Eternal Elegance: What’s Behind the Cartier Tank Watch Iconography
The powerful, the famous, and the stylish have worn the Cartier Tank for over a century. Here’s why.
BY Robb Report Hong Kong  |  November 2, 2023
4 Minute Read

Cartier Tank

It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly we noticed the Cartier Tank in the public consciousness. Its striking simplicity doesn’t scream for attention, and yet, there it is, on Princess Diana’s wrist. The Crown has revived her image on social media platforms across the board and you can find the iconic Roman numerals standing out on a square-cut wristwatch, beaming below her reluctant smile. It’s the only accessory repeated often by fashion icon Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; her Cartier Tank is unmissable in vintage black and white photographs. Clark Gable himself had such a unique one—the numerals on his dial were Arabic, not Roman. 

If Gable’s watch ever makes it to an auction house, the estimate figure will most likely reach in the tens of millions. After all, as we go to publish, at Christie’s, there’s a rare and unusual 18-carat-gold asymmetrical Cartier wristwatch with the “Crash” deploying clasp that experts predict will go for HK$1.6 million. Only 400 of them exist in the world. 

What makes the watch so special that there’s a feverish bid for it, even after a century? Its allure charms the likes of classic stars as well as contemporary. Angelina Jolie, in a press conference, waves her manicured hand, anchored with the visible and obvious elegance of a Cartier Tank. 

There’s a magnetic aura to the Cartier Tank that attracts men and women of note to acquire this rare accessory. Fashion is transient, but style is forever, which perhaps best explains why a simple wristwatch that made its debut in Paris in 1917 is as relevant today as it was over 100 years ago. Not many accessories can boast this level of endurance and relevance. The design is not that complex as it is meticulous—its simplicity is its hallmark, as there are only four main principles governing Cartier’s entire creative approach: “the purity of the line, the accuracy of the shape, the precision of the proportions, and precious details.” 

Even within a lengthy catalogue of Cartier watches, there’s the Tank signature that’s unmistakable: “inspired by the design of a military tank as seen from above, the watch is governed by this clear graphic blueprint: the brancards for the tracks, the case for the turret. From this formal association was born a new and founding principle: the design of the case horns would be integrated into the bracelet’s extension without any break in rhythm.”

Cartier Crash Watch, case in 18K rose gold set with 150 brilliant-cut diamonds and beaded crown set with a brilliant-cut diamond, totalling 2.16 carats. Bracelet in 18K rose gold, limited edition of 267 individually numbered timepieces. 

If Cartier’s Crash watch seems an aberration from its rich symmetrical dossier, that’s deliberate. Francesca Cartier Brickell, founder Jean-Jacques Cartier’s granddaughter, wrote in her book, The Cartiers: The Untold Story of the Family Behind the Jewellery Empire, that the novel Tank edition was a symbol of its time: 1960s London. Jean-Jacques Cartier created a response “to the spirit of the age. In fact, the Crash watch was the idea of Jean-Jacques Cartier and designer Rupert Emmerson who, together, after many attempts, eventually came up with a final design. The appearance of the resulting watch, named the ‘Crash,’ was in complete contrast to the straight lines of the traditional Tank and oval.” Rapper Jay Z has been seen wearing the Crash, and so has Emmy-winning screenwriter Dan Levy. Something a little askew and different, this particular model seems to align with those who think outside the box. 

As you’ve seen in Auction and in our Watch section, timepieces studded with glistening diamonds, encased in exotic skins, and bearing complex horology surpass the seven-figure mark easily—but is there a greater symbol of status, power, and style than the classic Tank? Legend has it, only 1,803 Cartier Tanks were made, making the luxury watch a neighbour’s envy and an owner’s pride. It’s so rare to find some of limited-edition pieces that collectors comb the world over and get alerts from auction houses in case someone is willing to part with their precious cargo.

So what’s the unifying thread among collectors and buyers, from Muhammed Ali to Andy Warhol, Steve McQueen, Michelle Obama, and Taika Waititi? Global fame and eternal style, apparently. For as many models of the Cartier Tank that there are, there’s a corresponding celebrity—be it in the field of art, culture, politics, royalty, theatre, or film. Stars of all calibre have shown great affinity to the Tank Louis Cartier (1922) or the Tank Française (1996), and the Tank Américaine (1988) is a modern statement, showcasing that each piece is not only an emblem of its era, but the mood and well-being of its wearer. 

Funnily enough, when we asked a CEO why he picked a 1970s Cartier Tank in 18-carat yellow gold, he said, “It was my father’s and he gave it to me after graduation. Not only is it a gift reminding me of my accomplishments, but since he passed, it’s my connection to him. It may be on sale for HK$40,000 or HK$4 million, but to me, it’s priceless.”