How delicious this must be for Cartier, as it celebrates a century of the Tank: only one other serial production wristwatch predates it, and it’s a Cartier, too. The earlier Santos, however, was a product of expediency, answering the need of its namesake for a watch to wear during his pioneering flights. The Tank, though directly related to a different sort of transport, is more a product of its time, as its shape and name reek of the period. It was a fashion item that transcended the ephemeral.

Born during the First World War, the Tank’s form was inspired by the fearsome machine that rendered horse-borne troops redundant. Because the armoured vehicle called the “tank” was a buzzword of its day in the way that “social media” or “streaming” define our technological present, it was a term with undeniable immediacy in 1917. The tank – weapon rather than watch – did for ground warfare what the then-new aeroplane was doing in the skies. Cartier thus demonstrated a sort of marketing savvy that’s still in use.

Where it departed completely from its military associations was in its unparalleled elegance. As practical as it proved to be, the Tank was handsome, having nothing in common with its utterly utilitarian namesake. The connection was forever limited to the look: The Tank (watch) resembles the tank (armoured vehicle) as seen from overhead, its extended sides recalling the slab-sided, first-generation tank’s parallel treads.

Princess Diana
Princess Diana, seen here wearing the Cartier Tank

Breaking the Mould

Small and elegant, it was unlike other wristwatches that followed in the wake of the Santos and the decade before its birth. What made the Tank so revolutionary was that it did not resemble the majority of early wristwatches: small pocket watches adapted to accept some form of strap. Reaching full production by 1919, the Tank not only heralded the arrival of the wristwatch as the new norm (though pocket watches would remain dominant until the late-1930s), it proclaimed the wristwatch as something modern.

Aside from size, and proportions that – depending on model – were either perfectly square save for the extensions of the sides, the brancards, that formed the lugs, or resolutely rectangular like the Tank Louis Cartier, the definitive production versions of its first years are visually indistinguishable from current offerings. In the intervening century, the Cartier Tank has spawned as many variants as the Rolex Oyster, the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso and the Patek Philippe Calatrava. All are long-lived and, therefore, necessitate rebirth, revisions and reinterpretations, but among them the Tank always strays the least from its original look.

Without knowing Louis Cartier, one cannot say how much of his genius was tempered with prescience. Was he simply driven to create a watch for the wrist, and the form followed the function, or was he perpetually cognisant of the need for his clients to exhibit panache? Whether it was meant to be a piece of functional jewellery, or merely a tool, the Tank now evokes an era when grace and sophistication were mandatory qualities for haute société.

While never the most expensive watch on the market, the Tank has always appealed to the well-heeled – especially French celebrities. It was also a hit with Hollywood’s finest during the 1930s and 1940s, helped, no doubt, by the endorsement of Rudolph Valentino, who famously wore his Cintrée in his final film. During the 1950s and 1960s, it was as close to a default purchase for a chic Parisian or habitué of the Riviera as any timepiece could be.

Conversely, it is so refined a design that it finds less favour than one would imagine among the nouveau riche, who may prefer more of a “bling” element. It is to Louis Cartier’s credit that his design, while still the only watch a Parisian grande dame would wear, is not the timepiece of choice for spoiled bimbos.

The Son of the Sheik (1926)
The Tank's first silver-screen appearance in The Son of the Sheik (1926) when Rudolph Valentino insisted on wearing his own watch during filming

The Four Rules

And what a timeless recipe! Cartier itself has distilled the essence of the Tank into four key elements, a quartet of design features that nearly all Tanks possess. Leaving aside departures from the classic dial – the full-colour dial Must du Cartiers spring to mind – a Tank should feature Roman numerals. One, of course, will contain the “secret signature” that, alas, no longer fools the counterfeiters… and the Tank is one of the most faked of all watches.

Four key elements of the Cartier Tank
The secret signature in the Roman numerals

Next, the Tank dial should feature a rail-track (or chemin de fer) chapter ring. The third detail is the crown topped with a blue sapphire cabochon. Lastly, one should expect the clearly defined brancards, which form the case sides and incorporate the lugs of the strap. These are not hard and fast rules, but one might posit that the vast majority of Cartier Tanks adhere to this formula.

