Cartier Watches: A Review
One of the truly legendary names in both jewelry and watch making, Cartier is a brand immune to the whims of fashion.
The ‘jeweler of kings and the king of jewelers’, Cartier has been in existence for over 170-years, and in that time has gifted the horology industry with a number of its most renowned icons.
From the middle of the 19th century right up to the present day, their name has always been synonymous with the highest standards of luxury and elegance, and the marque has continually pushed the boundaries of what is possible in terms of both engineering and style.
Below, we take a closer look into the history of one of the most illustrious manufactures of all time, and detail some of their greatest achievements.
In 1847, just 50-years after the end of the French Revolution, Louis-Francois Cartier took over the watchmaking workshop of his master, Adolphe Picard.
Located on the Rue Montorgueil in Paris, the modest premises where Cartier had served out his apprenticeship would serve as his new HQ only briefly. An astute businessman, Cartier was able to leverage his discerning eye for luxurious jewelry and timepieces and transformed his fledgling company into a firm favorite of Europe’s elite, including much of the leading aristocracy.
After relocating several times to evermore fashionable locations, the enterprise eventually settled, in 1899, at 13 Rue de la Paix in what is now Paris’s jewelry quarter, where it still resides today.
By that time, Louis-Francois’s son, Alfred had joined the business, as had Alfred’s own sons, Louis, Pierre and Jacques, and the gravitas of the Cartier name soon attracted other jewelers to the area. Eventually the quarter mile-long street in the city’s 2nd arrondissement turned into the spiritual home of the most exclusive artisanal craftsmen and haute couture fashion brands.
Cartier and the World’s First Tool Watch
It was Louis Cartier, grandson to the original founder and the man left in charge of the Paris branch of the business, who would record the brand’s biggest success story to date in 1904.
A great friend to celebrated aviation pioneer, Alberto-Santos Dumont, the famed Brazilian pilot approached Cartier in need of a solution to a particular problem.
The pocket watch Dumont wore while flying was proving too cumbersome in the claustrophobic confines of his lighter-than-air dirigible and so, in an era when only women sported wristwatches, he commissioned Cartier to make him a timepiece he could strap to his arm.
The result, a flat model with a square bezel which took its inspiration from a similarly shaped pocket watch Cartier had been producing for a number of years, would become known as the Cartier Santos—and it can, according to many experts, claim the title as the first mass-produced men’s wristwatch ever made. Not only that, it was also most definitely the world’s first pilot’s watch.
The Santos would go into full production in 1911, by which time Cartier had teamed up with Edmond Jaeger of distinguished watch brand Jaeger-LeCoultre, and the two entered into an agreement for Jaeger to be Cartier’s exclusive movement’s supplier.
The Tank and Beyond
The early 20th century was a Golden Age for Cartier. Their boutiques were opening all over the world, from London to St. Petersburg, and the maison started producing rafts of models which would go on to define both the brand and watchmaking in general.
In 1912 they launched the Baignoire, a gloriously elegant, elongated oval of a watch that could have stepped straight out of a Salvador Dali dream (Cartier actually launched the Cartier Crash in 1967, which took the Baignoire as its template but warped the case into an asymmetrical shape in a direct nod to the melting clocks in Dali’s ‘The Persistence of Memory’ masterpiece).
That same year they also unveiled the first of their Tortue line. Taking its name from the French word for tortoise, the model featured a more masculine, wider stance with flared, bulging flanks. It and the Baignoire are still part of the contemporary lineup.
But the best was yet to come. In 1917, Cartier debuted the Tank, a long rectangular variation on the Santos said to have been inspired by the treads of the Renault FT-17 light tanks Louis experienced during WWI.
The Tank was a triumph from the start and is arguably still the brand’s most famous work. The first model was presented to U.S. general John Pershing in 1918 and the watch would go on to be associated with some of the biggest names of that or any era.
Clark Gable and Fred Astaire were both fans. Rudolph Valentino infamously wore his during his last movie role in The Son of the Sheik. Andy Warhol had one, not because he wanted to tell the time (he didn’t even wind it) but simply because it was ‘the watch to wear’.
It was also a great unisex piece. Michelle Obama and Princess Diana both had examples, as did Jackie Kennedy. Hers became the most expensive Tank ever in 2017 when it was sold at auction for $379,500 to, er…Kim Kardashian!
By this time, the manufacture had become so successful rival watchmakers had started to produce virtual imitations of its watches. So in the 1920s, Cartier began adding reference numbers to their timepieces.
But by the second half of the century, a significant reorganization of the business was needed.
When Pierre, the last of founder Louis-Francois Cartier’s three grandsons, died in 1964, the other family members; Jean-Jacques (Jacques’s son), Claude (Louis’s son) and Marion (Pierre’s daughter) decided to sell the company.
The brand was actually split into separate entities at this point, and so it was Cartier-Paris which was bought out first, sold to industrialist Robert Hocq, acting as buying agent for Continental Business Syndicate, an investment group led by financier Joseph Kanoui.
In 1974 and 1976 respectively, the consortium also assumed control of Cartier-London and Cartier-New York and was able to reunite the company in its entirety for the first time since the 1950s.
The following years saw much activity behind the scenes as well as in front. Cartier acquired majority stakes in both Piaget and Baume & Mercier in 1988 and five years later the Vendôme Luxury Group was formed which brought Cartier, Dunhill, Baume & Mercier, Piaget, Montblanc and others under one corporate umbrella.
