collect them. Second, as someone who mostly wears Rolex sports watches, I need something different to strap on my wrist on the odd occasion I have to wear a suit and tie.”
Anyone discussing vintage Cartier will soon start talking about “Cartier London”, “Cartier Paris” or “Cartier New York”. Uniquely, Cartier was run from the three separate locations as almost completely separate businesses – and watches from each contain small differences and are usually signed accordingly. This setup lasted until the mid 1970s, and serious collectors have their own preferences between the three Cartiers.
“Over 30 years ago, I bought a vintage Tank on Portobello Road, one Saturday morning,” says Mr Dowling. “It turned out to be the very first Tank ever sold by Cartier London. The last piece I bought was a Cartier New York Tank from the late 1940s/early 1950s. Cartier New York produced the fewest watches of the three houses, so, if I can get one from them or London, I will.”
As you would also expect, each “house” of Cartier had different periods in the ascendancy. Collector and author Mr John Goldberger has one of the largest collections of vintage Cartier on the planet. “It covers the period from the 1920s to 1990s, but I focused on the platinum Cartier Paris wristwatches from the 1920s to the 1940s,” he says. “Another interesting period was during the Swinging London era with the portfolio by Cartier London from the 1960s to 1970s. The models offered there by Jacques Cartier (the last of the Cartier family to own and manage a branch of the world-famous jewellery firm) have a unique design, completely different from the Paris wristwatches.”
Mr Andy Warhol at the Galerie Gunter Sachs, Hamburg, 1972. Photograph by Ms Angelika Platen/akg-images
Who else could boast Princess Diana, Ms Jackie Kennedy, Mr Fred Astaire, Mr Duke Ellington, Mr Clark Gable, Ms Ingrid Bergman, Mr Muhammad Ali, Mr Yves Saint Laurent, Mr Alain Delon, Sir Elton John, Mr Jacques Chirac, Ms Greta Garbo, Mr William Randolph Hearst, Mr Tom Cruise, Ms Michelle Obama and Ms Audrey Hepburn as clients? Not to mention most of the British royal family at some point or other, and various maharajahs, sultans and princes around the world.
Mr Truman Capote was such a passionate Tank collector that, legend has it, he once broke off an interview to insist the reporter change his timepiece, saying, “Take that ugly watch off your wrist and put this one on,” handing over his Cartier. “I beg you, keep it. I have at least seven at home.”
And of course, one of the most well-known quotes about the Cartier Tank comes from Mr Andy Warhol, who said that “I don’t wear a Cartier Tank to tell the time… I wear it because it’s the watch to wear”.
But Mr Warhol’s love for the brand was genuine, as Mr Goldberger recalls. “In 1978, at a flea market in New York, I met Andy Warhol and he was browsing on the stalls, searching for vintage Cartier watches with help of a dealer,” he says. “She showed to me two Pebble Cartier London wristwatches that I’d never seen before. I couldn’t buy them at the time, but after 10 years, I found these models and I purchased them.”
With its three-pronged history of 20th-century production, and stellar reputation, it’s no surprise that the sheer variety of vintage Cartier is enormous. You can zoom in on specific eras, models, styles or – whisper it – collect Cartier items beyond watches, too.
Ask any Cartier collector for their favourites, and it’s a guarantee you’ll get a long answer. “It’s like being asked to choose your favourite child,” says collector Mr Roni Madhvani. “In terms of modern, it would be my black dial Crash that was made specially made for me. In terms of vintage probably the so-called Cartier Arrondie, which was a unique piece made for an Italian nobleman in the 1970s with a beautiful enamelled bezel. But I also collect Cartier fountain pens, a few lovely lighters from the time I could smoke and various objets d’art like photo frames. In terms of Holy Grails, there are several: the original London Crash, the Pebble, the Maxi Oval and the Tank à Guichet. Or the jump hour from the 1930s/1940s.”
Cartier Skeletonized Grand Complication Pocketwatch, 1931. Photograph courtesy of Mr John Goldberger
As we’ve heard, Cartier deserves its reputation for style – but just because its best-known watches are simple three-handers doesn’t mean it doesn’t also have serious horological prowess in its back catalogue. However, you may have to hunt for it.
“Before Christmas, I purchased a present for myself,” says Mr Goldberger. “With the help of an excellent dealer, a good friend of mine, I bought a unique skeletonised gold Cartier perpetual calendar, minute repeating and split seconds chronograph pocket watch, manufactured in 1931 in Paris. And one of my personal Holy Grails is something I’ve only seen in a photo from in Cartier’s archive: a gold, square, monopusher chronograph with an unusual gold bracelet.”
Where to start
So, where can an aspiring Cartier collector begin?
“I have never been without a Tank of some description for 40 years,” says Mr Dowling. “Draw your own conclusions. Equally, the Must de Cartier range is an ideal ‘starter’ Cartier and will let you know how you feel about wearing such a tiny watch. They are pretty easy to find and can be seen for around £1,000.”
If you fancy going straight for something a bit rarer, but perhaps want the reliability of a modern-era watch, seek out something called the CPCP (Collection Privée Cartier Paris), a range of models produced in limited numbers between 1998 and 2008. “During the past year, both the London Crash and the Paris Crash have been extremely popular,” says Mr Cramer. “But still under-estimated are the CPCP Tank Obus and Tank Chinoise. And the Cloche from this collection, re-released in 2006, is impossible to find.”
Whatever you go for, doing your homework is essential. Compared with the community for vintage Omega, Heuer, Rolex or Patek, there is comparatively little knowledge out there, but don’t be deterred. As Mr Madhvani says, “Cartier is one of the brands with plenty of information on its vintage watches with some excellent books, and there are some great collectors on Instagram who are ever so helpful. Sadly, the brand has stopped confirming the authenticity of its own vintage watches, which is not so great for a collector. There are many fake vintage Cartiers out there, so one needs to be very careful and only buy from a reliable and credible source.”