To be clear, we’re not talking about the kind you’d find on a battlefield. We mean an iconic piece of wristwear donned by some of the most popular women and men in history, including Jackie Kennedy-Onassis, JFK, Princess Diana, Andy Warhol, and Michelle Obama.
We’re referring to the Cartier Tank.
Patterned after the Renault FT-17 tank used by the French during World War I, Louis Cartier created the first Tank watch in 1917. He designed the watch face to look like the cockpit of a tank, with parallel’ brancards,’ or vertical bars along the sides of the case representing the treads. In the early 20th century, anything but round was a giant step away from watch tradition, so the Tank’s initial square shape was quite revolutionary.
In 1918, Cartier presented one of the first models of the watch, later named the Tank Normale, to American Expeditionary Force Commander General John Pershing as a gift for his wartime efforts in Europe. The company only produced six Tank watches in 1919. A few years later, in 1926, the timepiece made its film debut on the wrist of famed Hollywood star Rudolph Valentino. Apparently, he loved his Tank so much that he refused to take it off during filming.
From Hollywood stars to heads of state, the Tank has rumbled its way into the hearts of thousands, and for good reason. The watch oozes elegance and style with its signature rectangular look, roman numerals, train track minute markers, and smooth, polished gemstone crown. Distinctly unisex, the Tank manages to look masculine and feminine simultaneously, which has only added to its universal popularity over the last 105 years.
You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!
While the basic design of the Tank watch hasn’t changed significantly since its creation, Cartier has made several unique versions and updates throughout its history. In fact, while Louis was alive, he continued to create six more unique versions of his original Tank Normale. In 1921, he introduced the Tank Cintrée, an elongated version of the original. In 1922, he invented the Tank Chinoise, with a square case modeled after Chinese temples.
Louis brought forth his most important model of the Tank, however, with the creation of the Tank Louis Cartier in 1922. The LC version basically became the base design that every other Tank watch would follow in the future. Louis created three more Tank watch designs – the à Guichets in 1928, the reversible Basculante in 1932, and the Asymétrique in 1936 – before he died in 1942. Our watch repair pros have seen a few of these vintage watches over the years, but they are definitely few and far between.
Cartier did not release another Tank model until 1977 when it introduced the Tank Must de Cartier, a significantly less expensive watch aimed at combating the flood of cheap digital quartz watches coming out of Asia. The Must took its inspiration from the Tank Louis but instead used lower-cost gold-plated sterling silver for its case material. Borrowing from Swatch’s success, Cartier also offered the Must in various shapes (yes, even round), colors, and sizes to suit many different tastes. The watch turned out to be a great success and allowed Cartier to expand its customer base while retaining its luxury brand identity.
In 2021, Cartier unveiled a modernized Tank Must in steel casing outfitted with either an automatic or quartz movement. The Tank Must SolarBeat also made its debut last year, sporting a Tank Louis design, a state-of-the-art solar-powered movement, a QuickSwitch interchangeable bracelet system, and the option to use eco-friendly vegan leather straps. Luxury and sustainability? With good maintenance and in the hands of the right Cartier watch repair shop, the SolarBeat rechargeable battery won’t need to be replaced for about 16 years.
A Global Phenomenon
Over a decade after introducing the Must, Cartier again expanded its luxury-priced line of Tank watches in 1989 to include the Tank Américaine, an updated version of the 1921 Tank Cintrée. Initially, the Américaine was only available in gold, but today you have options to get it in steel or rose gold, and with or without diamonds. Cartier continues to sell both the Cintrée and the Américaine.
The company continued its global outreach by adding the Tank Française in 1995 and the Tank Anglaise in the early 2000s. The Française’s square-faced design hearkens back to the Normale and includes an all-metal bracelet for a sportier look. On the other hand, the Anglaise has thicker, more rounded bancards and a rectangular face like the Louis Cartier. Another unique aspect of the Anglaise is its crown embedded into the bancard instead of protruding from the side. While Cartier actively sells the Tank Française, no Anglaise watches have been introduced since the company offered a refreshed version in 2015.
Tanks for the Memories
When you give your special someone a Cartier Tank, you’re not just giving them a luxury watch. You’re giving them a piece of the world’s collective and your personal history.
Jackie Kennedy-Onassis’ Tank was a gift from her brother-in-law, Prince Stanislaw Radziwill, to commemorate the “50 Mile Walk” in Palm Beach, Florida. Radziwill, Clint Hill, and Chuck Spalding completed the trek in response to President John F. Kennedy’s call to Americans to become more fit. Both Jackie and JFK even walked parts of that journey with them.
Princess Diana’s Tank Française was given to Prince William after she died in that fateful car accident in Paris, and Harry received his mother’s engagement ring. These were the only two of their mother’s things the boys wanted, as they meant the most to her. When it looked like Kate Middleton would soon become part of the royal family, William asked Harry to swap their treasures so he could present Kate with the ring. Like a good brother, Harry made the trade, and the Duchess of Cambridge received the famed sapphire engagement ring when William proposed. As for Diana’s beloved Tank Française, Harry reportedly gifted it to his wife, Meghan Markle.
This Mother’s Day, when you can’t think of anything to give to the woman who has given you everything, consider presenting her with a Cartier Tank. And maybe start your family’s Tank story at the same time.