Almost a century after it first trundled onto the watchmaking scene and offloaded a turret-full of ammo into the face of the design values of the day, the Cartier Tank remains the choice of actual, as well as cinematic royalty.
Article by Nick Scott Photography by Andy Barnham
Horological folklore has it that Louis Cartier was inspired to create the French brand’s iconic dress watch by newspaper photographs of the Renault FT-17 tanks being used on the Western Front. This was in 1917, and Louis – who co-owned the company founded by his grandfather with two brothers at the time – was repelled by the Art Nouveau movement, with all its prissy curlicues and flourishes. Yet it remains astonishing that he would not only discern prosaic beauty in those hefty military vehicles, but envisage how their rectilinear design tenets could translate into a timelessly elegant wristwatch.
Whether or not the story is apocryphal, the single watch Louis subsequently created, and placed in the window of Cartier’s Paris salon two years later in 1919 flew in the face of prevailing design tenets as fearlessly as the Volkswagen Beetle or the Raleigh Chopper would in decades to come. Unashamedly androgynous with its linear symmetry, vertical branchards, opaline dial and sword-shaped hands, it was nonetheless starkly graceful, and became an instant hit. Six would be made in 1919, 33 the following year, and 5,829 over the subsequent next 50 years.
The first wrist of note to feel its embrace was that of General John Pershing of theAmerican Expeditionary Force, who was gifted the prototype as a token of France’s gratitude for his having fought alongside French troops on the frontline. Cartier’s long-standing epithet “The king of jewellers and the jeweller of kings” would receive something of a boost decades later when a 15-year-old Prince William picked out his late mother’s 18-karat gold Tank Française from amongst her possessions to remember her by. Continental royalty and aristocracy to have fallen for the charms of at least one of its 250 incarnations so far include Marquis Boni de Castellane, Princess Grace of Monaco, Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece and Princess Mary of Denmark.
Both JFK and his predecessor Harry S. Truman wore theirs throughout most of their presidencies, and First ladies from Jackie O to Michelle Obama (recently photographed in the White House for her official portrait wearing her steel Tank Française) have played unofficial ambassadors. Also in the Tank club were Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Balmain, Yves Saint Laurent, Duke Ellington, Andy Warhol and Truman Capote – the last of whom donated one to a reporter who was interviewing him simply because the journalist’s unsightly timepiece was putting him off his flow (“Take that ugly watch off your wrist and put on that one,” he is meant to have yelled, the tossed Tank following his words across the desk. “I beg you, keep it – I have at least seven at home.”)
Clark Gable, Warren Beatty and Gary Cooper, who owned a Tank Basculante (this could be reversed on the wrist or stood up like a miniature travel clock), as well as Ingrid Bergman, Marlene Dietrich and Angelina Jolie, have collectively showed that gender is no object when it comes to the Tank’s ability to play its role in an ensemble worthy of a silver screen giant.
But perhaps what’s most remarkable about this most recognisable of timepieces is, just how little it has strayed from the linear symmetry of the original. And long may its aesthetic tenacity continue.