Europe was in full World War I, and, in that atmosphere of tension, Paris was preparing for Christmas. At the time, Louis Cartier was 41 years old, and he was the director of Cartier, which had shops on 11 and 13 Rue de la Paix in Paris, as well as two other subsidiaries, in New York and London. His two younger brothers had gone to war, while he (having some health problems after a car accident) had remained in Paris, where he was permanently active in the French Red Cross. Louis Cartier was, however, more than just a businessman. He was, first and foremost, a brilliant designer. One December day, he designed a watch. More precisely, he designed a square case, with elongated flanks, which would be the basis of the famous watch. What was his source of inspiration? Apparently, it was one of the stories featured on the front page of “L’Illustration”, which appeared two weeks after the infamous battle of Somme, when tanks were used for the first time ever (by the British army).
However, to understand how Louis Cartier came to develop this new watch model, we have to mention a few things. First of all, when he took over the business from his father, his main purpose was to increase the production of watches. Secondly, since he was a very unconventional person, he liked to surround himself with original objects. Thirdly, he was fascinated with wrist watches. We have to remember that he was first and foremost a jeweler. This is why, to him, style and aesthetics were more important than functionality.
Louis Cartier started designing men’s wrist watches at a time when men wore exclusively pocket watches. It was thanks to him that the world was introduced, among others, to the famous Santos, one of the earliest pilot watches, designed in 1904 for Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos Dumont. The Santos model was, at the same time, the first watch featuring a square case instead of a round one (it had rounded edges, true, but the case was square). One might say, therefore, that this was the first watch paving the way for the Tank, which was launched more than ten years later. Another important event that contributed to the appearance of the Tank model was the signing of a partnership agreement with watchmaker Edmond Jaeger (in 1907). Under this agreement, Edmond Jaeger was bound to provide Cartier with movements for flat watches, from the most simple to the most complicated. At the time, Jaeger was already collaborating with Swiss watchmaker LeCoultre in Vallée de Joux, which was making the movements designed by Jaeger. So nothing could stand in the way of this movement designer Edmond Jaeger and movement manufacturer Jacques-David LeCoultre, in the process of developing new wrist watches. Thus, Louis Cartier was free to develop his aesthetic sensitivity and design cases, without having to worry about the technical aspects.
Following the success of the Santos model, a few models with a perfectly square case appeared, including the 1914 platinum jewel watch, with a case set in polished diamonds and a crown with an inlaid diamond (also polished). Therefore, Tank was not the first square watch.
A symbol of the new times
Louis Cartier was fascinated with technical achievements – cars, planes, but also sport. On the other hand, in art and architecture, he loved the harmony and beauty of the ideal, mathematical proportions – the so-called “golden ratio”. This explains why this watch – subsequently known as the Tank – was bound to appear sooner or later. Especially since the aforementioned edition of “L’Illustration”, of December 2nd 1916, had a drawing of a tank on the cover. Inside the paper, readers could see two black and white pictures of this new war machine (which the British called “Tank”), with its frightening tracks on both sides of the cabin. Soon, the cabin with its prominent tracks, outlined graphically – reduced to a square with elongated sides – became the distinctive feature of the watch which appeared in 1917.
The first four pieces of the male version of Tank, so named in honor of the British tank, were put up for sale on November 15th, 1919, and two more were added at the end of December. According to the company’s records, all the pieces were sold quickly (the last one was sold on January 17th, 1920). In November 1919, the women’s version also became available. At first, Louis Cartier was reluctant to call it Tank (a name he had saved for the men’s version). Six months later, though, he changed his mind and, from that moment on, Tank was no longer a watch meant exclusively for men.
What did that watch look like? It did not have many additional functions. It only had two blue hands: one for the minutes and one for the hours. However, aesthetics was more important than function. No detail was random. On the matte, silver dial, decorated with Roman numerals (distributed radially) the square formed by the minute lines (the so-called Chemin de fer) stood out. The following three elements proved that Louis Cartier was, above all, a jeweler. The first was the material the case was made of. Three of the first seven pieces had a platinum case, two were made of platinum and gold (the case was in platinum, and the caseback was in gold), and the rest were made of gold only. The second jewelry-specific element was the blue sapphire cabochon mounted in the crown – which has remained to this day the distinctive feature of the watches in this collection (with very few exceptions). And the last element – the strap. It was conceived as an extension of the case, not just an element meant to attach the watch to the wrist. That is why the strap looked as if it was one with the case. In order for the harmony not to be shattered, the strap had an aesthetic fastening system with a folding clasp, with an invisible locking device. This detail was not designed by Louis Cartier, but by Edmond Jaeger who, in 1910, had registered this idea at the patent office. However, according to the contract, the fastening device he had created was reserved exclusively for Cartier watches.
