Cartier Tank Watch: A Collector’s Guide to 100 Years of Craftsmanship

Cartier, Platinum Tank Watch, Private Collection, sold for €16,000 (Boule, July 2017).

By: Tom Mulraney

Sleek, sophisticated, elegant. Sometimes masculine, sometimes feminine. Over the years, the Cartier Tank watch, in one of its innumerable variations, has adorned the wrists of movie stars, artists, First Ladies, fashion designers, and just about everyone in between. A legend in the world of luxury, the Cartier Tank is an instant icon of good taste. Incredibly, this timeless design icon celebrated its 100th birthday in 2017, and its popularity shows no signs of waning. Below, explore a guide to some of the more notable models of the Cartier Tank watch throughout the years.

The Cartier Tank Watch and Louis Cartier

For those unfamiliar with the history of the Cartier Tank watch, it’s worth noting that it played a pivotal role in shaping an entire generation’s perceptions of, and attitudes towards, the role of the wristwatch in the early 20th century. Back then, wristwatches (or wristlets, as they were called at the time) were still largely viewed as feminine accessories and were considered more akin to jewelry than robust timekeepers. The extensive use of wristwatches during World War I went a long way toward changing those attitudes, but there were still very few options available for wristwatches outside of the more rugged, military-inspired models or the over-the-top Art Nouveau style that was popular at the time.

A fine 18K gold Cartier Tank Chinoise Model, circa 1950, sold for CHF39,375 (Christie’s, May 2005).

Recognizing this changing trend in the market, French watchmaker Louis Cartier set about designing an elegant wristwatch that was robust and masculine, yet also sophisticated and refined. According to history books, Mr. Cartier – like most of Western Europe – was fascinated with the armored Renault Tanks, which were playing a key role in the trench warfare of World War I at the time. These top-secret weapons, often talked about but rarely seen, had appeared in the media for the first time in 1916, and quickly became a key talking point among the masses back home.

The shape of the Tank formed the basis of the design for Mr. Cartier’s new watch, with the rectangular lugs on either side of the square case emulating tire treads. In 1917, the first model appeared – although it was not commercially available until 1919 – and was presented to General John Pershing, who at the time was serving as the commander of the American Expeditionary Force on the Western Front in World War I. The rest, as they say, is history.

With all that in mind, let’s get on to the watches.

Cartier Tank Normale

A Fine & Rare Gentleman’s 18K Solid Gold Cartier Tank Normale Wrist Watch
sold for £9,500 (Watches of Knightsbridge, June 2017).

The Cartier Tank Normale was the very first Tank, created in 1917 and officially offered to the public in 1919. The original concept was almost painfully simple: four lines, with two parallel shafts, allowing the strap to be seamlessly integrated into the case. It seems so familiar now and yet it was revolutionary at the time as it was the first to place significant emphasis on aligning the circle (of the hours) with the strap, creating a streamlined product that hugged the wrist. The trademark design cues that would come to define the Tank collection were already present at this early stage: Roman numerals for the hours, a railway track minute counter, blued-hands, and, of course, a winding crown set with a blue sapphire cabochon. Inside was a thin, manually-wound mechanical movement, designed by French watchmaker Edmond Jaeger and manufactured by LeCoultre & Cie.

Production of the Cartier Tank Normale was reasonably limited. These days, vintage models – especially in platinum or white gold – are difficult to come by and always command a premium at auction. Needless to say, they are highly coveted by collectors.

Tank Louis Cartier

Cartier “Tank Louis” Wristwatch, sold for £2,400 (Sotheby’s, September 2017).

While the Cartier Tank Normale introduced the style, it was arguably the Tank Louis Cartier that truly put the watch on the map. Affectionately known as the “LC Tank” among collectors, this was the personal watch of its creator and namesake, Louis Cartier. Slightly larger than the Cartier Tank Normale, with smoother lines and a more masculine feel, it has been the choice of influential figures throughout history. American painter, Pop art figurehead, and legend of the New York scene Andy Warhol was often photographed wearing his, although he reportedly never wound it. “I don’t really wear a Tank to tell the time, I wear a Tank because it is the watch to wear!” he admitted once during an interview. He certainly wasn’t alone in that opinion, although others did wind and set their LC Tanks before wearing them.

