Cover Princess Diana with her Tank watch, circa 1995 (Photo: Sipa Images)

A firm favourite of the fashion cognoscenti, Cartier’s Tank could well be the most stylish watch of all time

Just about every fashion brand produces watches these days. But the watch long favoured by the world’s style tastemakers and best-dressed people is in no way a ‘fashion watch.’ Fashion is capricious—as Heidi Klum, the Teutonic supermodel host of Project Runway, intones over and again, in fashion, “One day you’re in and the next day you’re out.” Cartier’s Tank watch has stayed in style for more than a century.

Inspired by the stark lines of the First World War armoured vehicles that give the watch its moniker, Louis Cartier designed the Tank in 1917, although the timepiece didn’t go on sale until 1919, several months after the cessation of hostilities. Glance at a contemporary Tank watch and it appears the picture of elegance. But look closer, and the cues Louis took from the brutal ordnance of the Western Front become apparent: the square at the centre of the dial is redolent of a tank’s turret, the hands of its cannon barrel, while the vertical sidebars (known as ‘brancards’) running down each side of the case suggest the vehicle’s all-terrain treads.

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Eschewing the florid voluptuousness of art nouveau, which had been the dominant aesthetic for two decades, the sleek, minimalist, square/rectangular Tank represented one of the first commercial examples of the art deco style that would come to dominate the Jazz Age. However, as with many ahead-of-their-time designs, the Tank wasn’t initially in step with mainstream tastes, resulting in it first being produced in very small quantities—just six were manufactured in 1919.

A one-off prototype Louis Cartier created during the war was gifted to US general John Pershing, the triumphant commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe, who became the first of many prominent individuals to flourish a Tank on their wrist. Soon, the watch achieved cinematic renown when Hollywood heartthrob Rudolph Valentino wore his own Tank prominently on-screen throughout the movie Son of the Sheik (which proved to be the star’s last film—Valentino tragically died aged just 31 not long after its 1926 release).

As the model gained in popuarity, Cartier developed an array of variants on the Tank—the orientalist Tank Chinoise, streamlined Tank Louis Cartier, elongated Tank Cintrée, water-resistant Tank Étanche and protodigital Tank à Guichets launching in the ’20s and ’30s, the bracelet-borne Tank Française, wrist-hugging Tank Américaine and husky Tank Anglaise arriving more recently.

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The very embodiment of subtle, angular sophistication, over the past 100-plus years iterations of the Tank have been worn by some of the most stylish people on the planet. Tanks have kept time for many of fashion’s greatest designers, including Tom Ford, Calvin Klein, Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Balmain, Hedi Slimane and Ralph Lauren. The watch has been worn by cultural giants including Andy Warhol, Patti Smith, Truman Capote, Cole Porter, Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington. 

Numbering among the Tank’s movie star devotees: Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Rex Harrison, Warren Beatty, Alain Delon and Marcello Mastroianni. Princess Diana wore a Tank, as did American royalty Jacqueline Kennedy, and a Tank was on her husband JFK’s wrist when he gave his first state of the union address.

A perennial for more than a century, the Tank is a classic that will always remain fresh and never fall out of fashion. As one of this watch’s foremost ambassadors, Monsieur Yves Saint Laurent, so memorably remarked, “Fashion fades; style is eternal.”

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