The Cartier Tank Will Never Stop Evolving
If you want an example of ageless watch design, you’ll find nothing better than the Cartier Tank. Sitting comfortably among horology’s greats, the Tank is one of most recognisable timepieces in history. Iconic, timeless, elegant; the words worthy of describing the Tank are the usual suspects you normally find in the frothiest of menswear and watch writing, but the difference is that here, they are all incontrovertibly true. There’s no way around it: the Cartier Tank is the don of the watch world, a classic that has remained so for a century. But how?
Before we get to that, it’s important to look at how the watch came to be in the first place. Mr Louis Cartier – the grandson of the business’s original founder Mr Louis-François Cartier – first designed the prototype for the Cartier Tank in 1917 after witnessing Renault tanks – the hulking great machines made by the French that lumbered along the Western Front in the First World War. The elegant, sleek design of the timepiece bears little resemblance to a real-life tank at first sight, of course, but the subtle military nuances are apparent in the rectangular shape, and the two bars on the side of the watch face (known as the brancards), which effortlessly hold the straps in place.
Then there are the other details: Roman numerals on the dial are as integral to the soul of the Tank as the checkered chemin de fer (or railroad) design that denotes the chapter ring, the blue sword-shaped hands and the blue cabochon that’s set on the winding crown. Taken as one, these small, thoughtful details make for a marvel of horological design; is longevity is anything to go by, it has certainly proved a success. While the aforementioned Renault tanks were decommissioned after the war, Cartier’s version has been thriving and continuing to build on its legacy ever since.
“I don’t wear a Tank to tell the time. In fact, I never wind it. I wear a Tank because it’s the watch to wear”
Mr Andy Warhol
More recently, the maison updated the design further with the Tank Must, a contemporary model that nonetheless remains loyal to the original. First introduced in 1977 as a more accessible entry-point for the brand, it remained relatively unknown until the brand revived it at the Watches and Wonders fair in Geneva this year. With classic leather straps as well as a model with an interchangeable steel strap, the new Tank Must is solar-powered thanks to an innovation that allows sunlight to reach the photovoltaic cells beneath the dial. According to Mr Pierre Rainero, the director of image, style and heritage at Cartier, “[The Must watches] have withstood the test of time thanks to their instantly recognisable style, but also their excellent craftsmanship, which Cartier applies to all its creations right down to the smallest detail.
This fastidious attention to the smaller things is integral to the Tank. A century ago, when it was first released, the watch was considered androgynous and almost ascetic compared to the other Art Nouveau styles of the time. But by creating it, Mr Cartier had hit on something rare and fluid; the Tank was something that could be worn to meetings at the office, but also to lunch or dinner, or even while playing sports, as well as handed down through the generations. Famously worn by everyone from Mr Muhammad Ali to Mr Alain Delon, Princess Diana to Mr Kanye West, it has proven endlessly versatile in who it charms. In this, it has come to represent one simple thing that transcends other boundaries: good taste. Mr Andy Warhol, another fan, put it well when he once said: “I don’t wear a Tank to tell the time. In fact, I never wind it. I wear a Tank because it’s the watch to wear.”
It remains so today; in 2021 Cartier continues to put the Tank at the front of centre of its business. Though it has largely stayed true to the original blueprint, the Tank has gone through many notable variations, from the square-faced Tank Obus (1929) to the Tank Américaine (1989) and the Tank Solo (2004). The Tank Louis Cartier is considered the most famous and is in fact a reworked version of the very first design that Mr Cartier conceived as early as 1922; it has a marginally wider case and softened edges.
Still, instead of trying to parse how and why the Tank is so remarkable, perhaps the best thing to do is simply to sit back appreciate it. Here is something with gravitas that can be passed down through the generations, suitable for anyone who wants to wear it. What defines a great watch more than that?