Think Tank

An appreciation of Louis Cartier’s iconic Tank watches

On 15th September 1916, in a muddy-cratered field in northern France, 36 metal war machines, which we now know as tanks, were deployed for the big push during the Battle of the Somme. These machines of death and destruction were the unlikely inspiration for Louis Cartier and his designs for the Tank watch, which he began in 1917 and unveiled to the world two years later in 1919.

You can clearly see how his design was developed from the shape of a First World War tank, as seen from above. There was a box in the middle with tracks either side, which extend further beyond the box shape. For his watch design, Louis Cartier distilled the box shape into a square in the middle, and the dial and the lugs extend from each corner with no decoration to detract from the purity of its form. To this elegant shape Cartier added the now trade-mark white dial with bold roman numerals and a cabochon sapphire winder crown.

This line of watches has survived well and has spawned many derivatives from Cartier over the years, starting with the American Tank, with its elongated rectangular shape to the more recent Tank Française, which is a much sportier model. Others include the Obus, Divan and Chinoise, with over 30 varieties being made in total. Whichever model you choose to own they are all classics.

A regular Tank can be bought for £500, and this would get you the Must de-Cartier model made in silver with at least 20 microns of gold plate; whereas an 18ct gold ladies quartz model starts around £1,200 and you’ll pay £2,500 for a gent’s mechanical. Vintage models from the 1920s to the 1960s are rare, but when they do come up at auction they start at about £2,000 and can go up to £10,000! *

A Tank American is rarer than the regular Tank, simply because Cartier not only made fewer, but they were also only made in gold or platinum. Starting at £2,000 for a ladies 18ct gold quartz on a strap, to £8,000 for a gent’s 18ct gold large automatic on a bracelet – platinum ones are too rare to give an average price.

I once read a story about the American war tank, which said during the First World War the Americans didn’t want to buy British tanks so made their own, which were not only longer but had two guns on each side as opposed to the British version with one gun on each side. On seeing this, Louis Cartier called his elongated Tank watch the Tank American – a great marketing ploy to sell watches into America.

The Tank Française is a more recent design and pays homage to French architecture, owing to its classic square shape, which integrates seamlessly into the bracelet. It is more robust and offers a larger choice of models from the ladies steel on a steel bracelet, to a gents Chronoflex 18ct on an 18ct bracelet (don’t buy it!). The Française is the flavour of the moment, so any model on a bracelet is good (bar the above), as are any of the three sizes available. This model is made in various materials and combinations; steel, steel and gold, gold, and platinum. The only other no-no with this watch in my opinion is diamonds. Only buy diamond versions if you know them to be correct, as diamond models do not command a big premium on the second hand market.

Almost any Tank you buy will be a great watch, you will love wearing it, and it will hold its value. In this article I have used prices for watches advertised for sale as opposed to auction prices, as recent currency fluctuations have distorted the auction market over the past year.

Still in production today, the Tank watch is such an iconic design, to the extent that if someone describes something as ‘tank shape’ they are usually referring to the watch not the armoured vehicle!

*Please note that valuations were accurate as of September 2010 when this article was written. Article taken from September 2010 issue of Antiquexplorer and written by Michael Delage-Pandeli.

Cartier 1.jpg
Cartier 2.jpg
Cartier 3.jpg
Woo Gilchrist