GENEVA – I recognised an old friend when my eyes alit on the new Cartier Tortue at the Geneva Watch Fair earlier this year. What is more, an old friend with an absolutely flawless complexion, not a pimple or blemish in sight. Just a great, elegant watch in the sort of sensible size that used to be regarded as standard in a man’s watch until the early years of this century when watchmakers put their designs on a course of steroids.

watches-cartier-jackie-kennedy-3The Cartier Tank was a part of
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s
classic style.

Today there is a correction in horological tastes – the senseless accumulation of complications housed in a case that looks like a cross between the Death Star and the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus is no longer regarded as the apotheosis of watchmaking. Instead watchmakers are rediscovering beauty, proportion and simplicity.

In terms of elegant design, Cartier can draw upon an almost unrivalled heritage in shaped cases. The Parisian jeweller is, of course, indissolubly associated with the defining characteristic of the personal timepiece in the 20th century – the move from pocket to wrist. There were wrist-worn watches before, but the eponymous watch for the aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont is customarily regarded as the first wristwatch of the modern era and it was not round but straight sided, almost as if it wanted to doubly signal its modernity by eschewing the traditional circular case.

It also mixed both curved and straight lines in such designs as the etiolated tonneau (barrel) that was favoured by Stravinsky and the more compact tortue (tortoise). What Cartier seemed to understand over a century ago is what would later become known as ergonomics, but back then was just good design. The tonneau in particular curves not just laterally on either side but is also gently curved on the wrist to make the large case comfortable to wear and the dial and glass are also curved.

watches-cartier-tank-tortue-2Cartier’s updated designs from the Tank and Tortue series. Photograph by Xavier Young.

Of course it was another event, the anniversary of which is also being commemorated this year, the First World War, that did much to popularise the wristwatch and also gave Cartier the inspiration to make the rectilinear design that is still going strong almost a century later. The Tank is a masterpiece. Just how many other instantly recognisable branded objects in daily use have remained exactly the same in the last century or so? I am sure there are some, but having asked myself this rhetorical question before, the Coca-Cola bottle is the only one that springs to mind immediately.

watches-cartier-warren-beatty-2Warren Beatty wears a Tank Française in 1967.

In the pantheon of great design objects the Tank must occupy an important place. I am biased because I often look at the world through the prism of watchmaking and I love old Cartier. It has withstood a number of design treatments: the Tank has been stretched to make the Tank Cintrée and the Tank Americaine; its sides have been extended to make the Tank Chinoise; there has been the trapezoidal Tank Asymetrique; and many others with more being added, only last year the Tank MC made its appearance. 

It has also enjoyed a near universal appeal with people of taste. Warren Beatty, Andy Warhol, Muhammad Ali, Truman Capote, the Maharajah of Indore Yeshwant Rao Holkar II, Duke Ellington, Rudolph Valentino and Steve McQueen (even though he is better known for wearing a Rolex or a Heuer) may come from different backgrounds and different epochs; yet all wore Tanks. And that is just the men. Style icons such as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Catherine Deneuve, Princess Diana and Angelina Jolie have all been photographed wearing the Tank.

The strength of Cartier is that few of its designs ever completely disappear, and thus, as well as the straight-sided tank there are the ovals and elegonated ovals of the baignoire and baignoire allongée. Then there are such classification-defying shapes as the Crash – one of the rarest and most esoteric of Cartiers (just make sure you get the London one with the wonky deployant buckle) – and the bell-shaped cloche. Even their circular watches were inventive: the Helm or Gouvernail and the Pebble are both elegant, round, time-only watches and yet unmistakably Cartier.

The slightly baffling thing about old Cartiers is that they remain relatively affordable, given that when compared to, say, Rolex, the historical output is almost microscopic. Between 1919 and 1969 the entire wristwatch output of Cartier Paris was under 30,000 pieces, of which fewer than 6,000 were Tanks, and there were so many variations in terms of dial design, strap or bracelet options that many of those were unique pieces. It will be interesting to see what effect the reintroduction of a classic such as the Tortue and the Tank MC has on the prices of older pieces when they appear at auction.

watches-cartier-ge-tank-hk-tortue(Left to right) A Cartier Tank and a Tortue will be offered for sale in
Sotheby’s October and November sales of watches in Hong Kong and
Geneva, respectively. Enquiries: +41 22 908 48 13 and +852 2822 8117.

Nick Foulkes is a contributing editor of The FT’s How to Spend It and a regular contributor to GQ.