A Stroll Through History
These days, the visual identity of the Cartier Tank is so well-known – and well-loved – that it’s hard to imagine this classic Cartier replica wristwatches ever being a revolutionary force in luxury watch design, and indeed in the watch industry as a whole. And yet, that’s exactly what it was. It helped change and shape an entire generation’s perceptions of and attitudes towards the wristwatch, ushering in a new era. To understand how and why it’s helpful to have some context of the period in which the Tank made its debut.
Nowadays, it’s generally agreed that the luxury wrist-watch market is male-dominated. You don’t have to walk too far into the halls of Baselworld to see that. Back in the late 19th to early 20th Centuries however, it was a different picture altogether. At that time, most men still relied on pocket watches to keep track of the time, eschewing wrist worn watches as effeminate trinkets, which were neither robust nor particularly accurate, and therefore not indicative of a gentleman’s social standing. It’s important to remember that most of the other iconic men’s watches of the 20th century, such as the Calatrava, the Datejust, the Reverso, and so on, were not created until the 1930’s and beyond.
Pioneering watches, like the Cartier Santos Tank fake watches in its distinctive square case and the unrelenting focus on precision by Rolex in its early years helped to slowly change these perceptions, but perhaps the biggest influence was the advent of World War I, in which wrist watches played a prominent role. Due to the nature of The Great War and the difficulty decentralised military units had in communicating with headquarters, timing was of the utmost importance to ensure manoeuvres (such as attacks) were coordinated effectively. As such, the watch became an essential part of an officer’s kit, with the wristwatch proving far more convenient and practical than a traditional pocket watch.
Critically, officers were expected to purchase their own wristwatches and so they often chose to continue to wear them even when they were back home on leave. As you might imagine, the sight of battle-hardened soldiers walking around wearing wristwatches (or wristlets as they were often called back then) went a long way towards dispelling the notion that they were fragile and effeminate.
Before too long, wristwatches began to grow in popularity, with the trend only strengthening as more and more soldiers began to come home. In December 1917, the Horological Journal, the journal of the British Horological Institute, noted that; the wristlet watch was little used by the sterner sex before the war, but now is seen on the wrist of nearly every man in uniform and of many men in civilian attire. The setting could not have been better for Louis Cartier to unveil his latest creation; the Tank Normale.
At first reading, the name Tank may seem a little strong for what is in a reality a very elegant design. Its distinctive aesthetic, however, was reportedly largely influenced by Louis Cartier’s fascination with the armoured Renault tanks, which were playing a key role in the trench warfare of World War I at the time. Practical, functional and yet completely radical, this top-secret weapon quickly became a key talking point among the masses when they first took to the battlefields in 1916.
Of particular interest to Mr. Cartier was the geometric form of the tank. When reduced to its most primitive elements and viewed from above, the design was essentially a circle (the turret), within a square (the main body of the tank), within a rectangle (the treads of the tank). Having already spent the early years of the 20th century earnestly researching ways to align the circle (of the hours) with the strap, a clear idea was now starting to take shape in his mind: four lines, with two parallel shafts, which would allow for the seamless integration of the strap as a fluid extension of the case.