As I’ve previously mentioned in my take on the Jaeger-LaCoultre Reverso, I have a soft spot in my heart for square and rectangular watches. To me, they represent a period long past: an era pre-Golden Age horology, pre-Quartz Crisis, and pre-Modern: a time when a watch was either a tool or an event accessory, with little else in-between. The Cartier Tank watch is no exception to this nostalgia, and is in fact considered one of the icons of this style, as evidenced by the many imitators that followed it.
Cartier (the brand) has long prided itself on the Tank’s rich history. Originally developed in 1917 by Louis Cartier, and released to the general market in 1919, it went from being among the first watches handed to American General Pershing for his service during World War I, to being chosen as the timepiece of choice for President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy, to becoming — perhaps most impressively — one of the very few watch models just as popular with men as it is with women. The Cartier Tank is nothing to scoff at, and while I have number of reservations about the series overall (mostly due to the use of quartz movements in several of them), the watch has earned its place in horology and continues to evolve as a truly classic piece.
While the Cartier Tank long has long been known as a rather fashion-forward series, Cartier has always kept one or two models in its rotation that directly honor the early pieces of the 1920s. Today, those models are the Tank Louis Cartier and the Tank Solo, the first of which we will look at. The Tank Louis Cartier, for the most part, keeps to the original spirit of the Tank watch. Hitting many of the major Tank keys, the piece is housed in an 18k gold, 29.5 mm x 22 mm case, maintains a white Art Deco-style dial with black minute counter and Roman numerals, uses steel-blue sword hands, and, possibly most characteristic of all, has a sapphire-beaded crown. This particular watch is available in larger sizes with some models coming with a date wheel, and starts at a price around $9,000.
The most noticeable change between this watch and its historical predecessors is the movement; I’ll spoil the plot and tell you right now that it’s quartz. Now, of course I have already admitted to an anti-quartz bias, and Cartier has been known to focus almost primarily on quartz movements since at least the 1970s (go check out the vintage Les Must de Cartier collection), but to me, there is little excuse for Cartier’s most historically important timepiece not to contain a traditional mechanical movement.
In truth, however, the reason why Cartier uses uses quartz movements in these watches is abundantly clear: the Cartier Tank was (and is) famous not because of superb or innovative mechanics, but much more due to a design that made it the watch that so many people want as their personal accessory. Andy Warhol somewhat notably 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!” I can only imagine that many other people shared this sentiment, and Cartier was smart enough to adjust the product accordingly.
In the spirit of Vintage Eye for the Modern Guy, the second watch we will look at is the more contemporarily designed Tank Anglaise. This watch was released in 2012, with its stated aim to “perfectly embody” Louis Cartier’s desire for seamless design. While the watch is available in 17 different variations in many different metals, sizes, and bracelets — starting from a $4,850 steel case and going all the way up to a diamond-encrusted $168,000 case — the piece has quickly caught the attention of many consumers for its modern Cartier appeal. The model I am focusing on is a steel “large model” (Ref. W5310009), housed in a 39.2 mm x 29.8 mm case, using a nine-sided protected crown with iconic sapphire tip, and on a satin-finished, polished steel bracelet. The watch also features a two-toned flinqué and silvered dial with date window, steel-blue sword hands, and traditional Tank Roman numerals and minute counter. The whole piece is powered by an automatic movement, Cartier Caliber 077.
Given a choice to wear one, I would actually prefer the Tank Louis Cartier over the Tank Anglaise. You may be wondering why, given my previous comments, but the simple truth is that I find the Anglaise, is more an accessory than a tribute. While the watch certainly pays homage to past references — with the dial’s decals, general proportions, and sapphire tipped crown — I find it lacks the historical inspiration and simplicity that defines the older Tank models. I do love the automatic movement, which I’m sure was added as an effort to pay tribute to Louis Cartier and the era of watches in which he lived. But still, this piece appears to be a push deeper into the fashion-oriented, rather than the horology-oriented, realm of the watch world.
Cartier Tank watches are undeniably cool. They’re iconic, and chances are most people (even if they aren’t watch geeks) can identify one in the wild, which always makes for a good conversation. But the series is not without flaws. While I’m positive Cartier will have no problem selling these watches for many more decades, no matter how much the brand strays from the model’s original look and feel, the Cartier Tank is one of the last remnants of the vintage Art Deco era, and I would hate to see it lose its individualistic quality. Have I mentioned that I love square watches?
For Part 6 of this series, in which I compare the vintage and modern IWC Portugieser, click here.
Caleb Anderson is the Director of Outreach at the online vintage and antique watch boutique theoandharris.com. Since starting at Theo & Harris, he has garnered extensive knowledge on vintage watches, and spends much of his time sharing his opinions within the field. Currently located near New York City, he is a persistent student in all things historical, a writer on watches, and a casual runner.