Breaking the rules in order to redefine them: it’s the sort of activity reserved for geniuses. As watch lovers, we normally associate rule-breaking genius with brands like Hublot, but it’s not uncommon to find a mastermind or two behind a traditional brand like Cartier. The best example of the kind of rule- and groundbreaking work I’m talking about is the Cartier Santos: Not only was the Cartier Santos the first real wristwatch, it also revolutionized the form with its rectangular design and integrated lugs. At the time, these innovations were a world first. Soon afterward, the Cartier Tank, with its distinctive, tank track-inspired lugs, introduced an all-new watch aesthetic. Regardless of the model, one thing is clear: Cartier is as much a watchmaker (indeed, inventor of the men’s wristwatch) as it is a jeweler, and its watch collections combine the best of both worlds.
The longer I look at Cartier, the more I see the brand’s rule-redefining approach to watchmaking emerge. Obviously, my point of view colors the way I see the watches, but it’s also my personal approach to Cartier that inspired my excitement. So why not take a few moments to look at Cartier through my eyes? Ask yourself: Is Maison Cartier simply part of the establishment? Or has the brand rather been revolutionizing the watch world, time and time again, for over a century?
Cartier Santos: The First Men’s Wristwatch
Santos is the oldest watch line in the Cartier collection and remains one of the most important to this day. The watch was created for pilot and adventurer Alberto Santos-Dumont, who wanted to be able to tell the time when piloting a plane by looking at his wrist, rather than having to fish around for a pocket watch. The Santos is therefore both the first ever men’s wristwatch and the first ever pilot’s watch. Even back then, the design of the timepiece, with its rectangular case, integrated lugs, and visible screws, was revolutionary.
The extent to which the design of the watch was both revolutionary and timeless can only be truly appreciated today. Cartier watches are very much in demand, and the Santos is one of the most popular models. Whether you wear a two-tone variant, a smaller size (for smaller wrists), or the Santos-Dumont (which most resembles the 1904 original), the timepiece looks fantastic. Perhaps the design holds within its lines some of the spirit of optimism we associate with the early days of aviation. Or, maybe it’s the revolutionary shape, combined with the classic dial design of a pocket watch. Can we figure out what, exactly, makes the watch so special? Not with any rational explanations. However, we can definitely say that the Santos, perhaps more than any other watch, has a certain je ne sais quoi that has inspired the watch community for over 100 years.
Cartier Tank: To Each Their Own Wristwatch
The Cartier Tank is one of the most ubiquitous watches in the world, and has adorned the wrist of a many a celebrity. Michelle Obama, Andy Warhol, and Muhammad Ali are just a few of the big names to have been photographed wearing this timepiece, which may well be the classic dress watch par excellence. This hasn’t always been the case, however. When it appeared in 1917, the Tank’s angular design caused a bit of a stir: Although the Santos had introduced the new shape to the watch world over a decade earlier – a design far removed from that of the pocket watch – the Santos had been created for an eccentric aviation pioneer; the Tank brought Cartier’s revolutionary design idea to the wider public.
The wide lugs were inspired by the then-new Renault tank, seen by Cartier on the Western Front during World War I. But the initial skepticism directed at the rectangular timepiece quickly subsided, and as early as the 1920s, the watch was so popular that others of similar design were also referred to as “tanks.” Since then, the Cartier has celebrated this personal armistice by releasing Tank variants of all shapes and sizes, with varying complications, in a variety of price segments.
You’d think the watch world would eventually tire of the Tank, or that even a classic timepiece like the Tank might not be appropriate in every situation, because it’s either too elegant or too feminine. But celebrity enthusiasm for the Tank proves otherwise. Lady Diana loved her Tank, which managed to look casual one day, and elegant the next. The Tank fit Yves Saint Laurent’s distinct style to a T. Muhammad Ali was famous for his discretely-sized Cartier Tank, which proved a stunning contrast to the size of his wrist. The Tank is just as suitable to our lives; we can adapt the watch to the size and style that best works for us.
The Tank hasn’t changed much since its appearance over 100 years ago; its DNA remains essentially the same. The many models and extravagant special editions, like the Cartier Tank Asymétrique Skeleton, for example, demonstrate the position tradition holds at Cartier. Legends are not worshiped blindly at the Parisian Maison, but rather allowed to evolve, and are open to reinterpretation. Thus, the Tank has been preserved, and yet carefully adapted through the years to fit the spirit of the times, repeatedly revolutionized through new special editions. As watch lovers, we therefore get to both admire the past and revel in the contemporary passion for these watches.
Cartier Panthère: Timepiece or timekeeping bracelet?
What’s in a name? In this case, it’s the inspiration for the watch, namely Cartier’s heraldic animal, the panther. But it’s not quite that simple, since it’s the piece’s sleek bracelet that alludes to the panther’s grace, not the watch. If you think of the Cartier Panthère as a watch, you may be disappointed. The timepiece is, after all, a simple quartz watch with no special technical features, and available only in small, smaller, and the smallest of sizes. So why has the model become a classic?
If you think of the Cartier Panthère as a bracelet, your perspective shifts. Thanks to the bracelet’s five-piece link structure, it’s not only unbelievably comfortable, it also looks terrific. The bracelet even has a small integrated watch! So for every event you’d rather wear a bracelet to, be it fancy or casual, you’ll have both a timepiece and an homage to timepieces on your wrist. Those who know me know I don’t like small watches. But the Cartier Panthère is one of my favorite watches to wear on days that, for whatever reason, I don’t want to wear a watch.
Cartier Ballon Bleu: More Than A Circle
I’ve only discussed rectangular models up to this point. But since 2007, the Cartier catalog has also been home to the Ballon Bleu collection, which offers Cartier fans perfectly round watches. Like their angular counterparts, these, too, come with a wide variety of complications. They’re also available in a range of sizes to suit every wrist and taste, from 28 to 46 mm. The timepiece’s signature characteristic is its integrated crown, which is topped with a blue sapphire or spinal cabochon protected by an arch. The round dial on this round watch is thus broken by another round shape: Does this make the watch more or less round? Well, that’s really in the eye of the beholder, whom the watch wants to bemuse in a charming French way.
In contrast to the entirely new shape of this Cartier, most models feature a traditional dial with Roman numeral indices. So when you spot a Ballon Bleu on someone’s wrist, it appears at first to be just your average watch, almost a little old-fashioned: round shape, classic dial. Only on closer inspection do you notice that the silhouette is not what you expected, thanks to the integrated crown. Get a little closer, and you’ll see the cut of the dial, discretely broken by the integrated crown. So is it a classic watch, or indeed extravagant? For me, it’s a prime example of how balanced asymmetry can be.
Whether Cartier is a watch brand, or a jeweler that also manufactures watches, is open to debate. I see Cartier as both watchmaker and jeweler. The symbiosis affects the collections, of course. Take the Cartier Panthère, for example, which is essentially a piece of jewelry that takes its cue from the watch world. Yet, Cartier’s ingenious sense of jewelry design can be found in classic watches like the Cartier Santos. Every design is so unique it’s always recognizable, but can be varied in many ways, without seeming disproportionate or out of place.
Along with the collections mentioned here, Cartier offers many other captivating models. Whether it’s the Roadster, Pasha, or something else entirely, every Cartier watch not only comes with an interesting backstory, it also features an exciting design. So enjoy the influence of haute joaillerie and experiment with it. As wearer, you get to make these masterpieces your own. With so many different collections, materials, and sizes to choose from, we can all find a timepiece that highlights our sense of personal style or simply brings us joy.