Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, both John F. and Jackie Kennedy, Muhammad Ali and Princess Diana. What do they all have in common? Each of these icons all sported variations of the same watch on their wrist: Cartier’s iconic Tank.
The greatest luxury is simplicity. It’s a mantra I’ve heard from the moment I began writing about design and fashion. Reporting on trends was one thing, but talking to style meant seeking out those items that, while less flashy than some of their peers, carried a dignity that ensured you would still enjoy looking at it in the years to come. This was true luxury. Like a bespoke suit or black dress, it transcended seasonal shifts. Over a decade on since penning my first piece comparing style to the experience of the sublime in art, the closest thing I’ve found to being truly timeless has, rather poetically, been a watch.
Much like cars, excitement over new watch releases most often comes in two forms: an exalting review of a design that references classic structure of timepieces of yore. Or the fawning over of trend-driven newness from materials to mechanism specs. But again, like cars, novelty soon wears off and what matters then is a matter of style and taste. Thus, the Cartier Tank…
Inspired by an aerial view of a combat vehicle, the Tank gives new meaning to the rather dry term timeless style. Mostly because, here, it’s a fact rather than a simple literary device: since Louis Cartier first unveiled the original Tank back in 1919, it has continually contained the key elements its original design.
A design so breathtakingly simple that it became an instant classic while still feeling forever modern: two parallel brancards that became its signature structure would represent the treads of its namesake while the case was to be the turret.
The Tank’s status as an icon has as much to do with the role call of famous owners as it does its core, unchanging aesthetic. There’s few watches that can boast the same broad spectrum of personalities that the Tank has. It was the favourite watch of pop art founder and progenitor of the intersection between celebrity, art and ads Andy Warhol. The People’s Princess, Diana Spencer was often seen wearing a Tank, a must-have among the English upper class.
Known for his spectacular taste as much as he was for his fighting prowess, Muhammad Ali was immediately won over the watch’s subtle aesthetic.
Today, the Tank remains a coveted symbol of refined elegance. Even the king of stunts, Kanye West, owns one of the few true divergent makes of the model. A Crash, which first appeared designed in the ‘60s in a limited number of 12, warped the parallel lines of the. In the ‘90s it hit its first mass production – and by mass, it was still only a run of 400.
That’s the other thing – while different decades have produced minor alterations, the core details of the Tank remain the same. The Roman numerals that dot the “rail-track” that lines the watch face – inspired by actual railway lines. The square dial that recollects the art deco era of the original. Today, there are are now seven variations of a theme: The Louis Cartier, Américaine and Française, Tankcintree, MC, Asémetrique and of course my personal favourite – the essential Tank Must.
Since computers, laptops and mobile phones integrated themselves into our lives, the role of a watch has become less about the time and more about an appreciation of detail and design. We don’t need watches to tell the time. We want watches to express a sensitivity of the owner – that we understand taste, we understand value. That we have, yes, style.
And what could be stylish than a watch that was perfect from the minute it was made?