Men's Watches

Rethink tank

What happens when a 20th-century icon gets a 21st-century update? Nick Foulkes reports.

February 14 2012
Nick Foulkes

“You open the newspaper, you switch on the TV, you look at the market, and it is bad news all the time – and you get bored of it. But these are unsettling times and people need to feel comforted. And that,” says Cartier CEO Bernard Fornas, with the flourish of a master logician, “is why we have made a Tank that is ergonomic; a Tank with softness; a Tank with smoothness.”

I am a huge believer in the consoling power of nice things, and so, clearly, is Bernard Fornas, who feels that to run one’s fingers over the sensuous lines of the new Tank Anglaise is to experience a sensory escape from drab and depressing reality.

A new Tank from Cartier is an event, and although the design and manufacture has been a closely guarded secret, it was inevitable that rumours would get out. So it was that I travelled to Paris to get an avant-première of the latest chapter in the life story of a legend.

The Tank watch is one of a handful of designs that have endured unaltered for almost a century. The shape of our entire world has changed since Louis Cartier sketched his famous straight-sided watch in 1917, but the Tank has remained the same: the blued-steel sword hands, the Roman numerals, the chemin de fer minute track on the white dial, the winding crown set with its cabochon sapphire – they are all as recognisable now as they were at the end of the belle époque.

But, as well as the classic Tank, today called the Tank Louis Cartier, there have been other versions, and the early years of Cartier saw a particular flowering of creativity. Among the models made in the first two decades of the watch’s life were the Tank Cintrée (1921), the Tank Chinoise (1922), the Tank Savonette (1926), the Tank à Guichets (1928), the Tank Basculante (1932) and, in 1936, the Tank Asymetrique. However, in terms of production, these were never really model lines: each watch was artisan-made and produced only in small series. Between 1919 and 1969, just 5,829 Tank watches were made by Cartier – a minute quantity.

Back then, watches were made to commission or in single-number editions, but today, of course, things are different. Yet while modern production methods and the requirements of the 21st-century wearer now militate against the creation of one-offs, the mystique of the original design is more powerful than ever.

To tinker with the Tank is to embark on genetic modification, a serious matter not undertaken lightly, which is why launches of new Tanks have not been exactly frequent. Over the years there have been various retreads of classics, most recently in the now-discontinued Collection Privée, but, as regards new models, since the 1930s there have been just two: the Tank Americaine, a reworking of the Cintrée of the 1920s, which appeared in 1989; and the Tank Française of 1996. Both these watches have now entered – and I hate the term – the Cartier DNA.

In waiting over 16 years to release a new take on the Tank, Cartier has certainly taken its time, and it has launched many watches in between, including the phenomenally successful Ballon Bleu. But Fornas found himself on the horns of a dilemma with the Tank. “When you start touching an icon you run the risk of doing less well than before, and in this case your icon is in danger,” he says. But as he points out, inactivity can also be hazardous. “It is not always good to have icons sleeping in a drawer. You have to respect that there are codes to be observed, but you can do a lot of things to make it even more iconic, by putting some contemporary life in it… and we want a living icon. In fact, I think that the true test of an icon is taking it and putting it in tune with its time.”

At least the name was not too much of a problem: Tank Anglaise continues the horological homage to Cartier’s historic locations in Paris, New York and London. And the dial has all the familiar hallmarks. However, the rest is, in terms of the Tank, a radical rethink.

The case architecture is recognisable in that the two brancards (the straight sides) remain – although they have been given rounded ends, which Fornas cites as a major source of softness. But in a daring design cue that echoes the Ceinture of the 1940s and 1970s, not to mention the Ballon Bleu of today, the winding crown is set into the brancards, its faceted edge protruding from a slotted aperture. This creates – you guessed it – a softer, sleeker profile. The top and bottom of the case are curved – yet more softness – and much work has gone into the bracelet design (for the moment at least, it is not available on a leather strap), so that it integrates almost seamlessly with the watch head.

The size is different, too. After a period of rapid growth, case sizes across the board are coming down, but the Tank Anglaise reflects that the accepted median size for a watch has increased since the mid-1990s, when the Tank Française was designed. Thus the new watch is a little bulkier, with the medium size corresponding roughly to the large Tank Française.

The Tank Anglaise is an important watch for Cartier, and not just because it is based on an historic model. Tastes in China are an increasingly dominant factor in determining the success of a watch, and the prevailing wisdom is that the Chinese market loves round watches. Historically, however, Cartier is the master of the shaped case and it will be interesting to see how this new evolution of a Gallic classic will be received in what has become a hugely important market.

There is also a cultural aspect to the Tank Anglaise. After all, Tanks are what Cartier does; they are central to its sense of identity. Accordingly, Fornas feels he has a duty to the brand’s most famous watch. “There are so many stories, emotions and dreams behind the Tank story,” he says. So much so, in fact, that Fornas does not believe he is in the watch business, or even in the jewellery business, but in the business of seduction. “We are managers of desire. We must respect the brand and ensure that the desirability and the magic of the name continues. That is a never-ending work, and ultimately it is my responsibility to ensure the future of la maison.”