The Tank always has been the stuff of legend.
Louis Cartier designed the prototype in 1917, the year the United States entered World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution roiled Russia. But it wasn’t until late 1919, five months after the Treaty of Versailles was signed, ending the war, that the watch went on sale.
The Tank benefited from the delay — Cartier and his Swiss watchmaking partners at the time, Jaeger and LeCoultre, did research, refining the aesthetic, functional and mechanical combinations of the timepiece. The result was a definitive challenge to the traditional pocket watch, which had seemed so hopelessly old-fashioned in combat. (The Tank was a successor to Cartier’s first wristwatch, the 1904 square-shaped Santos, acknowledged as one of the world’s first timepieces for the wrist.)
Over the years, the house’s marketing materials have described how the indelible images of the Great War inspired the Tank’s design. From the wearer’s viewpoint, looking down at the watch on the wrist, the case resembles a tank’s cockpit while the brancards, the vertical bars that run along each side of the case, recall a tank’s treads.
As a designer, Cartier deliberately rejected the sensual Art Nouveau style so popular at the time. The watch’s shape is somewhere between rectangular and square, while the lugs, the bars at top and bottom that hold the strap, are integrated into the case design. The finished watch was rigorously linear, almost aggressively spare and androgynous.
In short, it was instantly modern.
“Cartier was so far ahead of its time,” said George Somlo, a vintage watch dealer for nearly 50 years and owner of Somlo Antiques in the Burlington Arcade in London. “With so much upheaval in the world and all the terrible things going on, it’s amazing it could create something like this.”
Almost immediately after its introduction, variations on the Tank design appeared. There was the curved, oblong Tank Cintrée in 1921 and the more rounded Tank Louis Cartier in 1922, and it was around that time that the Tank Chinoise reflected the period’s love of chinoiserie. The Tank’s angular shape was muse…