In Gavin Maxwell’s classic book Lords of the Atlas, Thami El Glaoui is portrayed as a lurid mix of King Solomon and Al Capone. In 1918, he rose from a tribal warlord in the Atlas Mountains to become the Pasha of Marrakesh and, subsequently, one of the richest men in the world. His wealth derived from controlling interests in Morocco’s salt and mineral mines, bolstered by revenue from trade in olives, almonds and saffron. Utterly ruthless, El Glaoui ordered the severed heads of his enemies to be mounted on the gates of his Marrakesh palace. But he also had a remarkable flair for decadence. El Glaoui’s personal harem numbered 150 women, while he entertained the likes of Winston Churchill and Charlie Chaplain at wild banquets at which hashish, opium and prostitutes were readily available.
This almost mythical character is the namesake of the Cartier Pasha. The legend is that Louis Cartier designed the watch for El Glaoui because the Moroccan wanted a timepiece that allowed him to check the time during his baths. At any rate, he was certainly one of the initial customers for Cartier’s first waterproof watches in the 1940s and so, when the brand decided to revive the watch design in 1985, they named it the Pasha as a tribute.
The 1980s Pasha was a radical watch. Not only was it big for the time with a 38mm diameter, but it came with a diving bezel and a quirky crown cover attached to the case with a small chain link. These functional details suggested a sporty watch, but it seemed far too dressy for that. That first model was made out of gold – a luxury rarely seen on watches designed to be worn with a wetsuit. Originally intended by Cartier to be a male watch, it was quickly taken up by women as well and the Pasha became a unisex classic of the 1980s.
Relaunched by Cartier again in 2020, the Pasha remains utterly distinctive. The dial features a square inside a circle framed by four Arabic numerals, all of which is relatively straight-forward. But the large crown protector and central lugs are impossible to miss.
The new Pasha features a host of considered refinements that include the removal of the diving bezel. Given the watch previously straddled the line between sporty and dressy, this decision edges it firmly into the latter category. Other upgrades include the blue spinnel embedded in the crown and a sapphire crystal caseback that allows the wear to admire the in-house mechanical movement.
The Pasha’s design template is now available in more than 10 variations and two case sizes of 35mm and 41mm. Alongside the stainless steel models, there are pieces in both pink and yellow gold. The most eye-catching iteration is either one with a skeletonised dial or the Pasha de Cartier Serti Vibrant, whose white-gold case is festooned with diamonds.
Whichever model you chose, there’s also a welcome abundance of choice when it comes to the strap. The new Pasha comes with Cartier’s QuickSwitch system that allows you to change the look and feel of the watch by swapping from a leather band to a metal bracelet at the touch of a button. It’s a simple innovation that’s brilliantly executed.
Truly original design is rare and often divisive. While certain watch models – like the Rolex Daytona or Audemars Piguet Royal Oak – were received with initial frostiness before gaining widespread popularity, the Pasha remains a polarising piece that continues to excite both gushing tributes and baffled disdain. That is ultimately testament to the fact that Cartier have managed to create another singular watch with a shaped case that is instantly recognisable. Much like its maverick namesake, the Pasha has the confidence to forge its own path. The Cartier Pasha range starts from $8,600.