Time Machine: A Brief History of the Cartier Tank Watch

The modern history of “shaped” watches—a category denoting wristwatch silhouettes that deviate from the traditional round—begins with the Cartier Tank. Designed in 1917 by Louis Cartier, a grandson of Cartier’s founder, Louis-François Cartier, the original model, now known as the Tank Normale, famously resembles the World War I armored fighting vehicle for which it’s named: The brancards (or vertical bars) represent the treads, and the case conjures the cockpit.

Beloved by style icons such as Jacqueline Kennedy and Andy Warhol, the Tank—particularly in its slightly more rectangular and most recognizable form, the Tank Louis Cartier—is now practically emblematic of the brand, if not classic watchmaking in general. But it didn’t truly catch fire until the 1960s, when the maison ramped up production.

The steel Cartier 'Tank Must' watch, small model, is the 'starter' Tank—but still a solid "forever" watch, $3,350
The Tank Américaine models feature a longer rectangular dial. This rose gold Tank Américaine watch is the large model, $17,000

Over the years, the model has spawned countless iterations, including the off-centered Tank Asymétrique (1936), the curvy and elongated Tank Américaine (1989), and the angular Tank Française (1996). In common they share the vertical brancards, a blue sapphire cabochon on the crown, and the ability to confer “It watch” status on anyone who wears them.

Images courtesy Cartier