History of the Hero: The Cartier Tank

Cartier Tank

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Everything to know about the iconic watch design, from its history to its A-list fans

Words by Charlie Boyd

It is surprising how many fine watch and jewellery icons are inspired by basic, utilitarian items: the Cartier Clou, modelled on a humble nail; the Tiffany Keys range, inspired by vintage door keys; or the Jack de Boucheron collection, inspired by simple jack cables. Perhaps the ultimate example? The Cartier Tank watch, inspired by the military vehicles of the First World War.

One of the most searched-for timepieces on Google, the popularity of the Tank remains steadfast thanks to its timeless silhouette, Art Deco design codes and easy-to-wear elegance.

Cartier Tank

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The history of the Cartier Tank

First crafted in 1917, the Tank was designed by the maison’s founder, Louis François Cartier, three years into the unrest of WWI. Cartier was inspired by the firm lines and stately proportions of the Renault Tanks used on the Western Front, wishing to create a timepiece that captured their practical yet refined design and engineering. The rectangular silhouette of the Tank timepiece echoes the top view of the vehicle – the watch’s brancards (the vertical sides of the case) evoke the treads, while the case itself represents the cockpit.

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Part of the Tank’s audacious appeal lay in its break from the design codes that were popular at the time; curvaceous, round dial designs reigned supreme, and the Tank ushered in a new era of Art Deco elegance.

Cartier Tank

Cartier

The Tank sub-collections

Since its launch, the Tank has been reimagined many times over, with multiple sub-collections stemming from this first model. There are, however, distinct design signatures that continue throughout: namely, bold roman numerals, sword-shaped hands and a sapphire-hued crown.

The Tank Louis Cartier, Tank Francaise, Tank Americaine, Tank Cintrée, Tank Must de Cartier, Tank Chinoise… All these iterations have all riffed upon these design codes, offering sometimes subtle, sometimes significant shifts in silhouette.

Cartier Tank

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Brought to life in steel, yellow gold and rose gold, the roster of Tank designs now includes myriad models to suit all wrist sizes and skin tones, available on leather or bracelet straps, gleaming plainly or adorned with diamonds. Recent models have brought the design firmly into the 21st century too, such as the Tank Solarbeat, which has a solar-powered Quartz movement and vegan leather strap.

Cartier Tank

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Who wears them?

Like any great icon of design, the Tank quickly became the go-to watch for high fashion and high society. Jackie Kennedy, Yves Saint Laurent, Charlotte Rampling and Andy Warhol were some of the first to fall for its charm. When asked about his choice of watch, Warhol famously said, “I don’t wear a Tank watch to tell the time. Actually, I never even wind it. I wear a Tank because it is the watch to wear!” And it seems Warhol wasn’t alone in his thinking.

Cartier Tank

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Since then, countless A-listers have followed suit, including Angelina Jolie, Michelle Obama, Tom Ford and Sarah Jessica Parker – and, more recently, the Duchess of Sussex.

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Meghan was spotted sporting the Tank that belonged to her late mother-in-law, Princess Diana – the watch was often seen on Diana’s wrist in the 1990s. This is the second Tank timepiece that Meghan owns; she famously bought herself a bi-colour Tank when she found out that hit TV series Suits had been renewed for a third season, which she had engraved with ‘To M.M. from M.M.’ Like many who buy the Tank, Meghan plans to pass the timepiece on to her daughter, as its understated elegance effortlessly transcends generations.

Cartier Tank

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Where to buy?

You can invest in a Tank watch directly from Cartier, or through most major designer retailers across the globe, including Net-a-PorterSelfridges and Harrods.

After something secondhand? There’s weighty appeal in the hard-to-find timepieces available on resale sites: head first to Vestiaire CollectiveFarFetch and 1st Dibs.

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And for something truly one-of-a-kind, consider jeweller Jacquie Aiche, who has created some striking custom dials for vintage Cartier models, introducing unusual gemstones and kaleidoscopic colour to the classic silhouette. Every one is entirely unique and guaranteed to spark conversation.

And, don’t forget, whenever you invest in a forever piece, whether it’s watches or jewellery, it’s important to know how to correctly store and look after it to ensure it stands the test of time.

This article originally appeared in harpersbazaar.com