DESIGNER 101

Cartier 101: The Timeless
Allure of the Tank

By Ann B, Jan 11, 2022

Rebag x Virgil Abloh

The Cartier Tank
is one of the world’s most iconic timepieces.

You can’t miss a Cartier Tank watch with its distinct rectangular case, Roman numerals, and blue hands. Designed by Louis Cartier in 1917, the Tank remains one of the most legendary watches in history. With names like Muhammad Ali, Princess Diana, Angelina Jolie, and Michelle Obama among those who have worn the Tank, need we say more?

 

The History of the Cartier Tank

 

Military tanks were synonymous with World War I, so much so, that two years in, in 1917, Louis Cartier designed a watch inspired by the shape the top view of the enormous tanks that went to battle during World War I, in particular, a French one named the Renault FT-17, then a military vehicle that symbolized innovation, mainly for being the first to carry weapons in a fully rotating turret. The following year, in 1918, he gifted the first prototype of The Tank to American general John Pershing. It featured a square case with lines that emulate the Renault FT-17, leather straps, Roman numerals on the dial, and a crown dotted with one blue sapphire. 

The Cartier Tank debuted publicly — albeit rather exclusively, considering there were only six — on November 25, 1919. From that day through 1969, less than 6,000 Cartier Tank watches were produced. They all sold within two months of the Tank’s debut. Cartier increased the number of handmade Tanks produced to 20 — an average number at the time — the next year. From then on Cartier produced an average of 104 watches each year. Then Black Tuesday, the great Wall Street crash of 1929, happened and with the Great Depression and economic turmoil around the globe, only 102 Cartier Tanks sold in the five years after Black Tuesday. 

Although WWI military tanks were the watch’s main inspiration, a number of movements in culture also featured minimal lines and simple shapes. There was Cubism in Paris, the Bauhaus in Germany, and De Stijl in the Netherlands, which also inspired Cartier. 

While new in design, the Cartier Tank carried all the hallmarks of Cartier watches of the time: Roman numerals for the dial, blue steel Breguet hands, deployant buckle, a “railway” style minute track, and a cabochon-cut sapphire on the winding crown. Its movement was designed by the Alsace-born Edmond Jaeger, with whom Cartier started a business on November 15, 1919, called European Watch & Clock. Before then the Swiss company LeCoultre made the movements, so the earliest Cartier Tanks featured movements by LeCoultre. 

Cartier responded to the lagging sales by creating new models of the Tank in an attempt to gain more customers. First was the Tank Cintrée (Curved in French), which boasted a curved rectangular face that conformed to the wrist. Next was the Tank LC, a fusion of the original Tank and the Tank Cintrée that featured a rectangular case that wasn’t curved. It would become the version of the Cartier Tank that we all know today. After was the Tank Chinoise, which earned its name from the Chinese temple roofs that inspired the horizontal bars on top of and under the dial. It was also made at a time when Chinoiserie was in vogue in interiors and fashion. The Tank à Guichets (small windows in French) followed, but with two small windows, it was hardly functional since it was difficult to tell the time. 

Then World War II happened. The Germans occupied France, cutting Cartier off from its locations in London and New York. After two of the three Cartier brothers — Jacques and Louis — passed away in 1942, leaving Pierre, who returned from New York, where he oversaw Cartier’s branch there, to Paris to attend to the family business. As austerity measures swept France, Cartier was forced to sell off both the New York and London branches. Business would start to pick up in the 1960s, but Pierre would pass away in 1964. 

Cartier would make a comeback thanks to two men named Robert — Robert Hocq and Robert Kenmore. Kenmore was the chairman of the Kenton Corporation, which owned the New York branch of Cartier, along with Mark Cross, Georg Jensen, The House of Valentino, several fur companies, and Family Bargain Centres, a chain of affordable department stores. Kenmore synergized his brands by doing things like selling furs at Cartier’s Fifth Avenue location. He also brought the Tank back; Cartier released gold-plated versions of it and sold them at Kenton Corporation’s department stores. 

Hocq, meanwhile, made inexpensive butane lighters inspired by Greek columns in France through the cigarette lighting firm he ran called Silver Match. He knew he was on to something, but that he needed a bigger name to carry the elegant lighters. After trying and failing to get a license with Van Cleef & Arpels, he went to Cartier, which approved of the license. The Cartier lighter would be a hot accessory in the ‘60s and ‘70s. 

In 1972, Hocq, along with a group of investors, bought Cartier Paris, and then Cartier London, and Cartier New York, reuniting the three branches of the company. Hocq, now president of Cartier, launched the new line Les Must de Cartier, a lower-price diffusion line that offered lighters, sunglasses, scarves made by outside companies. In 1976, Cartier launched the first in-house product of Les Musts de Cartier, the Must de Cartier Tank watch. The French versions were made with silver gilt, a gold-plated sterling silver. Alain Dominique Perrin, Hocq’s sales manager appointed to run Cartier, then emulated Swatch’s success by offering the Tank in an array of sizes, dial colors, and finishes. Licenses were slowly phased out, putting control back with the French jeweler. 

Cartier relaunched the Tank in 1973 with the Tank LC and the Tank Normale. Soon, the likes of Andy Warhol and Jackie Kennedy were wearing the Tank LC. Then the Rupert family, who owned Rothman’s International, eventually acquired all shares of Cartier, making it the flagship brand for the newly formed Richemont.

New iterations of the Tank were released. First there was the Tank Americaine in 1989, then in 1996 Cartier released the Tank Française. The next decade saw the Tank Divan in 2002, and finally, the Tank Anglaise in 2012. 

Celebrities in the Cartier Tank

Cardi B. with a black Chanel 19

Meghan Markle
Courtesy Time
Meghan Markle wears Princess Diana’s Tank Française watch on the cover of Time magazine.

Katie Holmes with a black Chanel 19

Princess Diana
Courtesy Tatler
Princess Diana in the Cartier Tank.

Influencer Tamu McPherson in a Chanel 19 bag

Angelina Jolie
Courtesy Fashion Moves Forward.
Angelina Jolie in the Cartier Tank.

Cardi B. with a black Chanel 19

Muhammad Ali
Courtesy GQ
Muhammad Ali wears the Cartier Tank JC.

Katie Holmes with a black Chanel 19

Yves Saint Laurent
Courtesy The Saffron Art Blog
Yves Saint Laurent in the Cartier Tank.

Influencer Tamu McPherson in a Chanel 19 bag

Henry Golding
Courtesy GQ
Henry Golding in the Cartier Tank.

Cartier Tank Sizing

Cartier Tank Range