5 Facts about the Cartier Tank: The Unisex Watch Classic

By Montredo in Lifestyle
May 13, 2019
5 Facts about the Cartier Tank: The Unisex Watch Classic

Exactly 100 years ago, Louis Cartier created the Tank. In a stroke of genius and fortuity, the French watchmaker fashioned an exceptional timepiece, which dominates the game of contrasts like no other. Its unique charisma still fascinates watch lovers around the world today. Hardly any other watch has been equally successful to cast a bridge across times and combine the best of yesteryear and today.

The iconic watch was first created by Louis Cartier as a token of gratitude for John Pershing , the American Commander responsible for restoring peace in Europe with his fleet of tanks in 1917. Back in the day, a handmade prototype of this rectangular watch was presented to Pershing. Little did Pershing know that the watch he received would become an instant watch classic. The unique design of the Tank has prevailed as a market favorite since its conception in the early 20th century. The significance of the Cartier Tank stretches beyond its place in history, as it also marks a new era in watchmaking. Unlike the fashion in the early 20th century, the Cartier Tank was created as a wristwatch. It’s a trailblazing move, since pocket watches were very much prevalent and preferred at that time.

Fast forward to nowadays – exactly, how does Cartier Tank remain revered a century after it was first introduced? The secret of success is an ingenious design that withstands the test of time. To this day, the Roman numerals, the chemin-de-fer chapter ring, blue steel hands, as well as the sapphire cabochon crown, remain the trademark insignia of the Tank. More importantly, it excels as a marvellous piece of jewellery and a precious watch combined. This unique design trait made it the first unisex watch in the world. The Tank is equally popular with men as it is with women.

Very few watches can boast an illustrious history similar to that of the Cartier Tank. To It is a legend in the history of watchmaking and below we have summarised 5 interesting facts about this watch icon for you.

1. The Tank was one of the first wristwatches

This statement is true. When John Pershing received the gift of the handmade prototype of a rectangular watch from Louis Cartier in 1917, it was one of the first wristwatches ever made. Legend has it that the first wristwatch was conceived by the ingenious Abraham-Louis Breguet 100 years ago for an aristocratic lady. However Breguet’s vision for the wristwatch genre was more of a one-of-a-kind jewellery creation rather than a new form of time-telling. At the time gentlemen would have strongly resisted such a modern gadget, like that of a wristwatch. A pocket-watch was stylishly tucked into the vest of the three-piece suit that 19th-century etiquette dictated for a gentleman. 

Monsieur Cartier, a true visionary and remarkable watchmaker, soon recognized the signs of the change to come. Back in 1904, he had developed a genuine wristwatch, the Santos for his flight adventures with his Brazilian friend and pilot, Alberto Santos Dumont. Just as the Tank, the original pilot’s watch is iconic and its unique style is as convincing today as it was then.

2. The design was inspired by the first tanks

The history of the Tank is well-known. Like others before it, the Tank manifests Cartier’s personal preference for the simple and clear forms of the second French neoclassicism, a forerunner of Art Déco. He consistently enhanced function-oriented pragmatism with the typical avant-garde style of the House to create a captivating new design concept. Two beam-like posts, resembling chain links of caterpillar tracks, visually extend the sides of the rectangle and allowed the bracelet to affix to the casing seamlessly. Its rectangular shape also initiated a new era for watch cases, until then they had chiefly been round.Cartier would not be Cartier if the inner workings would not present themselves exquisitely too. The movement behind the iconic silver dial with elongated Roman numerals, came from none other than the master of thin movements, Edmond LeCoultre with whom Cartier had an exclusive contract.

3. One of the most popular VIP watches of all time

(L) Princess Diana, the Queen of hearts, also had a Tank in her possession. (R) The French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent could not resist the timeless elegance of the Tank.

The Tank is likely unrivalled in its prominence factor. Throughout the last century, she adorned the wrists of the international jet set. Statesmen, as well as leading avant-garde artists, intellectuals, and the fashion elite, all wore a Tank. The pop art legend, Andy Warhol, claimed that he had never wound his Cartier Tank. To which, he added “I don’t wear it so that it tells me time …” in an interview. The Tank’s circle also included Jackie Onassis, Jacques Chirac, Elton John, Truman Capote, Princess Diana, Catherine Deneuve, and many more.

The legendary pop artist Andy Warhol wore his Tank supposedly without ever winding it: “I don’t wear it so that it tells me time …”

4. The first Unisex Watch

The Tank met this challenge head-on. In addition to its symbolic standing as “Ambassador of peace”, the Tank soon became an “Ambassador between the sexes.” In 1919, only a few models were made for the official launch. By 1925, the new product line already made up a quarter of the entire wristwatch production of Cartier, initially only men’s models. However, Monsieur Cartier was quick to address his fashion-conscious female clientele in the twenties and subsequently introduced the ladies’ Cartier Tank watch. Notable examples are the Tank Cintrée (1921), with a domed housing to sit better on the wrist, the Tank Chinoise (1922), celebrating Oriental motifs which were the hottest trend at the time.

5. Cartier Tank, the Chameleon

A large model from the 1970s with a domed case. The case’s curve lies comfortably on the wrist.

Trends come and go, however the Cartier Tank shows a high adaptability to changing fashion. Over the years, the Tank set new trends without deviating from its roots. In the 1970s, the particularly slim Les Must de Cartier set the standard. In 1989, Cartier developed the entirely new Tank Américaine, based on the perfect proportions of the Tank Cintrée from 1921. The spotlight was then shifted to the Tank Française in 1996, a new model which offers a modern interpretation of the watch classic. From a technical perspective, 2009 was a pivotal year for the Cartier Tank, as the emblematic Tank Américaine Tourbillon Volant was introduced. This watch is the first in the collection, which features a Cartier in-house movement, the 9452 MC with a flying Tourbillon.The adaptability of the Tank also manifests through its sizing. The fact that these Cartier watches are available in three sizes has widened the watches’ appeal. The flexible sizing ensures that the timepiece hugs the wrists of wearers from both genders perfectly.

This example from the year 1977 has an extra slim case. View from the side, the Tank is almost as slim as the attached leather strap.

Cartier Tank – 100 Years and Beyond

It goes without saying that the 100th anniversary year brims with particularly sophisticated models. Above all, the Tank Cintrée Skeleton celebrates the traditional craft, as its movement, the calibre 9917 MC lends exceptional beauty to the skeleton dial. Moreover, to top that off, the 9917 MC also reflects the slight curvature of the casing made of rose gold or platinum.

To represent the hand-crafted finesse in all its splendour, the two versions, which are limited to a production of 100 pieces each, forego the classic Tank dial and emphasize instead the gears which are layered over several levels in the background.

(L)The Tank Cintrée is the skeletonized technical flagship of the line. The dramatic beauty of the manufactory calibre takes center stage in this artful composition. (R) The different sizes of the Tank, are a significant part of the Tank’s recipe for success. Fittingly sized, the rectangular case presents on the wrist nearly custom made. Here a trio of the Louis Cartier Tank.

The models of the Tank Louis Cartier line pay tribute to the original. After all, the quintessence of the Tank philosophy has remained unchanged throughout the years: The clear display of time on your wrist. The precise lines and proportions would have made even Louis Cartier himself proud. Bolder design versions are the Tank Américaine, also available in small, medium and large models. This worthy successor of the Tank Cintrée with its convex case and the rectangular shape is more compact. The sidebars and the housing flanks appear more prominent in their slightly rounded shape. Typical for Tank is the reflection of this rounding in the Roman numerals and the chapter ring, which are exquisitely stretched.