Four key elements of the Cartier Tank
The rail track chapter ring
Four key elements of the Cartier Tank
The blue sapphire cabochon in the crown of a Tank Cintrée
Four key elements of the Cartier Tank
The clearly defined brancards that form the case sides on a Tank Cintrée

As hard as it is to improve upon the basic design, equally it has been the perfect starting point for variations that expand the Tank’s appeal. The elongated Cintrée has an unmistakably masculine manner that planted it on the wrists of macho film stars, while the original, base model Louis Cartier Tank works for everyone despite its relative delicacy. If anything, the fact that it is so understated and visually perfect ensures that there is no occasion for which it is unsuitable.

Could this be why the Tank has never gone out of fashion? Did Louis Cartier harness some form – and the rectangular Louis Cartier come as close as can be to the Golden Ratio – that defies design language? Certainly, its versatility is beyond doubt. Over the decades, it has been fitted with numerous movements, including those made by Jaeger-LeCoultre, culminating with challenging in-house movements such as the 9917MC found in the limited production Tank Cintrée Skeleton in the Tank 100 Anniversary Collection.

While all Tanks are immediately recognisable as such, Cartier has never been afraid to court controversy or eccentricity with the shapes. As far back as 1921, the company introduced the elongated Tank Cintrée, which lives on in today’s curved Tank Americaine. 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. Tanks have always hosted gems, too, their presence reinforcing the way that the Tank bridges the Art Nouveau and Art Deco periods, while skeletonising is becoming a Cartier speciality throughout its model ranges.

Neither has Cartier rigidly adhered to the time-only functionality of the very first models, initially minus even a second hand. The Tank has featured complications including moonphase and chronographs, addressed travellers with versions containing two dials for dual-time-zone indication, featured early “jumping hour” models with digital displays through a small window and produced in 1931 an Allongée with an 8-day power reserve.

Cartier Must du Cartier
Cartier Must du Cartier

What’s New

Along with the Tank Cintrée Skeleton for the centenary, Cartier has further demonstrated the adaptability of the Tank with new models for the anniversary year, but as “regular” offerings rather than limited editions. The Cintrée Skeleton is the most ambitious, and one will have to choose between platinum or rose-gold versions, of which only 100 will be made of each. But equally expressive of the Tank “ethos” are the other 11 offerings.

Tank Cintrée Skeleton
The limited edition Tank Cintrée Skeleton

To represent the definitive Louis Cartier Tank in party attire, Cartier has prepared six new flavours. These include small and large versions in white gold set with diamonds in the brancards, small and large models in pink gold with diamond-set brancards and small and large versions in pink gold sans diamonds. All six feature the manually wound 8971 MC calibre.

Louis Cartier Tank
Louis Cartier Tank
Louis Cartier Tank
Louis Cartier Tank

What the Tank Française brings to the celebrations are small and large models, both set with diamonds and powered by quartz movements. Lastly, the Tank Americaine – that less extreme take on the long, narrow, curved Cintrée – will be available in steel in a small case with quartz power, and medium and large versions with automatic movements.

Tank Americaines

For a watch of such purity, it is a mass of contradictions. It is the first unisex wristwatch. It is exclusive, yet nearly populist because it is not absurdly priced. Its owners range from French screen legends such as Yves Montand, Catherine Deneuve and Alain Delon, to Andy Warhol, Princess Diana, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Warren Beatty and Alain Prost. Beyond their celebrity, they have one other thing in common: exquisite taste. For that is the true worth of the Cartier Tank. It is an exemplar of discretion and discrimination. And I suspect it will still be here in 2117.

Gunter Sachs
Gunter Sachs in Saint-Tropez in 1965
Yves Saint Laurent
Yves Saint Laurent wearing his Tank watch
Andy Warhol
A print of a Polaroid self-portrait by Andy Warhol
Catherine Deneuve
Catherine Deneuve wearing a Tank in 1984