Iconic: The Cartier Tank Watch

With its allusion to the French army, the Tank was created in 1917 from a pencil sketch by Louis Cartier. Its square shape surrounded by two straight sidebars, its sapphire cabochon winder and its leather bracelet have graced the wrists of celebrities such as Marquis Boni de Castellane to Alain Delon via Truman Capote for nine decades.

Fascinated by the mechanics and lines of the Renault tanks that appeared during World War I, Louis Cartier conceived a luxury watch inspired by the bodywork of armored vehicles viewed from above. He drew an 18 carat rose gold rectilinear case for the hatch of the vehicle, surrounded by two parallel sidebars imitating the treads of the tanks, to which he added two blue-steel hands shaped like a sword, a double minute track and Roman numerals. The Tank watch was born!

The first prototype was offered to General John Pershing, commanding officer of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe. But the Tank watch would be put on sale only after the armistice in 1919, Louis Cartier refusing to market the watch until peace reigned. Sober and elegant, the Tank watch was originally intended for men of action. Extremely fine, it was mainly developed with a concern for ergonomics, its thinness preventing any wounds, allowing it to slide discreetly beneath a shirt sleeve.

But Louis Cartier’s stylistic genius was to seamlessly merge the lugs of the watch into the bare edges of the brancards, and to integrate the lines of the case into those of the bracelet. Being simultaneously a practical object and a luxury piece of jewelry, this wrist watch with its pure lines overturned the world of watch-making of the time, dominated by the rounded rims of fob watches. Adopted by Louis Cartier personally, the Tank is the jeweler’s personal contribution to the fashionable Art Deco movement.

The Tank Hits the Silver Screen

What more beautiful setting than the cinema to popularize its creation? From the golden age of Hollywood to the French New Wave, the Tank was in the limelight everywhere. In 1926, the silent screen movie actor Rudolph Valentino refused to give in to director George Fitzmaurice, who had asked him to remove his Tank during the shooting of the movie The Son of the Sheik. Forty years later, Audrey Hepburn was wearing one, with her mischievous air, in How to Steal a Million. Steve McQueen and his Tank Américaine made spectators swoon with emotion in The Thomas Crown Affair in 1968. Alain Delon and Sydne Rome showed off with theirs in Creezy (1974). In Porto Rico on February 14, 1976, during a training stay before his fight against Jean-Pierre Coopman, Muhammad Ali bought himself one. Consecration for the House of Cartier, Irving Penn immortalized Yves Saint Laurent with the watch on his wrist in a portrait shot in Paris, in 1983.

Catherine Deneuve, 1984. © J.J. Lapeyronnie/Gamma

From Chet Baker to André Malraux to John Kennedy, few watches were so often worn indifferently by women as well as men. In Godard’s movie, Masculin Feminin, released in 1966, the Cartier Tank is visible, coiled around Chantal Goya’s delicate wrist. She, who will become the mythical singer we all know, was at the time a young beginner taking her first steps in the cinema. The actress was wearing a feminine model of the period in yellow gold. But the Tank also exists in more impressive dimensions. Such as the quartz Tank Solo, which would adorn a male forearm with class and elegance. That of Lady Diana was a present from her father, today the property of Prince William.

If the sword-shaped hands and the railroad-inspired minute track still evoke the male universe of its beginnings, the general aspect of the case with its reworked declensions reveal a particularly feminine elegance. The Tank model has been declined in about forty versions (platinum, gold, vermeil and steel): Classic for some, Cintrée, Chinoise, Américaine, Française, Basculante, or A Guichets for others, this cult watch has no cause to envy its Helvetic cousins.

Gertrude Stein: “We could say: ‘A Tank entered Cartier’s.’ We shall thus see a watch appearing, a shape, a style, an elegance which, following an incomparable trajectory, is going to cross the century, to become the bridge between eras and to invent a way of life, resolutely modern.”

Truman Capote, to a journalist, in 1973: “Take that ugly watch off your wrist and put on that one!” Embarrassed by this generous impulse, the journalist tries to return the Tank watch to the writer, but Truman Capote says to him: “I beg you, keep it. I have at least seven at home!”

Article published in the February 2016 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.