For 100 years, the Cartier Tank has been one of the few stalwarts of the watch world. To put the watch’s unfathomable staying power into context, consider that Louis Cartier designed the watch in 1917—Rolex was only officially incorporated as a company two years earlier. Cartier’s sharp-edged square watch was inspired by an overhead photograph he saw of a Renault FT-17, a boxy tank used in World War I. But something unexpected happened in translating war machine to watch: “It’s about beauty,” says Cartier collector and dealer Harry Fane. “And that’s what Louis Cartier was all about. ‘Form follows function’ were his words. He didn’t want the watch to tell the time in three different time zones, or make coffee when you pressed a button. He just wanted a really simple, really elegant watch and he succeeded in designing that. And, um, it lasted 100 years.”
Beauty is the word Fane uses most when describing his upcoming exhibit of Cartier Tank watches at Dover Street Market’s Los Angeles location. The exhibit will run from February 7th to the 19th, with all the watches on display for sale at prices ranging from $12,000 to $120,000. (The Crash, a Dali-adjacent model recently worn by Kanye West, is going near the top end of that range, at $115,00.)
In perhaps Los Angeles’s most forward-looking shop, the exhibit of Tanks is a decided throwback. Nearly all the watches were made before or during the 1960s and are meant to take the viewer’s hand with a velvet glove and guide it back to “an age when people wore elegant clothes, women were very beautifully dressed, men were very elegant,” says Fane.
Because almost all of these Cartiers would have been cradled in the world of luxury. Tanks were the watch of choice for people in power—the upper-crust types flitting from one ballroom to the next in search of banquets and galas and birthdays for kings and queens. “Whether you were a Rockefeller or a Hollywood movie star or an Indian Maharaja, you bought jewelry from Cartier,” Fane says. “They say that in Paris that if you were an aristocrat, when you were 21 years old, it was a rite of passage to be taken by your father to Cartier to get your first Cartier watch.”
So while Fane says he doesn’t know the provenance of the 35 watches he’s displaying, it’s not hard to get caught up in the romance of it all. “You do begin to wonder, for something that was made in 1927: who did this watch meet, who did it sleep with, who did it dance with?” In its early days, the Tank was made in such limited numbers—only 2,200 were produced before 1965, according to Fane—that each is special in its own way. Some of the examples on display are so rare Fane is sure he’ll never see one again after it’s sold. “You could say, ‘Oh, I’d like you to find me one of these watches,’” he says. “And I would just laugh at you.”
These are examples like the Tank finished in 1942—“the height of the Second World War,” Fane notes—with a small subdial and gold indices where the watch would typically feature Roman numerals. Or a Cartier Tonneau, the barrel-shaped case design, from 1926 that is still powered by its original movement. While any very old watch with its original parts is a remarkable discovery, collectors are less likely to find them in a Cartier. A watch brought into Cartier for repairs around the production of this piece would have received an entirely new movement, rather than a tune-up. “It’s just an impossible thought someone would ever find it,” Fane says.
Article written by Cam Wolf #GQ