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Cartier Tank Watch: A History

By The Rebag Team, Jul. 28, 2023

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Cartier Tank Watch: A History

In the heart of Paris, amidst the flourishing artistic scene of the early 20th century, Louis Cartier found inspiration that would give rise to an icon of elegance and innovation: the Cartier Tank watch. The story behind the iconic timepiece is one of artistic vision and a homage to the technological wonders of its time.

Over A Century of Refinement: The Legendary Cartier Tank Watch


It all began during the tumultuous days of World War I when newspapers brought images of the Renault FT-17 tanks rumbling across the Western Front. Louis Cartier, who was deeply entwined with the artistic spirit of Paris, found himself captivated by the tank’s revolutionary design. Drawing on the influence of the burgeoning Cubism movement, he envisioned a watch that would break away from the prevailing curves of jewelry design and embrace modern lines with sharp edges — just like its inspiration.

The Renault FT-17 war tank.

In 1918, the first prototype of the Cartier Tank was born, and it was gifted to U.S. General John Pershing. Named after the war vehicle, it may have seemed unusual for a watch of such elegance and sophistication to bear a military title. However, the Renault tank was not just a machine of war; it was a symbol of ingenuity and strength, boasting the distinction of being the first tank with a fully-rotating turret — a small yet mighty design.

Louis Cartier, creator of the Tank watch.

The Cartier Tank Normale emerged as the patriarch of all Tanks, followed by the Tank Cintrée in 1921. With the debut of the first Tank watches in the public market in 1919, Cartier had initially produced only six pieces. But the allure of the Tank proved irresistible, and by the early 1920s, its popularity began to soar.

The subsequent decades of the 1920s and 1930s were a golden era for the Tank, with the French jewelry and horlogerie maison introducing a prolific array of new models. From the Tank Louis Cartier in 1922 to the Tank Asymétrique in 1936, each iteration was a testament to Cartier’s dedication to crafting timepieces that were not just accessories but objets d’art. However, the rarity of these masterpieces persisted, with fewer than 6,000 Tanks made and sold until 1969.

The Cartier Tank’s allure transcended gender boundaries, as it emerged as a sophisticated and resilient unisex timepiece. A celebrity following embraced the Tank with ardor, none more prominent than Golden Age film star Rudolph Valentino. In his final film, “The Son of the Sheik,” Valentino insisted on wearing his beloved Tank, despite it not belonging to the movie’s time period, immortalizing both himself and the watch in Hollywood history.

Actor Rudolph Valentino wearing a Tank in “The Son of the Sheik”.

Hollywood’s leading men followed suit, with the Tank gracings the wrists of Cary Grant, Clark Gable, and Gary Cooper. Humphrey Bogart, a connoisseur of style, found his affinity for the Cartier Tank Basculante, while former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy favored a black leather strap model. In 2017, the auction hammer struck at a staggering $379,500 for her Tank, making it the most expensive ever sold. To visionary artist Andy Warhol, wearing a Tank was not about telling time; he, according to his own words, never even bothered winding it, and wore it as a statement.

A 1962 Cartier Tank watch, which once belonged to Jackie Kennedy.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Tank watch saw a resurgence in popularity as vintage designs gained favor in fashion and horology circles. Collectors sought after historical Tank models, contributing to a renewed interest in the brand’s heritage. Cartier continued to reinterpret the Tank, releasing limited editions and new iterations of the popular timepiece,such as the Tank Cintrée Heritage, which paid homage to the original Cintrée model from the 1920s, and the Tank Française Millennium Edition — further solidifying its status as a timeless symbol of style and prestige.

The Cartier Tank has endured for over a century, a timeless icon that celebrates the harmonious blend of art, innovation, and sophistication. With its roots in a tumultuous era and its branches reaching into the realms of cinema, politics, and art, the Tank is a watch that transcends mere timekeeping, becoming an emblem of style and a reflection of the ever-evolving spirit of its wearers. To this day, the Cartier Tank remains a symbol of horological mastery, as well as the brand’s most sought-after timepiece, a testament to Louis Cartier’s artistic vision and a watch that continues to captivate those with a discerning taste for elegance and refinement. 


Celebrities Wearing The Cartier Tank