Style / World of Watches (WOW)

Truly Timeless: Iconic watch Cartier Tank Turns 100

Cartier celebrates the 100th anniversary of the iconic Tank watch with a number of variations on classic themes – and one idiosyncratic version

Oct 04, 2017 | By Jonathan Ho

Tank Louis Cartier large and small model

Hand to heart, how many watch icons can you name, off the top of your mind, which are 100 years old? The Sub? It’s a smidge over 60. The Oak? In its mid 40s. While these exemplars have withstood relative lengths of time, only one watch has survived a centennial of wavering tastes and trends, on that basis, only one watch design which could truly be, defined by its tenure, a true watch icon. That watch is the iconic Carter Tank.

Truly Timeless: The Cartier Tank, a 100 years a Watch Icon

Tank Louis Cartier

With the advent of social media and the internet, ever decreasing attention spans and ever increasing exposure to a myriad of designs and aesthetics have shaped our tastes and attention spans so surely that many previously held “icons” or popular styles are eventually discarded (at best) and worst, wilfully ignored like they never existed (bell bottoms and flared collars anyone?) Yet, for a 100 years, sans a name on the dial and even with another moniker on the dial (e.g. Tiffany), it stands to reason that some watch shapes and forms are so distinctly and irreversibly associated with a brand that by virtue of its history and provenance, it becomes on the world’s most iconic watches.

“The Cartier tank is a celebration of design bravado – only the King of Jewellers would have had the moxie to create a wristwatch based on the form of the tank.” – Ashok Soman, Editor, WOW

My esteemed colleague and fellow watch aficionado, Ashok Soman has said, “The Cartier tank is a celebration of design bravado – only the King of Jewellers would have had the moxie to create a wristwatch based on the form of the tank.” It is not often that we concur (given the acceptance of a diversity of opinions and positions on any given subject) but on this, and as I have stated before, an instrument of war, ushering a wristwatch of such elegance is oddly ironic. The Tank or the Tank watch (where it takes it’s name) is indeed based on the war machine that changed the battlefield forever when it was introduced at the tail-end of World War 1.

Tank Française medium model

Soman correctly points out that the Cartier Tank is the world’s most famous and successful tank-inspired watch. The first Tank rolled out of Louis Cartier’s imagination in 1917, a true-born wristwatch that foreshadowed the rise of this new style in watchmaking. That means that the Tank watch did not exist as a pocket watch, and was conceived to be a mobile treat, where its deadly inspiration was more of a mobile threat.

 “I don’t wear a [Cartier] Tank watch to tell the time. In fact, I never wind it. I wear a Tank because it’s the watch to wear.” –  Andy Warhol

According to Cartier, Louis Cartier actually presented one of the very first Tank watches to General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe during World War I. Truly, its beauty was such that Rudolph Valentino mandated that he would wear the watch in The Son of the Sheik in 1926, despite the incongruity of such a move. And then there is Andy Warhol, who once said that he never bothered winding up his Cartier Tank watch. Here’s how the artist put it: “I don’t wear a [Cartier] Tank watch to tell the time. In fact, I never wind it. I wear a Tank because it’s the watch to wear.”

Tank cintrée skeleton pink gold model with Mechanical movement with manual winding, 9917 MC.

Given Warhol’s inclinations, one can also surmise that Cartier, through their singular act in history, creating the first “tool watch” for a pilot named Santos in 1904, then propelled into motion, the idea that wristwatches weren’t just a niche thing for women, but rather, as Cartier eventually points out, as a practical invention, a watch worn on wrist for soldiers (in this case, a general) in times of war no less. In short, Tank became the watch to wear because it defined the category for wristwatches (but that’s another story – coincidentally, one to catch in the next issue of World of Watches – but I digress).

That said, Warhol is by no means the only celebrity nor the first. The first being the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, Valentino followed, Gary Cooper, Alain Delon, Yves Saint Laurent, Lady Di, Sofia Coppola, Catherine Deneuve, to name more than a few – in fact, if one were seeking commonalities, these individuals were not just celebrities but icons of exquisite tastes and trendsetters of their respective periods. Even Jackie O’s watch is now infamously owned by a Kardashian.

Since the first commercial models of 1919, Cartier has released no less than six different families of Tank watches, showcasing the design strengths and flexibility of the Tank shape. For the 100th anniversary, Cartier debuts new models in the Tank Louis Cartier, Tank Americaine and Tank Francaise ranges. For our part, we are most intrigued by the Cartier Tank Cintree Skeleton, which features the beautiful form calibre 9917 MC. Unlike most Tank variants, this one skips out on the roman numerals, which itself is noteworthy.

This article was co-written by Ashok Soman, Editor, World of Watches

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