Why I love the Cartier Tank: an iconic watch for over 100 years

I recently had dinner at Harry’s Bar in London with a friend who also happens to be a world famous and very influential contemporary watch collector. So in theory I should have been surprised to see him wearing a steel quartz watch.

My friend is courted by auction houses, retailers and brand CEOs, all concerned that he gives the imprimatur of his approval by including one of their watches in his collection. I imagine there were watch bosses across Switzerland with big, devilishly smart and priced to move complications that gritted their teeth in fury that a battery-powered, time-only watch took up a wrist space of first order which could otherwise have been occupied by a double tourbillon minute repeater equation of time perpetual calendar moon phases.

But damn bruxism. There he was, thrilled like a punch, with the new Cartier Tank Must with a green dial on his wrist; he had received it in the mail that morning with a burgundy for his wife. Hearing our conversation, a friend at another table rushed over, also brandishing a new Must. He was wearing the blue iteration but had taken the wise precaution of purchasing all the colors. Suddenly my mind swam with images of mail carriers lifting bags of Cartier watches around Mayfair and Belgravia and sorting offices filled with clockwork.

Such is the power of Cartier these days that a (relatively) inexpensive and (extremely) cheerful retread of a great classic from the 1970s, first introduced by Alain Dominique Perrin in 1977, has become a hit with serious collectors and civilians.

Muhammad Ali wearing a Cartier Tank in London in 1976

Five years ago, it was a whole different story. Sales of Cartier watches were declining as the brand chased the market for complications and bulky sports models. There was absolutely nothing wrong with these watches, but to me they reminded me of Paul Newman’s observation of going out for a burger when you have a steak at home. Cartier has one of the best old catalogs in the industry, but he largely ignored it and tried to settle into spaces already occupied. If I want a complication, I visit Patek Philippe; if i get into diving, rolex has been in the submariner business for almost 70 years.

It seems I wasn’t the only person to think this way. Cyrille Vigneron shared my point of view and luckily, as the new CEO of Cartier, he was able to do something. He realized that real men didn’t always need to flaunt their manhood with a burger watch, and that when the situation called for it, they could tap into Cartier chic. After taking the helm in 2016, he reissues some of the great classics: the Santos, the Panthère, the Pasha and now the Tank Must. At the same time, he released limited editions of what makes Cartier vibrate: the Tonneau, the Cloche, the Crash, the Cintrée and the Asymmetric.

I have always seen a Cartier timepiece as an essential component of a certain somewhat decadent Parisian elegance – a sort of watchmaking distillation of a multigenerational journey through the Paris of Boni de Castellane, Bernard Boutet de Monvel, Yves Montand , Yves Saint Laurent and Alain Delon. And the king among Cartier watches is, of course, the Tank, which debuted just before the 1920s started to roar and the watch became the choice of the jazz age elite. It has been modern since its launch over 100 years ago.

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About Laurence Johnson

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