Wonderful irony: a watch named after a fearsome piece of military hardware has evolved into the quintessence of elegance. Cartier’s Tank, beaten only by its stable mate – the Santos – for sheer longevity, was so-named because its shape resembled the footprint of a WWI armoured vehicle. It was conceived in 1917, reaching what you could call the definitive production version around 1919, with a model visually indistinguishable from current offerings. And of the latter there are plenty: the Cartier Tank has spawned as many variants as the Rolex Oyster. And has been faked just as much.
It’s a watch that speaks of an era when grace and sophistication were mandatory qualities for haute société, or even those merely blessed with both deep pockets and taste. Replace ‘bling bling’ with ‘chic’, and Victoria Beckham with Charlotte Rampling and you have some idea of the values the Tank represents, compared to the sheer, inescapable crassness of the modern era.
For those envious of a time when vulgarity was not considered a virtue, the Tank is the sort of timepiece that cannot be challenged. It predates both the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso and the Patek Philippe Calatrava, if maturity appeals to you, with uninterrupted production – unlike most classics, which have been revived after dormant periods. Above all, the original, ‘plain vanilla’ Cartier Tank is so understated and visually perfect that there is no occasion for which it is unsuitable.
Over the decades, it has been fitted with numerous movements, including those made by Jaeger-LeCoultre, and it sired, from as early as 1921, variations in the case dimensions and shape. A perfect example is the elongated edition, the Tank Cintrée, which lives on in today’s curved Tank Americain. Tanks have been diamond- or gem-clad, worn straps or bracelets, enjoyed complications including moonphase and chronograph function.
There are models with two dials for dual-time-zone indication and there are skeleton editions. It has been offered in steel, gold and platinum. There have been models with covered dials, showing the time through a small ‘window’ in a mechanical version of a digital display. The Tank Basculante has a flip-over case while the ladies’ Baguette of 1931 has a bezel that serves as the folding buckle for the strap. And 1931 also yielded another Tank milestone, an Allongée with an 8-day power reserve. Who would have imagined that a small-ish, square watch with only hours and minutes indication could have generated so many variants?
For our purposes, though, it’s the standard model that we’re honouring. And whether you covet new or vintage, it won’t be a simple decision. This author recalls visiting one of London’s finest vintage watch dealers a few years ago, noticing a tray just for Cartier Tanks. There were nine or ten pieces, all yellow gold on black straps, all regular models, all in near-perfect condition, indistinguishable to this tyro from one another. And yet the prices ranged from under £1000 to over £5000.
It took an expert’s knowledge of the movements, of near-invisible detail variations and of age and rarity to know which was which. The ultimate? Probably 1997’s 150th Anniversary model in platinum, with mechanical movement, of which only 15 were made. In-between are numerous editions and variations to suit every taste and wrist size. For the modern customer, the models to consider will be the Tank Solo or Tank Louis Cartier, commencing from £995 for a small, quartz version.
If there’s a down-size to Tank ownership, it’s no different than the stigma attached to most Rolexes. Just as the popularity of the latter amongst wide-boys and chavs (or those who have moved on from Jacob) shouldn’t obscure the fact that Rolex makes superb watches, so should the potential owner banish thoughts of Cartiers on the wrists of past-it rock stars and the better hookers in the 16th Arrondissement. Instead, recall that Tanks have graced the wrists of Yves Montand, Alain Prost, Alain Delon, Andy Warhol, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, the aforementioned Ms. Rampling and Warren Beatty.
A final point, should you care to indulge in a watch lover’s edition of Trivial Pursuit. If you’re one of those dazzled or simply amused by the appearance of watches in films, such as Bond’s Submariner or Arnie’s Panerai, well, it just doesn’t get any cooler than this: in 1926, for his last film role, in The Sheik, Rudolph Valentino insisted on wearing his own Cartier Tank.
Patek Philippe Twenty-4
One exclusively for the ladies, Patek Philippe’s Twenty-4 is a modern classic that has revolutionised the way people look at the brand. In record time, it’s become the best-selling model for this revered house, while challenging the Tank, Chopard’s Happy Diamonds and others as the watch for sugar daddies to bestow upon their arm candy. With a mechanical version on the way, it will also gain the prestige rarely afforded to quartz. The entry model 4910/10A at just under £4995 is highly recommended for the casual romance, or you can go from steel to platinum and throw in more diamonds if she’s worth it. Interestingly, this is a watch that many ladies buy for themselves.
Vacheron Constantin 1972
For the men – although there are plenty of feminine models in the line-up – we’re taken with Vacheron Constantin’s handsome, asymmetrical 1972. It actually looks like a Tank that’s been elongated and squeezed, a wry take on the formalism of the Cartier. Not that Vacheron has to bow to others for inspiration, let alone longevity: when the phrase below your logo states ‘depuis 1755’, seniority is a given. The choice in the 1972 family includes hand-wound mechanical movements or quartz, plain or gem-encrusted, in most metals and with bracelets or straps. We recommend the manual wind ‘Large’ model in yellow or pink gold, with silvered dial, without diamonds, and on a strap, from around £7000.
(QP, Issue 12)
© Ken Kessler 2005