Now You Can See The World's Coolest Cartier Watches In One Room
For 100 years, the Cartier Tank has been one of the few stalwarts of the watch world. To put the watch’s unfathomable staying power into context, consider that Louis Cartier designed the watch in 1917—Rolex was only officially incorporated as a company two years earlier. Cartier’s sharp-edged square watch was inspired by an overhead photograph he saw of a Renault FT-17, a boxy tank used in World War I. But something unexpected happened in translating war machine to watch: “It’s about beauty,” says Cartier collector and dealer Harry Fane. “And that's what Louis Cartier was all about. ‘Form follows function’ were his words. He didn't want the watch to tell the time in three different time zones, or make coffee when you pressed a button. He just wanted a really simple, really elegant watch and he succeeded in designing that. And, um, it lasted 100 years.”
Beauty is the word Fane uses most when describing his upcoming exhibit of Cartier Tank watches at Dover Street Market’s Los Angeles location. The exhibit will run from February 7th to the 19th, with all the watches on display for sale at prices ranging from $12,000 to $120,000. (The Crash, a Dali-adjacent model recently worn by Kanye West, is going near the top end of that range, at $115,00.)
In perhaps Los Angeles’s most forward-looking shop, the exhibit of Tanks is a decided throwback. Nearly all the watches were made before or during the 1960s and are meant to take the viewer’s hand with a velvet glove and guide it back to “an age when people wore elegant clothes, women were very beautifully dressed, men were very elegant,” says Fane.
Because almost all of these Cartiers would have been cradled in the world of luxury. Tanks were the watch of choice for people in power—the upper-crust types flitting from one ballroom to the next in search of banquets and galas and birthdays for kings and queens. “Whether you were a Rockefeller or a Hollywood movie star or an Indian Maharaja, you bought jewelry from Cartier,” Fane says. “They say that in Paris that if you were an aristocrat, when you were 21 years old, it was a rite of passage to be taken by your father to Cartier to get your first Cartier watch.”
So while Fane says he doesn’t know the provenance of the 35 watches he’s displaying, it’s not hard to get caught up in the romance of it all. “You do begin to wonder, for something that was made in 1927: who did this watch meet, who did it sleep with, who did it dance with?” In its early days, the Tank was made in such limited numbers—only 2,200 were produced before 1965, according to Fane—that each is special in its own way. Some of the examples on display are so rare Fane is sure he’ll never see one again after it’s sold. “You could say, ‘Oh, I'd like you to find me one of these watches,’” he says. “And I would just laugh at you.”
These are examples like the Tank finished in 1942—“the height of the Second World War,” Fane notes—with a small subdial and gold indices where the watch would typically feature Roman numerals. Or a Cartier Tonneau, the barrel-shaped case design, from 1926 that is still powered by its original movement. While any very old watch with its original parts is a remarkable discovery, collectors are less likely to find them in a Cartier. A watch brought into Cartier for repairs around the production of this piece would have received an entirely new movement, rather than a tune-up. “It's just an impossible thought someone would ever find it,” Fane says.
Displaying all these one-of-one pieces together is an interesting retailing strategy deployed by Dover Street Market. The collection, like a special museum exhibit, reminds us to treat the highest fashion the same way we do art. And, conveniently, once you’re done looking at art-quality watches, DSM has some art-grade clothing for you to check out, too. The contrast between the classic watches and DSM’s wacky shopping options is not lost on Fane. “It's quite amusing when someone comes to look at a 1920s Cartier watch and then they walk off with a pair of sequined flare trousers,” says Fane. But that’s exactly the point of an exhibit like this: “I mean, they're [DSM] not doing this for charity,” Fane adds.
Coaxing people into a boutique using a gallery-worthy selection of fashion artifacts is a novel maneuver, but not wholly unexpected in the face of retail’s identity crisis. While many stores have tried out smart mirrors, coffee bars, or placement inside a massive interconnected mall to counteract the quote-unquote retail apocalypse, Dover Street Market has come up with a simpler and cleaner solution: What if the best way to sell more beautiful fashion and accessories is...attracting people who care deeply about beautiful fashion and accessories?
Despite the exhibition treatment, Fane says that Louis Cartier would laugh at the idea the watches he was making could be considered art. Although Cartier’s designs were often revelatory, he was a businessman first and foremost. He was interested in making something simple and elegant—a goal he no doubt accomplished, considering we’re talking about his design more than a century later. “When it comes to making jewelry, it wasn't about making art [for Cartier],” says Fane. “It was just about making something beautiful.”