Cartier Tank Cintrée

Cartier, Tank Cintrée, ref. 2843, n° 45/50. Sold for €23,400 (Artcurial, January 2017).

For many, the Cartier Tank Cintrée (French for “curved”) is the most elegant Cartier Tank watch ever created. Unveiled in 1921, it is so named for its elongated, slightly curved case, ensuring a tapered fit on the wrist. Thinner and longer than the original Cartier Tank Normale, the Cintrée gave early insight into the flexibility of the underlying design. Fundamentally it was still comprised of the same four lines with two parallel shafts on either side, but it had its own distinct personality on the wrist and often featured Breguet hands. A testament to its ageless appeal, the Cartier Tank Cintrée still appears in current collections of Cartier watches; however, like the Cartier Tank Normale, it has been produced in limited quantities throughout the years, making it more rare and highly sought-after by collectors.

Cartier Tank Must

Cartier Gold Vermeil Lady’s Tank Wrist Watch, “Must de Cartier,” “Swiss” on the face. Sold for $450 (Joseph DuMouchelle, June 2014).

The Cartier Must de Cartier Tank is a particularly interesting collection, although perhaps not so much from a collector’s point of view. Launched in the early 1970s during the quartz crisis in the Swiss watch industry, it looked very much like an LC Tank but with some notable differences: the watches were offered in vermeil coated Sterling silver cases instead of 18k gold and were powered by quartz or cheap ETA mechanical movements. Likewise, the dial was offered in lots of different colors, while the Roman numerals and railway track minute counter were noticeably absent. While not considered in the same league as other Cartier Tank models, the Must performed extremely well in terms of sales and introduced Cartier to a broader audience.

Cartier Tank Américaine

Although the elegant and elongated shape of the Tank Cintrée was all the rage of the 1920s and 1930s, by the 1980s its dimensions were considered a bit too delicate for modern, masculine tastes. Cartier’s solution was the introduction of the Cartier Tank Américaine. Bigger, bolder yet still possessing the desirable curved case, two versions of the Tank Américaine launched in the late 80s with little fanfare. In the 90s, the large Cartier Tank Americaine with the mechanical 430MC movement made its global debut. Considered a large watch at the time (44 x 26.5 mm), it featured a vintage-inspired dial with no date window or small seconds hand. Still a popular seller today, the Cartier Tank Américaine once again demonstrated the ability of the original design to evolve and remain relevant.

Cartier Tank Francaise

Cartier Tank Française, Ladies’ Watch in Yellow Gold. Sold for €1,105 (Tajan, December 2015),

Unlike the Cartier Tank Américaine, which took a while to gain traction in the market, the Cartier Tank Francaise was an instant hit when it was first released in 1995. The basis of its appeal is its elegant chain-link bracelet, which evokes tank treads, albeit in a somewhat more delicate manner. Available in four different case sizes ranging from small to medium to large, it is the first ever full-steel (case and bracelet) Cartier Tank watch and remains a popular model in the current lineup. Older versions sit right on the cusp of being designated as vintage, but the design remains as fresh and attractive as when it was first introduced 22 years ago.

Rarer Styles of the Cartier Tank Watch

Cartier Tank Basculante “1847-1997,” n° A109345 / 036/150, sold for €5,850 (Artcurial, July 2017).

No look back on the history of the Cartier Tank watch would be complete without special mention of some of its more unusual and rare (and therefore most collectible) models. Rarer examples of the Cartier Tank watch include:

1. Cartier Tank Chinoise
2. Cartier Tank à Guichet
3. Cartier Tank Basculante

The Tank Chinoise was first launched in 1922 and featured a noticeably squarer case, with the overall design inspired by the architecture of Chinese temple porticos. Cartier Tank à Guichets, meanwhile, unveiled in 1928, were very futuristic and forward-thinking, featuring no real dial to speak of. Instead, they offered a solid face with two windows, one for the hours and the other for minutes. Lastly, the Cartier Tank Basculante, released in 1932, was created for Cartier’s sportier customers and featured a specially designed case that could pivot lengthwise (flip-over) to protect the glass of the dial during more strenuous activities, like polo.

Looking for more? Explore Cartier watches for men and women available now on Invaluable.

About Tom Mulraney
Tom Mulraney is the Founder and Editor of The Watch Lounge, a popular online luxury watch publication dedicated to enthusiasts and collectors alike.