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Feature: This Is Hands-down The Most Famous Watch In The World

For those unfamiliar with the early years of Hollywood cinema, Rudolph Valentino was the most lusted-after actor of the 1920s, a man whose death at the age of 31 caused mass hysteria among his fans.

Comparing him to contemporary heartthrobs is futile. No disrespect to Henry Cavill, Jamie Foxx, Timothy Chalamet and their ilk, but if they shuffled off this mortal coil tomorrow, there probably wouldn’t be riots in the streets and a funeral for each of them in both Los Angeles and New York.

So when Valentino starred in his 1926 box-office hit, The Son of the Sheikh , wearing a Cartier Tank in practically every scene, it inevitably became the most recognised and desirable watch on the planet. The fact that Valentino died of peritonitis two weeks before the film’s release didn’t harm ticket sales either.

An early Tank once owned by the writer Damon Runyon. Image: Bonhams

An early Tank once owned by the writer Damon Runyon. Image: Bonhams

Up there on the big screen in cinemas from Sydney to San Francisco, Valentino wearing a Tank was a product placement coup comparable to James Bond sporting an Omega.

Not that Cartier paid a penny for the privilege as the Tank was Valentino’s personal possession, which he insisted on wearing—even though it looked plain weird on the wrist of a sheik living in the remote Sahara Desert. Sort of like Indiana Jones fighting the Nazis wearing a Casio G-Shock.

Since then, the Tank has made an appearance on a string of A-list wrists—both men’s and women’s—and remains Cartier’s best-loved model, with countless versions made since it was launched in 1919. Interestingly, however, the perception of the Tank has changed dramatically since then. Once considered a masculine model, it’s now the epitome of the elegant, unisex dress watch.

So how did a watch with its origins on the brutal battlefields of the First World War become the must-have timepiece for everyone from debonair jazz musicians to stylish princesses?

A Watch Borne Of War

Louis Joseph Cartier, one of several family members who ran the world-famous jewellers in the early 20th century, is said to have designed the Tank after seeing an aerial view of a First World War tank on the cover of a magazine and noting the parallel tracks that were longer than the cockpit between them. Translated to the actual watch, these twin tracks are known as ‘brancards’ and are what makes the watch so distinctive.

This 1930s tank sold for £25,000 at auction in 2017. Image: Bonhams

This 1930s tank sold for £25,000 at auction in 2017. Image: Bonhams

These were still very early days for the wristwatch—worn predominantly by women and referred to as ‘wristlets’—yet Cartier had already achieved an industry milestone in 1906 by launching the Santos. Possibly the first commercially available wristwatch for men, it was designed for the Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont, a friend of Louis Cartier, who needed something he could wear while in control of his latest experimental aircraft.

If a high-flying daredevil like Santos-Dumont could wear a wristwatch, so could any man without feeling his masculinity was being compromised.

Heroes Wear Tanks

The First World War saw large numbers of soldiers wear wristwatches—rather than pocket watches—for the first time, making them even more palatable for the men of the era.

At the end of the war in 1918 Cartier even gifted a prototype Tank to General Pershing, commanding officer of the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe. In a way, Pershing was Cartier’s first international brand ambassador, and having a victorious military hero wear the Tank only added to its masculine allure.

The Tank has always found new ways to express itself, like this asymmetric model

The Tank has always found new ways to express itself, like this asymmetric model

By the time Valentino acquired one, the wristwatch was ubiquitous on men’s wrists and the Tank was especially desirable, particularly as rectangular-shaped watches were the dominant style at the time. The great and good of the 1920s and 30s lapped it up, with wearers including French poet Jean Cocteau and American jazz legend Duke Ellington.

A Unisex Classic

In later decades the Tank was adopted by women, too, many of them style icons of their era. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor had his and hers versions, Princess Diana and Michelle Obama were devotees, and Elizabeth Taylor gifted one to her husbands—which must have cost her a fortune as she was married eight times, twice to the same man (we wonder if he got two).

Jackie Onassis’ model, meanwhile, was sold at auction in 2017 for $379,500. The buyer? Some reality TV personality called Kim Kardashian—but don’t let that put you off.

The list of Tank devotees over the decades reads like a who’s who of the biggest names in sport, politics, cinema and art. Asked why he never bothered winding his up, Andy Warhol said, “ I don’t wear a Tank to tell the time… I wear a Tank because it is the watch to wear.”

The squat-looking Tank Divan is still an elegant piece

The squat-looking Tank Divan is still an elegant piece

We’d like to think that French Formula One driver Alain Prost and boxer Muhammad Ali wore theirs for less shallow reasons.

And lest we forget, the biggest names in fashion design have also gravitated to the Tank. We’re talking haute couture household names like Yves Saint Laurent, Ralph Lauren and Tom Ford, as well as the actor Adam Driver who recently wore one while playing Maurizio Gucci in the film House of Gucci .

The Tank Today

Like its almost invincible namesake, the classic Tank design lives on today, oblivious to industry trends.

Available in various versions, from the Tank Francais to the squat-looking Tank Divan, its most recent line is the Tank Must, which is powered by either a quartz movement or Cartier’s pioneering SolarBeat photovoltaic movement, the latter of which is said to need a service only once every 16 years. There’s also a larger model with an in-house Cartier automatic movement.

The Tank's latest incarnation is the Must model, released in 2021

The Tank's latest incarnation is the Must model, released in 2021

The Must is the first luxury watch to use a solar-powered movement, but there are still some technological lines Cartier refuses to cross.

Asked why Cartier doesn’t make a smart watch, its current CEO Cyrille Vigneron recently talked of the long tradition of its products being passed on from generation to generation over decades and the need for Cartier to avoid ‘perishable technology’.

It’s an admirable policy of which Louis Joseph Cartier himself would wholly approve.

Looking for pre-owned Cartier finance? Click here to shop now

Looking for a pre-owned Cartier watch? Click here to shop now