To say the Cartier Tank is an icon is not only a cliché – it’s an understatement. It has been a staple of the Cartier catalog for over 100 years and has adorned more famous wrists than perhaps any other timepiece in history. Over the decades, it has inspired countless other watches, with “tank” becoming the colloquial term for virtually any rectangular timepiece. But does the Cartier Tank have any actual connection to the battlefield and combat that inspired its creation?
The Cartier Tank and World War I
In 1917, during that last full year of World War I, General John J. Pershing was appointed commander of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). The AEF operated primarily on the Western Front, which extended through Luxembourg, Belgium, and France. It was along this front that the infamous trench-based stalemate was finally broken by the AEF, which boldly charged into the “no man’s land” alongside troops from France, the UK, Australia, and Canada.
General Pershing, a graduate of and later an instructor at the storied United States Military Academy in West Point, had already led a distinguished career prior to his appointment commanding the AEF. Despite pressure from other European militaries for the American forces to merely supplement Allied units, Pershing took a decidedly different approach with his troops’ training and deployment. While sometimes criticized for his strategy of brazen and often costly frontal assaults, it was under Pershing’s command that the tide of the war was ultimately turned.
Thus, amidst the fanfare of his appointment and the ongoing tumult and carnage of the war, Louis Cartier, grandson of Louis-François Cartier, presented the newly designed Cartier Tank watch to General Pershing. As the story goes, during his time serving on the Western Front, Louis Cartier had witnessed what must have been a truly astounding spectacle – the devastating effects of armored tanks like the British Mark IV, Mark V, and the Renault FT. It’s hard to imagine a more intimidating presence on the battlefield, like Achilles in mechanized form, charging forth into no man’s land, spelling certain victory for its allies and certain doom for the soldiers of the Central Powers.
The Cartier Tank: Louis Cartier’s Memories of the Western front
As the story goes, being moved by the sheer power and modernity of these turreted titans, Louis Cartier returned to Paris and designed the Cartier Tank watch. His inspiration came from the vehicles’ footprint and the tracks that pushed these war machines across the battlefield. Flanking the rectangular dial was a pair of elongated bars, or brancards, whose tips served as the lugs that connected the watch to its leather strap.
Brancard is the French word for “stretcher,” something that would have also been horribly commonplace on the Western Front. With this in mind, the Cartier Tank actually more closely resembles the medical apparatus used to carry the wounded off the battlefield. Cartier undoubtedly felt that such imagery would’ve been far too gruesome for their clientele, who didn’t want to be reminded of the terrors of war whenever they gazed upon their wrists.
The Cartier Tank and the Cartier Santos
When exploring the inspirations for the Cartier Tank watch, we found a clear continuation of the design language from the original men’s wristwatch, the Cartier Santos, created by Louis Cartier for his friend, the aviator Alberto Santos Dumont in 1904. The square dial remains, but the Tank’s lugs are elongated and streamlined; the industrial bezel and screws are conspicuously absent. The result is a gradual design refinement and an elegant evolution from the original tool watch to something a bit more sophisticated. It’s like a soldier’s dress uniform: suitable for high society despite its battlefield heritage.
This was the revolutionary timepiece presented to General Pershing. Accounts differ as to whether the general’s Tank was the original prototype or one of the first five copies produced. In either case, it’s agreed that General Pershing was the individual to receive the watch publicly.
Cartier Tank: From a Military Timepiece to Dress Watch Icon
The irony is that, over a century later, the Cartier Tank has been largely relegated to the category of dress watch – something dainty and elegant, suitable for cocktail parties or evening cruises on teak-decked leisure yachts. It has adorned the wrists of many glamorous individuals, from Clark Gable to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Andy Warhol also wore one, famously stating that, rather than using it to tell the time, he had it on because it was “the watch to wear!” These icons are a far cry from one of the most battle-hardened military leaders of the 20th century.
But this contradiction of endorsement perhaps speaks to the true brilliance of the modern design of the Cartier Tank. It was Art Deco before Art Deco, modern before modernity, a timepiece apart from time. In the 114 years since the Tank was first conceived, it has ebbed and flowed with the capricious whims of fashion and taste, adopting well over a dozen different design variations and interpretations along the way. And while it may feel about as far away from a military watch as possible to contemporary wearers, it was from trenches of the “war to end all wars” that one of horology’s most treasured and iconic timepieces first sprang.