WORDS BY FELIX BISCHOF
A Cartier watch with a difference: the excitement in its New York auction room was palpable when Christie's announced Lot 50 of its June 2017 Rare Watches and American Icons sale. A classic Cartier Tank wristwatch, the 1962 model matched a black textured leather strap with an 18k yellow gold case, its crown set with Cartier's signature deep blue cabochon sapphire. In addition to its elegant make-up, this Cartier Tank model had heritage to boot: when turning the dial so that its Roman numerals face downwards, a personal inscription on the case-back revealed the watch's former owner as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. On the day of the sale, the hammer went down at $ 379,500, more than tripling its high estimate of $120,000. While Jackie's Cartier Tank busts most budgets, this vintage Cartier watch does give some idea as to the enduring popularity of Cartier's timepieces, and the Parisian brand's list of famous clients. Today, there are few luxury brands that equal Cartier in heritage and longevity.
Louis-François Cartier established his namesake business – which is pronounced Car Tee Aye – in Paris in 1847. A family-run concern until 1964, Cartier's son Alfred Cartier took over the reins in 1874. Under the guidance of Alfred's three sons Jacques, Pierre and Louis – it was Louis who ran the brand's famous Paris arm from headquarters on the elegant rue de la Paix while Pierre's Cartier USA took Manhattan by storm – that Cartier reached global reconnaissance. The brand became known for creative daring backed up by expert manufacturing. It was then that Cartier introduced some of its best-known design signatures – think of colourful Tutti Frutti jewellery and the brand's foremost mascot, the panther – while finishing one-of gems for members of international royal families, including the Maharaja of Patiala, the Duke of Windsor and later on Monaco's Princess Grace. At the same time, Cartier released a slew of enduring product collections, such as the Cartier Santos and Cartier Tank watches. To this day, the brand produces many products first dreamt up by Louis Cartier including iterations of wristwatches. Cartier timepieces are made in La Chaux-de-Fonds, an area in Switzerland surrounded by the Jura mountains and known for watchmaking.
With its economy of line, the sleek design of the Cartier Tank is a product of the Art Deco. Guided by Louis Cartier, the brand embraced the Art Deco from 1904 onwards. First produced in 1917, the Tank is inspired by the two-man FT-17 tanks employed on the Western Front: the design is said to mirror a bird's eye view of the Tank's small cockpit. There have since been many versions of the Cartier Tank, including the Tank Americain with its elongated case. Look out of the luxury watch's signature details: most dials display the time with roman numerals designed to circle the Chemin de fer, a geometric black and white double-line minute tracker inspired by steel railway tracks. The watch's two hands are made to resemble two swords and the crown is set with a sparkling blue sapphire. The brand's Cartier Tank Solo – available with steel, pink and yellow gold cases, all water-resistant to 100 feet – is a good starter option that will age well.
Feline-inspired jewellery has long been a Cartier calling card, with the panther one of the brand's best known motifs. But it's a wristwatch that started Cartier's enduring love affair with the big cat: first unveiled in 1914, a unique lady's bracelet watch set brilliant white diamonds and black onyx in an intricate pattern inspired by the wild animal's fur. Cartier has signed myriad panther creations since; in 1983, it paid further tribute by launching its Panthère de Cartier collection of watches. While it remained popular, the Panthère took a brief hiatus in the 2000s before a glamorous relaunch in 2017. Available in a choice of sizes – 22mm and 27mm cases (measured in diameter) dominate – the Panthère 2.0 comes in a variety of metals and finishes. After a Cartier diamond watch? There's a Panthère for that. Pink gold or double strap? There are Panthères for that too.
Cartier's archives are testament to the brand's many star-studded commissions and orders, designing treasures for royalty and high society alike. It wasn't just Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who owned a Cartier timepiece. Generations of stars and starlets have turned to Cartier to add some extra sparkle and shine, from actor Timothée Chalamet's Cartier brooch at the 2020 Academy Awards to Uma Thurman at the Met Gala. 1960s snaps of Catherine Deneuve reveal that the Belle de Jour actress told time with an oblong wristwatch: the Cartier Bagnoire. Just recently, the brand revisited the design which was first issued in 1912 by Louis Cartier. It's an elegant watch: the feminine design is available in a variety of sizes and extravagant finishes such as a white gold and diamond-set mini model, worn on a dark grey fabric strap.
Cartier has long ranked on Forbes' annual list of the World's Most Valuable Brands (in 2019, it came in at a sweet number 64). In touch with its unique history, it’s Cartier's strong designs and contemporary take on luxury watchmaking that have future-proofed the business.
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