The History of the Cartier Tank
Vying for the title of most enduringly sophisticated timepiece ever made, Cartier’s Tank has enjoyed more than a century as the wristwatch of the elegant elite.
It was originally produced in the first few years of the 20th century during a particularly fruitful time for the ‘king of jewelers and jeweler of kings’. It followed on from the Santos de Cartier, arguably the world’s first tool watch, built for famed Brazilian aviator, Alberto Santos-Dumont. However, while the Santos is still an ageless classic, even it comes second to the Tank in the legendary stakes.
Over the years, the model has been worn by some of history’s greatest style icons and, crucially, has found equally welcoming homes on both male and female wrists.
Today, it remains Cartier’s bestselling watch and is available, as it has been throughout most of its life, in a bewildering number of different variations.
Below, we explore the history of this incredible creation.
The Cartier Tank: History
The genesis of the Cartier Tank is one of the more well known horological stories and, as with many others, has now been accepted as fact regardless of how true it might be. Penned in 1917 by Louis Cartier, the grandson of brand founder, Louis-François Cartier, it is said he drew inspiration for the radical design from the shape of a Renault FT-17 tank seen from above. Those famous side branchards were meant to represent the tank’s tracks, as was the trademark chemin de fer (railway) style minutes ring running inside the hour markers. The case itself, which was square on the earliest models, denoted the tank’s main body.
However, rather than looking like some form of soulless mechanized appliance, the original reference was swept through with the artistic influences of the period, namely the dawn of both Cubism and Germany’s Bauhaus School.
The Roman numeral indexes radiated obliquely outwards from the center, distorting into the edges of the dial. The blued steel hands were originally of the Breguet-style, with openwork discs near the tips. In all, Cartier adopted the Bauhaus doctrine of form following function and kept everything as simple and pure as possible, eschewing any grand flourishes for their own sake, with the one exception of the single cabochon-cut sapphire mounted on the knurled winding crown.
Inside, and often overlooked when talking about the Tank, ticked a movement built by Edmond Jaeger. Cartier and Jaeger would go on to enjoy a long and mainly fruitful relationship and together formed the European Watch & Clock Company. Jaeger designed the calibers, which were then fabricated by Swiss firm LeCoultre.
The Cartier Tank: Production
The prototype of Cartier’s Tank watch was presented to U.S. General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe, in 1918 as a token of thanks after WWI.
The first models presented to the public, renamed the Tank Normale, went on sale at the end of the following year but, as each was handmade, amounted to only six examples. All were sold within a few months. In 1920, Cartier ramped up manufacture significantly and made…33! These too found homes quickly and by the end of the decade, yearly production averaged 104 watches. But the Wall Street Crash of 1929 put the scuppers on luxury goods as a whole and in the next five years, Cartier sold just 102 Tanks in total. Indeed, it would take until the 1960s before the brand would make more than 100 of the model in any one year again. As a result, one of the bestselling watches in the world sold fewer than 6,000 units in its first half century of existence.
The Cartier Tank: In the 1920s
The disappointing sales prompted Cartier to come up with the first of a dizzying array of variations on its main theme over the years. In 1921, they introduced the Tank Cintrée, a lengthened and curved version of the Normale which was designed to better hug the wrist.
That was followed in 1922 by the Tank Louis Cartier, with a rounded rectangular case which became known as the ‘default Tank’. Also that year came the Tank Chinoise, tapping into the period’s craze for all things Far Eastern, with its branchards fashioned to look like the lintels of a Chinese temple. And the Tank Allongée, or ‘elongated’, a slimmer, stretched version.
These too enjoyed only modest success at the time, although they are now some of the most collectible watches in the industry. But if the Tank’s list of wearers was small, it was also select and those who loved the watch, loved it dearly.
That was demonstrated in 1926 when Rudolph Valentino, starring in the movie The Son of the Sheik, a period piece supposedly set in ancient Arabia, refused to remove his during filming. It would be the Tank’s first taste of the limelight, but not its last.
The great Duke Ellington, for example, proudly wore his Tank à Guichets (for ‘counters’), a bizarre aberration which showed jumping hours and minutes through two small windows on an otherwise solid gold face.
By the end of the decade, Cartier also gave us the Tank Savonette with its protective cover over the dial and the Petite Tank Rectangle, one of the few alternatives aimed exclusively at women.
The Cartier Tank: In the 1930s
If the Great Depression hit luxury sales hard, it didn’t slow Cartier down with their variations on the Tank. Early into the 1930s they released a further three options. The Tank Forme Baguette presented another lengthened rectangle.
The Tank 8 Jours had a second mainspring barrel to give an eight-day power reserve, an incredible achievement for the time. And the Tank Étanche (French for ‘impermeable’) had a lockable crown and a sealed inner case to give it a high degree of waterproofness—another impressive feat, for both the 1930s and a rectangular watch.
