There’s no doubt that it’s one of the most imitated (if not the most imitated) watches in the world: the Cartier Tank, first introduced in 1918, has a shape which probably millions would recognize without necessarily realizing that it is a specific watch, by a particular company, made at a very particular point in time.
The story of the Tank’s origins and how it got its name are perhaps apocryphal, but no less interesting for that. Legend has it (the story of the Tank’s origins has been passed down at Cartier by word of mouth, although no known written verification exists) that the first Tank watch was a prototype, designed by Louis Cartier and inspired by the profile of the first tanks used by the Allied powers in the First World War. (Which tank varies, apparently, depending on what version of the story you hear. Sometimes the Renault FT tank is cited; sometimes the story mentions the British Mark I tanks, first used at the Battle of the Somme in 1916.) Either tank might plausibly have inspired the shape of the Tank watch, which was distinguishable by its use of vertical brancards (French for “stretcher”) which form the flanks of the case and which also act as the attachment point for the strap. The brancards allowed the Tank watch to assume a dramatic, geometric shape which up until then hadn’t been seen in watchmaking, and which made it an icon of early Art Deco design, which made extensive use of rectilinear geometry that prefigured the high Modernist, post World War II architectural style.
The tale of the Tank’s origins say that the first prototype was given to General Pershing in 1918, but what we do know is that the first Tank was introduced commercially in 1919 –an early sales slip from Cartier Paris, dated 1919, specifically refers to the watch as the “Tank,” and it’s been known by that name ever since. Though the shape has been imitated by other manufacturers (and outright counterfeiters) ad nauseam, for much of its history the Tank was an extremely rare and very exclusive watch –from its introduction in 1919 up until 1960, less than 100 Tank watches were made per year. The Tank has also been, for Cartier, a template for an enormous number of variations, and Tank watch scholarship alone could keep a dedicated collector busy for a lifetime. Despite the plethora of variations, though, Cartier’s inventiveness continues to produce new models, and this year at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in Geneva, Cartier debuted the newest Tank model: the Tank Anglaise.
The Tank Anglaise joins the Tank Americaine and the Tank Francaise in a trio of watches named to honor the London, New York, and Paris locations of Cartier’s three flagship boutiques. The Tank Anglaise is a further development of the inspiration behind the original Tank of 1919. That watch was unusual in taking the then-radical step of making the case flanks and the point of attachment for the strap a single design element. The Tank Anglaise goes one step further and encloses the winding crown –the single protruding element in the original Tank design –entirely in the brancard that forms the flank of the case, creating a smooth silhouette only slightly interrupted by the blue sapphire cabochon. In some respects, it’s the purest Tank yet –a sleekly elegant extension of the original design, and a clear indication that even in the quest for simplicity, the story of the Tank rolls on.
The Cartier Tank Anglaise, large model, is shown in white gold with a white gold bracelet, with the Cartier in-house automatic calibre 1904 MC. $41,600.