The Tank model was also remarkable for its 9-ligne manually wound movement (8-ligne movements for the women’s models) provided by LeCoultre & Cie manufacture (later on, Jaeger-LeCoultre). It is no wonder then that the Tank became a symbol of the new era, much like the war machine to which it owes its name.
According to one legend passed on with great pleasure, at the end of the war, in November 1918, Cartier handed over the first Tank timepieces to General John Pershing (who had been, since 1917, the commander of the U.S. Forces in France) and other high-ranking officers of the U.S. troops in France, apparently in appreciation for the liberation of France. It seems, however, that this is just a legend, since no official mention on the subject was found in the company’s archives. Whether it is myth or reality, it perfectly symbolizes the history of this watch.
From Normale to Chinoise
Tank has had so many versions that it is hard for us today to list them all. But what they all had in common was their distinctive style. Shortly after the first Tank appeared (the one with a flat square case and a 9-ligne movement), later known as Tank Normale, Cartier came up with other versions: with 7, 8 or 10-ligne movements, with Roman or Arabic numerals on the dial, with a bracelet or a strap. But these were only cosmetic changes. The first major change occurred with the launch of a brand new series – called Tank Cintrée – in 1921. The new watch had an elongated, rectangular, curved case, so that it could sit well on the wrist. The flat, rectangular case caused the “elongation” of the dial and the change of the shape of the frame indicating the minutes. As for the movements, Tank Cintrée was available in various versions – 7, 8 and 9-ligne movements.
Later, in 1922, two more rectangular models appeared: Tank L.C. (L.C. being the initials of the designer – Louis Cartier) with more delicate, rounded edges, and the smaller model – Tank Allongée, also known as Petite Tank or Tank Rectangle. At first, Tank L.C. had a more descriptive name, i.e. Tank bords arrondis (Tank with rounded edges); but, for some unknown reason, it was renamed Tank Louis Cartier.
Apart from these two new models, another one appeared in 1922, which was considered more masculine. It was called Tank Chinoise and it looked like a slightly larger Tank Normale – it had a square case, which looked a bit bigger because of the two prominent lugs at the top and bottom part of the case. This decorative element perfectly managed to draw attention to the central part of the dial. The aspect and the name of Tank Chinoise were a reference to the element which had served as a source of inspiration for the designer, that is, the shape of the porticos at the entrance of Chinese temples. Where had this idea come from? In the twenties, the Chinese motifs were very fashionable, and they were used not only in watches, but also in jewelry and interior design.
Tank changed with the passage of time. In 1925, they began to paint the numerals and markers with radium, so they were more visible in the dark. Three years later, a small second appeared on the dial, at 6 o’clock. Also in 1928, the first Tank model appeared with the so-called complication. The introduction of the Tank à Guichets in the collection was determined by the emergence of a new fashion. This time it was the jumping hour, a complication which, at the time, enjoyed tremendous success.
The dial and the markers were, therefore, covered with a plate with two orifices (apertures), while two disks were rotating under it – one to indicate the hour and the other one to indicate the minutes (the aperture at the top indicated the hour and the one at the bottom – the minutes). They were set in motion by a round movement (caliber 126), provided, of course, by LeCoultre & Cie. Tank à Guichets had the crown in an unusual position – at 12 o’clock. Its modern, technical appearance was highly appreciated by both aristocracy and artists: the Maharaja of Patiala and American pianist and composer Duke Ellington were among the customers who ordered this model. In fact, almost all Tank versions enjoyed tremendous success among the famous, the beautiful and the wealthy. But about that, a little later.
Tank à Guichets was produced for more than 10 years. Then, it disappeared, and many years later, in 1997, it made a comeback, in a limited edition of 150 pieces, launched for the celebration of the 150th anniversary of Cartier.
A second watch featuring a so-called complication (though not with the same meaning as today) was Tank Allongée, with an 8-day power reserve (operated by a 10-ligne movement), which made its debut in 1931.
One of the most interesting versions was Tank Étanche, with a watertight case – it was launched in 1931 and the way it was presented back then caused quite a stir: throughout the event, the watch was kept in a glass container filled with water.
