The watch I’m about to share with you today has little mechanical accomplishments to boast of, or one-of-a-kind craftsmanship to speak of. It’s not even made of precious metal, its gold sheen is merely vermeil, gold-plated sterling silver. But it’s a watch I love dearly, inexplicably. It’s a watch my mother had bought for herself when she started working, and had gifted to me when I landed my first job as a watch writer.
It’s also a watch that was born out of tough times, a wonderful nugget that is not talked about very much but is responsible for ensuring Cartier’s allure remained even as the company went through war, restructuring and the impending Quartz Crisis.
The Must Vendôme is a quartz watch, and I’ve seen many, many versions of it. I have friends who own the watch, often also a gift from their mothers. Part of the Les Must de Cartier line, the Must Vendôme was a pretty fashionable watch of the day; a covetable item of the ’80s that was just as ubiquitous as the Chanel flap bag and power suits.
The Must de Cartier concept came about in 1973, when two men put their heads together to think of a creative solution to revive Cartier. The two men are Robert Hocq and Alain-Dominique Perrin. Hocq, who came from a lighter business background, had successfully turned the lighter into the must-have Cartier accessory at the end of 1960s and into the 1970s. This opened up opportunities for Cartier to develop beyond jewellery to areas such as leather goods, pens, fragrances and watches that were affordable and desirable for every day, but still had that Cartier magical aura around it.
Coining the phrase “Les Must de Cartier,” Hocq wanted to create a line of products that one simply needed to have. He appointed Perrin as the new CEO of Les Must de Cartier, which became Cartier’s lower-priced spin-off line.
What really set the ball rolling, according to Perrin in an interview he did with FHH Journal, was the launch of the silver gilt Must watches in 1977, including a Must de Cartier Tank that retailed for just US$500.
The Must de Cartier Tank paid tribute to the original Tank Louis Cartier, but was released in a variety of dial options in dark blue, red, and black, even a striped three-tone gold. It was the first time Cartier has mass produced a watch to such scale. It was also the first time Cartier had launched a watch in a non-precious metal. But it worked. The watch was a massive hit. From selling just 3,000 watches a year, by the end of the 1970s the brand had exceeded the 160,000 mark.
What followed was endless versions of Must de Cartier watches for men and women, in different sizes, shapes, dial colours and finishes. The Must de Cartier became the watch to wear for the fashion set when in the 1980s, French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent sported the Must de Cartier Tank in his 1983 photo portrait. There’s really not much information about the Must Vendôme I own today, but one can assume it was born out of this same period of creation and proliferation.
I love the watch. An arbitrary search on cartier.com today will lead you to a wide range of small leather goods and perfumes — no watches. The Must de Cartier line of watches were discontinued in the mid-2000s, done so likely to preserve the exclusivity and prestige of the Cartier brand, who by then, had returned to its former glory and no longer needed a lower-priced line to sustain itself.
But the Must de Cartier remains an important part of Cartier’s history, reflective of the difficult times the brand has lived through and the lengths it went to overcome it. It is also, in my opinion, one of the most timeless watches. It might be a product of its time, but you can never call a Cartier watch dated.