Finally, in 2012, the brand was bought by Richemont, the enormous conglomerate owned by the billionaire Johann Rupert, and Elle Pagels, granddaughter of Pierre Cartier.
Cartier is one of those brands for which the term ‘timeless’ could have been invented.
As a result of that, and the fact they have one of the most well-populated catalogs of pioneering innovation in the history of watchmaking, their timepieces tend to hold their value very well.
Fortunately what they also have, despite their connections with the most flagrantly glamorous and opulent style icons of the last 150-years, are examples for just about any budget.
Below, we pick out two vintage Cartiers well worth your consideration.
The Cartier Santos
The first ever mass-produced men’s wristwatch, the Cartier Santos is a vital chapter in horology’s long history.
It was a revelation in its day, with its rounded square case lending it enough of a masculine edge to be an acceptable wear for men in the very early 20th century, and the whole aesthetic was shot through with an inimitable Parisian élan. The screws securing the bezel were meant to bring to mind the legs of the recently constructed Eiffel Tower and the design of the Roman numeral indexes was suggestive of the layout of Paris’s Centre-ville, with its radial pattern devised by Baron Haussmann in the 1850s.
The watch was renamed the Santos de Cartier in 1978 and redesigned to capture the enthusiasm for a new genre of timepiece, the luxury sports watch.
So the traditional leather strap was replaced with an integrated bracelet and the Santos appeared for the first time with a steel case, topped with a gold bezel.
The changes lowered the price of the watch and simultaneously upped its desirability, and today these examples still make one of the best value vintage Cartier buys. Pieces from the late ‘70s to mid ‘80s can be had for around the $5,000 mark.
The Cartier Tank
Like the Santos, the Cartier Tank became a huge success right from the off when it was introduced in 1917.
Since then it has been released in more than 30 different variations—some of the more well-known being the slimmer, curved Tank Cintrée from 1921, the Tank Chinoise from the following year, which featured horizontal bars above and below the dial, inspired by the lines of a Chinese temple and, coming right up to date, the Tank MC from 2013 (MC standing for Manufacture Caliber to signify the watch was powered by an in-house movement, complete with display case back).
Yet for all the diversity, there are a handful of details shared by each version; the elongated Roman numerals (for the most part), chemin-de-fer chapter ring, blue steel hands and the sapphire cabochon crown.
Again, as with the Santos, it is those pieces from the 1970s and 1980s which offer the best value for money. Here you will find superb examples for around $6,000.
If you go for one of the Must de Cartier Tank collection, from a series of lower-priced models brought out in 1977, you can pay significantly less. With similar visuals, these have gold-coated sterling silver cases, known as vermeil, and are driven by either quartz or ETA mechanical movements rather than the ultra thin Piaget engines of the standard range.
Like many of the top houses, Cartier’s present-day watch portfolio consists, at its core, of models which have been in production for many years (over a century in some cases). But all have been updated during their individual runs to cater to either new technology, new fashions or both.
So the Santos (from 1904) is still very much there, as is the Tank (1917). Others, such as the Tortue and Panthère ranges stem from 1912 and 1957 respectively.
However, that is not to say Cartier has lagged behind. The brand has continued to innovate and in 2009, opened their own laboratory where they have come up with some impressive pioneering breakthroughs. Among them is an alternative, more accurate version of a standard tourbillon movement which was used on their Astrorégulateur model, as well as concept watches made from Ceramyst, a polycrystalline ceramic also used to make the bombproof windows of the White House.
Rotonde de Cartier Minute Repeater Mysterious Double Tourbillon
The Rotonde de Cartier series is where the brand goes to really let its hair down. While the collection does contain a number of simple and elegant three-handers, set in pleasingly unassuming rounded cases, at the other end of the scale, we get to delve into some truly extraordinary examples of haute horlogerie.
One such beast is the Rotonde de Cartier Minute Repeater Mysterious Double Tourbillon, a 45mm, massively complex titanium watch costing somewhere in the region of half a mill!
The story here is all about the complications. The minute repeater, a function which allows the wearer to activate a mechanical chime at the touch of a button, uses hardened steel gongs, tuned to a B for the hours and a D for the minutes, with the perfect resonance maintained through the use of a silent inertia flywheel.
The tourbillon rotates every 60-seconds and is held inside a sapphire disc, which itself turns on its axis every five minutes, giving it a floating, or ‘mysterious’, look. It is all inspired by Cartier’s floating clocks of the 1910s.
Together, they are perhaps the two most challenging complications in watchmaking, and the movement is made up of 448 individual components.
The best thing is, you get to see it all unfold, with a completely open worked face leaving everything on show.
The Drive de Cartier
Released in 2016, the Drive de Cartier series is one of the newest from the manufacture.
It managed to pull off the challenging trick of introducing a fresh case shape without losing any of Cartier’s signature aesthetic codes—even without the branding, you would know this was a Cartier.
There are currently some 20 watches in the collection, ranging from steel time-and-date, through dual time zone and moonphase examples, and up to flying tourbillon gold models.
A particular favorite is from the entry level, a steel 41mm piece, with black flinquè dial and large white Roman numeral indexes.
Inside is a Cartier manufacture movement, the caliber 1904-PS MC, with a 28,800vph frequency and 48-hour reserve, driving the main hands, along with a small seconds sub dial and a date display at the three o’clock.
An absolute study in discreet, masculine sophistication, it can be had brand new for under $7,000, or preowned starting at around $5,000.
— Feauted Photo: Pixabay Archive, Licensed by Creative Commons 2.0.