On the other hand, Tank Tortue had a chronograph controlled with one button (1931), and the 1932 Tank Réversible (which in 1992 changed its name to Basculante) had a fold-over case and the crown placed at 12 o’clock (it was a popular model, with several subsequent versions, in limited or open editions). From a technical perspective, Tank Réversible was based on a brilliant system, thanks to which the case could make a full 360-degree rotation around its own axis (flip over), while a second case made it possible to fully cover or reveal the dial. This type of watch was required by a small, yet very important category of Cartier customers, which is why the company never produced a very large number of pieces.
One of the shape variations of the Tank model was the 1936 Tank Asymétrique. It had a large, asymmetrical dial, without the iconic “rail-track” minute counter (the indexes were rotated by 45 degrees), a flat case, and it was already a representative of the new Tank family. Also a novelty was the 11-ligne movement, ideal for the owner of the watch, because, in case there were any problems, the watchmaker could take it out completely and replace it. Thus, the owner did not have to wait for a few weeks for the result of the repair.
Square or elongated
While it wouldn’t be possible to describe all the Tank versions, we should definitely mention a few more. It should be noted that, as far as production is concerned, until the end of the 6th decade of the 20th century one cannot talk about mass production. Each watch was made by excellent craftsmen, and it represented a small series. The proof, among other things, lies in the documents recording the number of models which left the Cartier workshops: between 1919 and 1969, Cartier produced only 5,829 Tank watches altogether.
In 1965, after Pierre Cartier’s death, the brand was no longer in the possession of the Cartier family and it only came to life again in the 1970s. The new beginning brought along some important changes to the existing collections. The modified Tank became one of the most important models. The version known as Must de Cartier appeared in 1974 and it looked different from the original model. Tank Must was designed as a more “democratic” alternative. It had a case made of a new material – 925 sterling silver, plated with a 20-micron gold layer, and it relied on a much simpler movement (it was now that Cartier used the quartz movement for the first time). The Roman numerals were removed from the dial, and the color appeared instead (this model had dial faces in various colors, which made it become a fashionable accessory), as well as the famous double C logo. Tank Must proved to be very successful, especially in the United States and Japan.
In the late 1980s – in 1989, to be exact – with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of a new era for Europe, Tank came back in the rectangular shape of Tank Américaine: with a watertight curved case, taking the shape of the wrist. Later on, the square Tank – currently known as Tank Française – also changed: in 1996, it became available in various materials, with a more massive case and bracelet (so far, it had been produced with a quartz or self-winding movement).
In time, Tank “grew up” and, as Tank Divan (2002), it received a wider case, with a self-winding movement, which indicated the hours, minutes and seconds (Cartier caliber 120, based on an ETA movement).
In 2008, due to a new strategy of Cartier, Tank received the first in-house movement (caliber 9452 MC), and, a year later, a more complicated version was launched, with a flying tourbillon movement, with the emblematic C on its cage, under the name Tank Américaine. In 2012, Tank Anglaise became part of the “family”, with its rectangular case, a little smaller than Tank Américaine, and its partially hidden crown, built into one of the brancards.
Once in every few years, the fans of this model also had the opportunity to see the inside of the case, thanks to the skeleton versions. One of these was Tank MC Skeleton, introduced in 2014, with a manually wound mechanical movement, Cartier caliber 9611 MC, and a flat case, made of an uncommon material – palladium (the case was only 9.3mm high). The bridges on the dial also assumed the role of the Roman numerals on the transparent dial.
The beautiful, the famous and the wealthy
Due to the original shape of the case, Tank made a remarkable career in the 1920s. After appearing on screen (Rudolf Valentino wore it in The Son of the Sheik), other famous people began to wear it: film stars, aristocrats (the royal families of Yugoslavia and Serbia, Aga Khan, the Maharaja of Patiala, the Prince of Nepal, the prince of Kapurthala – who had 12 such timepieces) and rich people (including the Rothschild family). Later enthusiasts included, among others: Marquis Boni de Castellane, French and American actors (Brigitte Bardot, Alain Delon, Yves Montand, Catherine Deneuve, Fred Astaire, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Elizabeth Taylor and Henry Fonda), artists (Andy Warhol, Elton John), fashion designers (Yves Saint Laurent, Calvin Klein), politicians (Jacques Chirac) and prominent figures from around the world (famous editor William Randolph Hearst and billionaire Barbara Hutton). From Muhammad Ali to Andy Warhol, from Truman Capote to Jackie Kennedy and Michelle Obama (in 2009, she sat for a portrait at the White House wearing a Tank Française on her wrist) – all of them were part of the remarkable history of the Tank.
One thing is certain: regardless of its shape – square, rectangular or “elongated” – Tank will remain the symbol of the elegant watch for at least another hundred years.