By no means am I a horological encyclopedia. My knowledge of historical Swiss brands is limited to the biggest and most popular players in the game—Rolex, Omega, Tudor, Tissot, etc. There are other brands I know off because of one particular model. This is the case of Cartier and the Tank. I know peanuts about the brand but I’ve heard a lot about the Tank and know a few things about the watch itself. What I do know, for example, is that it was created in 1917 and that its design has barely changed over the past century. One hundred years the Tank has been in production which is much more time than many other popular models. (The Submariner was created in 1954 and the Speedmaster in 1957.) So this begs the question: what makes the Tank so timeless? Let’s try to find out in this article.
Brief History of the Cartier Tank
At the time when wristwatches were circular pieces of jewelry, Louis Cartier decided to create a rectangular watch. The first iteration, the Normal, came out in 1917 and was inspired by the shape of the Renault FT-17 tank. Although the latter was as far as anything can be from elegant horology, the FT-17 was regarded as high-tech military equipment. The Cartier Tank, therefore, was also regarded as something different and well-made, showcasing extremely elegant lines. The Tank is actually half rectangular and half square, given that the lugs are recessed within the case. The first Tank was gifted to U.S. General John Pershing in 1918 at the conclusion of World War I. Rapidly, the watch gained popularity and would be seen on the wrist of famous actors and actresses as well as politicians.
Although the Tank now comes in many versions, the model that seems to be the closest to the original from 1917 is the Tank Must. The latter exists in several sizes and comes with different types of movements, from mechanical to quartz and solar-quartz. In order to discuss what makes the Tank such a timeless model we will therefore focus on the Must as it retains most of the features that made the Tank such an icon.
The Timeless Design of the Cartier Tank
Objectively, the Tank has a simple design. Simplicity is difficult to achieve, however, especially when it comes to industrial design. (Think of Apple products and how minimalist they look. It took the designers a lot of time to create their iconic and simplified designs.) As mentioned above, the case of the Tank is neither a complete rectangle nor is it a square. This is due to the fact that the case flanks—which double as lugs—extend past the top and bottom portions of the case. This makes it possible for the strap to sit flush against the case which creates a seamless look. Seamlessness, it seems, is a sign of longevity when it comes to watch design. Furthermore, the case is flat and thin, making it comfortable to wear. It also disappears to make way for the dial and its iconic layout.
There are three elements that make up the dial design: the small blued sword hands, the central railroad minute track, and the Roman numerals. Blued hands are easy to see against the porcelain white dial of the Tank and are also durable. (They don’t easily tarnish or corrode.) Placing the minute track in-between the pinion and hour markers allows the small hands to reach it, creating visual harmony. Furthermore, this unique placement of the minute track means the Roman numerals can take more space in order to guarantee legibility given how small the dial opening is. (We will talk about the dimensions below.) Lastly, being a time-only watch, there is no date aperture that would disrupt the harmonious design.
The Timeless Proportions of the Cartier Tank
By modern standards, the Tank Normale from 1917 was a small watch, measuring 23mm wide and 30mm long. One hundred years ago, it was normal for men to wear small watches and they were seen as being elegant. The unique design of the Tank does something that most small watches still can’t do today: endowing the wearer with a certain appeal, that of a person of taste and elegance. It was the Tank’s dimensions coupled with its unique design that made it alright for men to wear it in the 1920s as it still does today. The modern iterations come with cases ranging from 22 x 29.5mm to 25.5 x 33.7mm and 31 x 41mm for the largest version of the Must.
In a sense, the dimensions of the Tank Must (and Normale) still work today because they are classic—in the sense that they fit the wrist well. Most modern watches tend to look just right or too large, while the Tank looks integrated and doubles as a fashionable accessory besides being a proper piece of horology.
If we look at certain vintage cars from the 1960s and 1980s that do not seem to have aged at all, or the classic polo shirt which design hasn’t changed in the past 50 years, or the shape of dinner plates that has been the same for a few hundred years, we can understand why the Cartier Tank is still as popular today as it was one hundred years ago when it first started to be distributed to the general public. This is due, again, to its classic, simple, and timeless design. The Tank is the sort of object that will never go out of style and there can only be one of them. Similarly, the Rolex Submariner and, even more so, the Omega Speedmaster haven’t changed that much since they were first released.Featured image: www.secondmovement.com