It’s been called the most iconic watch on the planet, the ultimate in classic timepieces. And this fall, the Cartier Tank will mark its 100th birthday with new variations and an updated biography.
“A hundred years is a long time to be so perfect,” said Elizabeth Saltzman, a celebrity stylist for the likes of Saoirse Ronan, Gwyneth Paltrow and Uma Thurman, and a Vanity Fair contributing editor. “There are very few things that fit any era that we’ve been through and which doesn’t go in and out of fashion.
“Boy, have watches had a hard time since the fabulousness of mobile phones,” she continued, “but you’re never going to critique a man or woman for wearing a watch like that.”
Despite the Tank’s fame, the luxury house is not planning a celebrity-studded birthday event in a dazzling venue. As the well-known watch expert Franco Cologni wrote in the preface of his 1998 book “Cartier: The Tank Watch,” the timepiece “is one of those V.I.O.s (Very Important Objects) which rank amongside the most famous of human V.I.P.s.”
The Tank always has been the stuff of legend.
Louis Cartier designed the prototype in 1917, the year the United States entered World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution roiled Russia. But it wasn’t until late 1919, five months after the Treaty of Versailles was signed, ending the war, that the watch went on sale.
The Tank benefited from the delay — Cartier and his Swiss watchmaking partners at the time, Jaeger and LeCoultre, did research, refining the aesthetic, functional and mechanical combinations of the timepiece. The result was a definitive challenge to the traditional pocket watch, which had seemed so hopelessly old-fashioned in combat. (The Tank was a successor to Cartier’s first wristwatch, the 1904 square-shaped Santos, acknowledged as one of the world’s first timepieces for the wrist.)
Over the years, the house’s marketing materials have described how the indelible images of the Great War inspired the Tank’s design. From the wearer’s viewpoint, looking down at the watch on the wrist, the case resembles a tank’s cockpit while the brancards, the vertical bars that run along each side of the case, recall a tank’s treads.
As a designer, Cartier deliberately rejected the sensual Art Nouveau style so popular at the time. The watch’s shape is somewhere between rectangular and square, while the lugs, the bars at top and bottom that hold the strap, are integrated into the case design. The finished watch was rigorously linear, almost aggressively spare and androgynous.
In short, it was instantly modern.
“Cartier was so far ahead of its time,” said George Somlo, a vintage watch dealer for nearly 50 years and owner of Somlo Antiques in the Burlington Arcade in London. “With so much upheaval in the world and all the terrible things going on, it’s amazing it could create something like this.”
Almost immediately after its introduction, variations on the Tank design appeared. There was the curved, oblong Tank Cintrée in 1921 and the more rounded Tank Louis Cartier in 1922, and it was around that time that the Tank Chinoise reflected the period’s love of chinoiserie. The Tank’s angular shape was muse itself; as Mr. Cologni wrote, “Much of the magic of the Tank resides in the ambiguity of its form which predisposes it so marvelously to geometric games.”
The games have continued — including the water-resistant Tank Étanche in 1931, the Tank Française and its metal bracelet in 1996, the Tank Américaine with Cartier’s first in-house caliber in 2009 and the eccentric, bejeweled Tank Folle in 2012.
Enhancing the watch’s allure has been its famous fans, from all walks of life.
One of the first Tanks was a gift to Gen. John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, who was stationed in Paris during World War I. The maharajahs of Kapurthala acquired 12 in the mid-1920s, the Rothschilds were big Tank customers, and it was William Randolph Hearst’s favorite timepiece.
The watch also had enthusiasts among the world’s acknowledged design leaders: It has been worn by Calvin Klein, Yves Saint Laurent and Andy Warhol, although Mr. Warhol never wound his properly (“I wear a Tank because it’s the watch to wear,” he said). And Diana, Princess of Wales, owned two: a Tank Louis Cartier and an all-gold Tank Française.
The watch, after all, has an “aesthetic that transcends simple time,” said John Reardon, Christie’s international head of watches. “It’s not only a simple form but the combination of cabochon and crown, with the Roman numerals, is a classic Cartier.”
Actors and celebrities also have been Tank enthusiasts. Clark Gable owned an original Tank. Rudolph Valentino insisted on wearing his watch along with his desert-robe costume throughout the 1926 filming of “The Son of the Sheikh,” his final role. Rex Harrison, Cary Grant and Bob Hope all wore it — as did Cole Porter, Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington (his, the futuristic Tank à Guichets). And Marcello Mastroianni treated himself to four Tanks in 1961 alone.
Patti Smith, Claudia Schiffer and the French musician Nicolas Godin have worn the timepiece. And Sofia Coppola bought one for herself after finishing her 2006 film “Marie Antoinette.”
In June, Christie’s auctioned Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s 1962 gold Tank, an engraved gift from her brother-in-law, Prince Stanislaw Radziwill, that she was seen wearing in numerous photographs.
The piece — which created a “social medial sensation,” Mr. Reardon said, with “its little bit of Camelot” — sold for $379,500. And a TMZ report, picked up by media outlets from Forbes to W magazine, said the buyer was Kim Kardashian West. Not surprisingly, Cartier and Christie’s declined to comment.
To mark the Tank’s centenary, Cartier has created the limited-edition Tank Cintrée Skeleton (from $56,000), with a specially created curved caliber that matches its curved case. “The watch is an innovation in terms of mechanics,” said Pierre Rainero, Cartier’s director of image, style and heritage, and its presentation to customers this month — in either pink gold or platinum — probably will be the closest thing the house has to an anniversary celebration.
Cartier also plans to release 11 new models from the Tank Américaine (from $4,000), Tank Louis Cartier (from $9,150) and Tank Française (from $7,100) design families.
Steel is to be a notable feature, like on the elongated Tank Américaine, which will be offered in the metal for the first time and will mix polished and satin-brushed steel. The material actually is a throwback to the 1970s, Mr. Rainero said, when Cartier was offering watches that married design and convenience as lifestyles were changing.
“The idea was to be elegant in many different circumstances,” he said, noting how a steel Cartier could take the wearer stylishly from, say, work to a smart lunch, on to the pool or a sports activity, and easily into cocktail hour.
In the new 232-page Tank book that’s out next month (the 1998 original and its 2012 revision are both out of print), Mr. Cologni writes that the Tank has “developed in synchrony with the times.”
And looking into its next century, Ms. Saltzman of Vanity Fair said the watch will be “exactly where it is now, right on everyone’s wrist. You don’t mess with perfection.”
Mr. Somlo would agree.
Of all the watches that the vintage dealer has loved, acquired and sold during his 47 years in business, the one he has kept is an original 1917 Tank once owned by the British actor Laurence Harvey.
He bought it 40 years ago and, he said, “I will never sell it.”