Style | Swellboy

Swellboy on… a watch with a distinguished past

Beaten in the race to own Cecil Beaton’s Cartier

Swellboy on… a watch with a distinguished past

Image: Brijesh Patel

January 13 2011
Nick Foulkes

Among the lesser-known pleasures of the SIHH, the Geneva watch fair that takes place in January, are the concurrent exhibitions of historic pieces. This year I am anticipating the fair all the more keenly because Cartier is exhibiting 280 timepieces from its archives. I have a real weakness for old Cartier, and this line-up of past glories could well turn out to be the highlight of my fair.

Among other things, it will feature all 16 of the Mystery Clocks in the Cartier Collection, including one of the fabled Portique models built to resemble an oriental gateway (one of the most charming relics of the mania for Chinoiserie that swept Europe in the years after the Great War). However, one timepiece that will not be on show is the Cartier watch that belonged to Cecil Beaton. I spotted this in a Bonhams auction catalogue shortly before Christmas and, while not cheap, it offered me the chance to unite two of my interests: the life of one of the great 20th-century dandies, and the watch design of one of the great jewellers of any century.

I tried to bid but was immediately and comprehensively outdone by a well-known London dealer in antique Cartier, Harry Fane. Short of ending up on my wrist, I find it hard to think of a better home for Cecil’s old bit of clockwork. In fact Harry’s shop, if I can denigrate such a charming showroom with such pedestrian nomemclature, is one of the delights of St James’s. And while he is preparing Cecil’s Cartier for sale, I can enjoy looking at some of the other odds and ends he has knocking about. There is a very tasty Tank Cintrée, the antecedent of the American Tank, and he also has one of the wonders of the civilised world, or at least that bit of it that is interested in deco timekeeping, what he claims is the largest Square Tank made by Cartier in a series of 50 in 1926. Both are comfortably out of my price range.

Harry’s rooms are also on one of my favourite commuting routes, between the leather armchairs of Davidoff, where I often sample a small cigar to sustain me in my flaneuring, and the Mason’s Yard entrance into the London Library.

And while I will never be able to afford to be one of his paying customers, Harry is often kind enough to give me a cup of tea and a bun if I need bucking up after my cigar. In fact, for not having bid up this Cartier and made it more expensive for him, I am going to suggest that he upgrades from his regular builder’s brew to something more aromatic, orange pekoe perhaps. And instead of the sticky bun, I might suggest some freshly-baked scones and Devon clotted cream. On reflection, this may well turn out to be the best Cartier I never bought.