In 1917, as the world floundered in war, a tank made its entrance at Cartier. A tank which would later prompt French couturier Jean-Charles de Castelbajac to declare that “if all tanks were made by Cartier, we’d have time to live in peace!” The tank’s peculiar history probably originates in the Battle of the Somme, in September 1916, for legend has it that Louis Cartier imagined the new watch’s clean lines after seeing the Renault armoured tanks which took to the battlefields of the First World War.
The first Tank watch clearly takes its cue from its military namesake, with an architecture that resembles a tank seen from above: the brancards are the tracks and the case is the turret. The truth is that the advent of the Tank, which took its place in Cartier’s window in 1919, is a stage in a stylistic endeavour which Cartier had begun at the turn of the century, with the nascent question of how to wear a watch on the wrist. The strongly defined line and powerful geometry of the Tank owe something to neoplasticism too, then an influential artistic current, led by Mondrian and the Dutch journal De Stijl, which advocated order and clarity.
The Tank's many transformations
In the foreword to his 1998 book about the Tank watch, Franco Cologni, then Vice-President of Cartier International and now President of the Cultural Committee of the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, captured this icon’s status in a few, brief lines: “Certain objects are like certain extraordinary people. Their aura is such that to tell their singular story is to relate the adventures of an entire era. The Cartier Tank watch is one such object. It is one of those Very Important Objects which have nothing to envy the most famous Very Important People. Do we not talk about “la Tank” in exactly the same way we say “la Callas”, an ellipsis reserved for divas; the sign of being universally known.” Cartier’s Tank watch, a diva? No doubt, even if its aura and its appeal have fluctuated along with the health and visibility of the company itself. Meaning the Tank is in fine fettle, a condition that can only benefit from this new addition.
More than an exemplary “model”, the Tank is an iconic “collection” which has played endlessly on its capacity to transform itself, whether moderately or more fundamentally. Over the course of its history, the Tank has gone from square to rectangular, large to small. It has been asymmetrical and rotating, slimmed then more compact, even completely crazy. Whatever form it takes, the Tank watch has adorned famous wrists from Ingrid Bergman and Andy Warhol to Truman Capote and Mohammed Ali.
Among the many versions of the Tank, the arrival this year of the Tank Anglaise completes a triumvirate inspired by Cartier’s very history when the company, established in Paris in 1847, was not one but three with each entity living its own life without (overly) preoccupying itself with whatever was going on elsewhere. This was a time – hard to imagine in today’s global age – when Cartier Paris existed peacefully alongside Cartier New York and Cartier London. This cohabitation came to an end in 1979 when the three were united in a single company. As the Tank Anglaise joins the Tank Américaine (launched in 1989) and the Tank Française (1996) in Cartier’s line-up, the troïka is now complete.
As Cartier itself likes to remind us, “the story of the Tank watch continues to be written, never to stop. Never stop Tank.” And so the Tank Anglaise prepares to further the legend of a timepiece that never stands still.
Article published in BIPH