One century on, the Cartier Tank remains relevant as ever thanks to its classic design and numerous iterations.
Undeniably one of Cartier’s most famous and popular timepiece, the Tank is loved by numerous designers, celebrities, and even political leaders. Rudolph Valentino was famously so taken with the watch that he insisted on wearing his in every scene when filming The Son of the Sheik, making the Tank’s cinematic debut a delightful anachronism in the 1926 film. The Tank also found fans among designer Yves Saint-Laurent, pop-art pioneer Andy Warhol, punk/art rock legend Patti Smith, and the late Princess Diana.
Far from being the timepiece of choice for just movers and shakers, however, the Tank also resonated with a wider audience. The watch today is a key pillar in Cartier’s watchmaking world, and spans a range of prices and designs to suit different wearers’ styles and budgets. In a market that’s always been dominated by round watches, the Tank is an anomaly, and a very successful one at that – it celebrates its centenary this year, and looks set to quietly assert its dominance for a long, long time ahead.
Creating the Tank
According to Cartier’s lore, the Tank was first introduced in 1917, before hitting the market in 1919. The zeitgeist was starkly different then, to say the least; quartz technology was half a century away, France was still embroiled in World War I, and designs were shifting from Art Nouveau’s curved flowing lines to the harder, geometric Art Deco style.
It was Louis Cartier who designed the Tank, beginning with sketches in 1916. The grandson of founder Louis-François Cartier was no stranger to watches, and had in fact helped to establish Cartier’s second identity as a successful watchmaker. He created the maison’s first men’s wristwatch in 1904, for instance, when he designed the Santos timepiece for Brazillian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont.
Louis Cartier’s work on the Tank was informed by both the Art Deco style, and the mechanised tanks that had first appeared on the Western Front to break its deadlock of trench warfare. The former is easy enough to identify, from the geometric shapes that dominate every part of the watch, to the radiating Roman numeral indexes and rectangular railway track chapter ring on its dial.
Meanwhile, the watch’s eponymous inspiration is reflected in the two parallel bars that define its flank. These “brancards” ingeniously serve as both case and lugs, and resemble the caterpillar tracks of a tank when viewed from above. The final touch is the crown, which is set with a sapphire cabochon as a reminder of Cartier’s roots as a jeweller, to give a touch of luxury to what’s otherwise a stark, minimalist design.
With these design cues, Louis Cartier had set the hallmarks of the Tank watch that continue to define the collection after a century. The Tank’s continual popularity is testament to the strength of his original design, yet the way variants of the watch have evolved from the original also reflects the Tank’s flexibility to suit various styles.
Tanks with a twist
The original Tank has spawned numerous sub-collections over the years, most of which are no longer in production. Cartier had, for instance, produced a transformable Tank with a hinged, swivel case called the Tank Réversible in 1932. The watch could be flipped around to present its case back instead, thus protecting its dial and crystal. Alas, the Réversible was eventually discontinued and the Tank Basculante, its spiritual successor that was introduced in 1992, is no longer produced as well.
Driving watches with internally rotated dials that allowed their wearers to read the time while their hands were on the steering wheel were another curious variant of the Tank. The first instance of such watches was the Tank Parallélogramme introduced in 1936. It later modified into the Tank Asymétrique and the Tank Oblique.
Despite its classic leanings, the Tank has been the occasional recipient of complications, such as digital displays. The Tank Cintrée Dual-Time can also be considered one, although its second time zone display is the result of a second movement within the case, and not additional components fitted to a base movement.
The Tank today
The present-day Tank serves as Cartier’s calling card for classic, design-centric watchmaking. To that end, the watches in this collection are generally devoid of complications and other such demonstrations of watchmaking prowess, to maintain their design’s purity.
Among the major lines within the current line-up, the Tank Louis Cartier is the iteration that will likely please the greatest number of people, thanks to its timeless look. The watch is identified by its classic proportions, with a case that’s almost but never quite a square, as well as the four rounded corners that soften the hard lines and angles that dominate the watch.
A trio of Tanks – the Américaine, the Anglaise, and the Française – each offers a variation on the theme with their respective design tweaks. The Tank Américaine is the most elongated among them, and recalls the Tank Cintrée that debuted in 1921 with both its proportion and its subtly curved case that better hugs the wrist. The Tank Anglaise, on the other hand, is distinguished by its wider flanks, into which the crown is integrated. Finally, the Tank Française sports a slightly offbeat design that was conceived with an integrated metal bracelet from the get-go. Concave curves dominate the bracelet to help offset the case’s harder look, given its sharp corners.
For the Tank’s centenary in 2017, the Tank Cintrée has been brought back in a new guise. The new Tank Cintrée Skeleton retains the curved case profile of previous Cintrée watches, while a new skeletonised movement within it gives the timepiece a light, airy look. What’s even more impressive is how the movement was designed and built to follow the curve of its case, in a display of Cartier’s watchmaking savoir faire.