But even with these, sales were extremely muted. So low, in fact, that in 1933 LeCoultre cancelled their contract with the brand, as Cartier were simply not buying in enough movements to be viable.
There was still time, though, for the Tank Basculante, a model based on JLC’s Reverso, with a pivoting case which could be flipped around to protect the dial while playing sports. Following that was the Tank Mono-Poussoir, an elegant chronograph and 1936’s bold Tank Asymétrique, with its case rotated 45°, designed for drivers to check the time without taking their hands off the wheel.
The Cartier Tank: In the 1940s
The Asymétrique would be the last major departure for many years, with the dawn of the Second World War in Europe in 1939, followed by the death of Louis Cartier in 1942.
The Tank Carrée and the Arrondie released in 1944 were mere tweaks to the standard Normale (‘square’ and ‘rounded’, respectively) but by this time, the watch already had just about as exclusive a fan base as one could ask for. Stars from the golden age of Hollywood sported Tanks wherever they went, with the likes of Clarke Gable and Gary Cooper, Cary Grant and Fred Astaire all admirers. Even royal personages were not immune and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor gifted each other matching examples
But stylistic progress with the watch itself had stalled, and wouldn’t get going again for some time.
The Cartier Tank: In Pop Culture
In fact, it wasn’t until the 1960s before anything else of note occurred. However, while that decade may have been the most disruptive and radical in living memory, with grand sweeping breakthroughs being made in all facets of the arts, the Tank’s basics were set in stone and staying there.
So we got the ladies Mini Tank Allongée in 1962 and the JJC Elongated of 1966 (standing for Jean-Jacques Cartier), both with really with nothing more than cosmetic changes from the usual.
But by now, the Tank was more about its own place in the public’s consciousness. Like all the true greats, it had transcended being merely a watch and had become a style essential, worn by the biggest names in 20th century culture, and a more disparate clientele you couldn’t hope to find.
What else could so easily link Muhammad Ali, Warren Beatty, Ingrid Bergman, JFK and Yves Saint Laurent? Andy Warhol wore one, perfectly summing up the Tank’s status by this time in his famous quote: ‘I don’t wear a tank to tell the time. In fact, I never wind it. I wear a Tank because it is the watch to wear.’
The great American novelist, Truman Capote was a passionate devotee as well, once interrupting a journalist mid-interview and handing over his own Tank with the words: ‘Take that ugly watch off and put this one on. I beg you, keep it. I have at least seven at home.’
And Jackie Kennedy was given a Tank Ordinaire in 1962 by her brother-in-law, Prince Stanislaw Radziwill. It broke the record in 2017 for the most expensive Cartier Tank ever sold when it went for $379,500 at auction to Kim Kardashian.
The Cartier Tank: In the Modern Era
In the 1970s, the surviving members of the Cartier family still in control of the company decided to sell the business. The brand was bought up, initially, by investment group Continental Business Syndicate. Among their first acts was to release the Les Must de Cartier collection in 1977, and the Cartier Must de Tankemerged from it with—as this was in the midst of the great crisis—a quartz movement. The models also featured brightly colored lacquer dials, with no numerals whatsoever and, while the thought of a battery-powered Tank horrified purists and tarnished the Cartier name somewhat, the watches sold in huge numbers.
Even with the crisis waning in later years and mechanical watches experiencing a revival, the new owners continued to issue the Tank as a quartz piece almost entirely.
The Tank Américaine arrived in 1989 as an updated, bigger version of the Cintrée of the ‘20s and Tank Française from 1996 reintroduced a strong square stance with a chunky bracelet. The geographically-inclined Tank trio (built around the brand’s original three bases in Paris, New York and London) was completed in 2012—once Cartier had changed hands again to the Richemont Group—with the Tank Anglaise. A large, thick example, the Anglaise has its winding crown set in the middle of its bezel, Ballon Bleu style.
Today, the Cartier Tank range contains more than 50 models. Of those, more than half are still quartz-driven, while the others are made up of automatic and manually wound pieces, along with a handful featuring the so-called SolarBeat™ movement. This photovoltaic technology is essentially a quartz caliber powered by the sun, with the dial’s numerals made to allow light to pass through to the cell underneath. In that way, the watch’s rechargeable battery should only need to be replaced after 16-years, according to the brand.
At over 100-years of age, the Cartier Tank remains as relevant and desirable as ever. It is one of those incredibly rare designs that manages to both exemplify its era, with its pure 1920s chic, while simultaneously staying effortlessly modern. The sheer range of variants means there is a Tank out there with just about everyone in mind, and it is, and will probably always be, the absolute last word in elegant dress watches.