Refusing to confine itself to circular cases, the French maison has always displayed an open-minded approach to geometry, making timepieces in forms ranging from parallelograms to bells. One reason for this, explains Pierre Rainero, Cartier’s director of image, style and heritage, is that Louis Cartier, the founder’s grandson who brought the brand international acclaim, never trained to be a watch designer. Rather than produce technical drawings, he would present his design studio with visions and guidelines for daring new concepts. “The original idea since the first watch — the Santos — was to have the purest shape possible,” says Rainero.
This penchant for clean lines and bold shapes is showcased at the Cartier Culture of Design Pop Up, which runs until June at 74 Castlereagh Street, the brand’s former Sydney flagship. The exhibition concentrates on the evolution of four watches (Santos de Cartier, Panthère, Ballon Bleu and Tank) and three of the maison’s most celebrated jewellery lines (Trinity, with its interlacing bands; Love, defined by that iconic screw motif; and Juste un Clou, which transformed a humble nail into a luxury item).
Of these, top billing goes to Cartier’s most recognisable timepiece: the Tank. Released in 1919, it was purportedly inspired by France’s stocky tank the Renault FT, with the watch said to evoke a bird’s-eye view (the case and dial resemble the body and cockpit, while the elongated brancards at the sides reflect tracks). The original has been adapted into manifold forms — the case has been slimmed down and lengthened (Tank Américaine), made lopsided (Tank Asymétrique), placed on a metal bracelet (Tank Française) and powered by the sun (Tank Must SolarBeat) — and yet, with its distinctive design, the Tank has never lost its identity.
In part, that’s due to the dial, with its angular Roman numerals and railway-track minute counter, all of which could feel a little austere were it not for the addition of that slightly eccentric bejewelled crown. The ornate protrusion not only serves as a reminder of Cartier’s jewellery heritage, it also works as a visual counterpoint to the formality of the dial — like a colourful pocket square with a navy suit. “The cabochon was already present on the Santos,” says Rainero. “It’s a detail that’s printed in our culture.”
In March, at Switzerland’s Watches and Wonders Geneva trade fair, enthusiasts finally got the Tank revival they’ve been waiting for: the Tank Normale. Part of the Cartier Privé limited-edition collection, the Normale marks the comeback of the very first Tank, restoring the stark proportions and bevelled sapphire crystal of the original. It comes in a yellow-gold or platinum case and a choice of strap: either leather or a bracelet made with the same precious metal as the case.
Whatever the variant, the charm of the Normale lies in its pared-back design. On the wrist, it feels like a love letter to right angles, the sharp brancards and stubby case accentuating the squareness of the dial. It is, once again, a display of Cartier’s proficiency with proportions and ability to coax familiar shapes into bold new forms.