Monochrome Watches
An online magazine dedicated to fine watches

Cartier, Shaping Elegance – The History of Cartier through Shaped Watches

| By Xavier Markl | 6 min read |
Cartier shaping elegance - history of cartier through shaped watches

Jeweller-watchmaker or watchmaker-jeweller, Cartier excels in both. From this rich tradition, and as evidenced again recently with the introduction of the Drive, the Parisian Maison has drawn an unrivalled legacy in creating fascinating shaped watches. MONOCHROME brings together some of the most iconic Cartier masterpieces born from a unique perception of masculine elegance: sheer dandyism and the mastery of shapes.

The first mention of a watch in the Cartier records dates back to 1853. The creation of pocket watches, chatelaines, table clocks, mystery clocks and other horological “objets de vertu” quickly became one of the most important activities for Cartier. At the beginning of the 20th century, watches started to be worn on the wrist – first for military use, before fashion spread, in particular after the Boer war and even more after WWI. Cartier is intimately associated with the migration of the watch from the pocket to the wrist. The first wristwatch created by Cartier, in 1904, was a special order from Louis Cartier’s friend, the flamboyant Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos Dumont. The Cartier Santos greatly contributed to the popularity of the wristwatch among the Parisian high society. The collaboration between the creative aesthete Louis Cartier and the inventive Edmond Jaeger allowed the wristwatch to gain an exceptional freedom of shapes. Beyond the Santos, unapologetically elegant watches such the Tonneau (1906) and the Tortue (1912) were created by Cartier in the midst of the Belle Epoque.

Cartier vintage watches - Cartier Santos Dumont 1904 - Cartier Tonneau 1908 - Cartier Tortue Monopoussoir 1928

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Three iconic Cartier wristwatches from the early 20th century. From left to right, a 1912 ‘Santos Dumont’, a 1908 Tonneau and 1928 Tortue Monopoussoir. Early watches have LeCoultre movements (not the Monopoussoir). In 1907, Cartier signed a contract under which all Jaeger movements for a period of 15 years would be exclusive to Cartier. The movements were produced by LeCoultre with whom Jaeger was already collaborating. All the design features that give Cartier watches their distinctiveness are there: Roman numerals, the use of ‘IIII’ at 4 o’clock, the rail-road minute track, the sapphire cabochon on the crown and the hands (even if the blued steel sword-shape hands were to come later).

During WWI, the quest for new forms led to the creation of a model with unparalleled style and trajectory, a resolutely modern and elegant design with a square face and perfectly integrated strap held in between two straight parallel brancards: the Tank. To give birth to the brand’s signature model, Louis Cartier draw inspiration from the Renault Tank FT used by the French forces, in the later stages of World War I. If some Cartier watches with similar shapes were actually made by Cartier before Louis Renault began working on the concept, the watch is indeed named upon the armoured vehicle.

Cartier vintage Tank Chinoise and normale

Two early iterations of the Tank. From left to right, a 1920 Tank Normale and a 1929 Tank Chinoise

Over the years, Cartier’s mastery for shapes has remained the driving force behind the Maison’s design. The iconic Tank theme has gone through dozens of variations, while always retaining the strength and purity of its design. Beyond its cult streamlined rectangular watch, Cartier has produced countless watches, exploring shapes without limits on creativity. Monochrome brings together 5 remarkable pieces from the French Maison.

The Cartier Tortue Chrono-monopoussoir (Collection Privée Cartier Paris)

Cartier Tortue Monopoussoir

If several brands have designed Tonneau shaped watches – which is, after all, a classic shape nowadays – very few can rival the Cartier Tortue. The model breathes style and elegance. Born in 1912, it went through a subtle, seductive makeover in the 1990s. Among the creations of this period, the Chrono-Monopoussoir is without a doubt the most striking. A nod to tradition, it is a single push-piece chronograph. Indeed, until the 1930s, chronographs featured a single pusher to trigger the start-stop-reset functions, always in the same sequence and Cartier manufactured, over the years, numerous Tortue featuring such movements. The absence of the traditional chronograph pushers leaves the purity of its harmonious curves intact.

The watch is powered by an interesting exclusive movement, the Calibre 45MC. This manual wind, column-wheel chronograph was developed and manufactured with THA (Techniques Horlogères Appliquées, founded in Sainte-Croix by now familiar names F.P. Journe, Vianney Halter & Denis Flageollet. THA was acquired by Carl F. Bucherer in 2007).

The Cartier Tank Cintrée

Cartier Tank Cintree

It is a difficult task to pick favourites among the numerous iterations of the cult Tank watch. The pure and elegant Tank Normale, the unique Tank Chinoise, the analogical the Tank à Guichet, the non-conformist Tank Asymétrique, the sophisticated Tank à Vis are all respected masterpieces.

Born in the 1920s, the Tank Cintrée (and its modern version, the Tank Américaine) is, without doubt, one of the most elegant watches Cartier ever created. It features a remarkable shape, being very elongated, slim and curved to fit around the wrist. This stretched version of the Tank is an ultimate statement of chic. Although always produced in small quantities, several variations in size, materials and functions have been proposed.

The Cartier Crash

Cartier crash vintage and skeleton 2015

Right – A late 1960s Crash with London Hallmark (Cartier London was a separate entity at the time). Left – A 2015 limited edition. Although Cartier has released occasional re-editions of the watch, this iteration stands out with its astonishing skeleton-shaped movement, the calibre 9618MC.

Created in London in 1967, the non-conformist Crash is among Cartier’s most expressive designs. While ‘Swinging London’ was all about modernity and creative freedom with a flourishing cultural scene, the Crash was reputedly ‘born’ after a Baignoire Allongée was melted and distorted beyond recognition in a car accident, inspiring Cartier to create this “Dali-like” piece of horological design. A creation resembling no other and yet unmistakably Cartier. The original production from the late sixties, with London Hallmark, are extremely rare and sought after – a new edition has been launch in 2015, with complex skeleton movement.

The Cartier Tonneau

Cartier Tonneau

A modern version of the Tonneau manufactured in the 2000s, featuring an enlarged case and larger strap. Since 2004, the Tonneau is fitted with Jaeger-LeCoultre movements.

One of the first wristwatches ever created by Cartier (1906), the Tonneau, the French word for barrel, was a completely innovative shape at the time. Its thin case is curved to fit the wrist ergonomically. The Tonneau is the epitome of class and sophistication, the ultimate Dandy watch, with unmistakable Cartier flair, far away from the codes of rugged sports or military watches. A feeling reinforced by the thin strap of the model. The perfect watch if you feel nostalgic about a bygone masculine elegance.

The Cartier Cloche

Cartier cloche

The Cloche (French for bell) has a unique place within Cartier’s watches, with unusual shapes. Originally created in 1922, it has been produced in limited quantities and re-edited occasionally, most recently as limited editions in the frame of the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the brand or within the Collection Privée Cartier Paris. With the 90° rotation of its dial, the watch can also be used as a desk clock.

2 responses

  1. Someone brought an original Tank Cintree to a program of “The Antiques Roadshow “.
    It was in terrible shape having sat in a garage for 30 years.
    Cartier Geneva took something like a year to restore it.
    Valuation of the restored watch was in the order of £ 50,000/60,000.
    How very cool to own a watch like that.
    You really would not want anything else.

  2. An update , a dealer in the States has a ladies –platinum– Cartier Cintree watch for sale, looking very similar to the 1908 tonneau you showed in your article. It dates from around 1990.
    Cartier really do a lot things very well.

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