It’s a hard ask having to choose a Cartier wristwatch; rarely is one luxury maison responsible for so many classic designs. The brand’s relentless creativity can be summed up by Louis Cartier’s favourite saying: “Never copy, only create.” The wristwatches on the short list here perfectly embody the Cartier ethos and are the ones to know about.
In an elegant merger of watch meets jewel, the Panthère remains one of the most distinctive Cartier watch designs. The jungle cat has long been associated with the brand, with origins tracing back as far as 1914. Since its release in 1983, the Panthère bracelet watch has gone on to be a best-seller in women’s watches. The sleek, supple design and clean lines of construction find inspiration in its namesake. Presented as the ultimate dress watch, it was created with the stylistic intuition of the “jeweller of kings” to capture and reflect light on its multifaceted bracelet with every movement of the wrist, in much the same way a precious gemstone does.
To some people, all Cartier watches seem to be variations on the Tank, such is the measure of a model that is possibly the most recognisable and celebrated dress watch of all time. Andy Warhol said of the Cartier Tank: “I don’t wear a Tank watch to tell the time. Actually, I never even wind it. I wear a Tank because it is the watch to wear!”
The Tank supposedly derived its name and design inspiration from the first tanks that appeared on the WWI battlefields. Since then, Cartier has released an array of variations – Francaise, Americaine, Anglaise, Solo – but all share the same case design, where the case sides extend to the lugs, just like the tracks of a tank. It is somewhat poetic that a piece of combative military equipment would form the inspiration for a watch that is one of the all-time classic designs in watchmaking, and remains an emblem for an enviable list of movers and shakers to this day.
The origins of the distinctive Pasha design hark to 1930s Marrakesh and the then reigning Pasha, Thami El Glaoui. It is believed that the Pasha commissioned Louis Cartier to make what was in essence a water-resistant sports watch, to keep pace with the Pasha’s sporting activities. Whilst there is no concrete evidence of such a romantic collaboration, Cartier officially states the watch’s “name pays tribute to the Pasha of Marrakesh, a lover of fine watchmaking and a lifelong customer of Louis Cartier.”
In the mid-1980s, when Cartier was recognised for its dressy, slim, and elegant wristwatches, there was burgeoning shift to sportier watches, often in stainless steel. Cartier enlisted the creative services of master watch designer Gerald Genta, who came up with the distinctive Pasha design, featuring a robust round case, studded Vendôme lugs, and a cabochon-set crown cap that screwed down and was secured with a small chain. Some refinements have come and gone since its inception, but the trademark Genta details have remained its defining elements.
Perhaps the most enduring of his legacies is the claim that Cartier created the first men’s wristwatch. It is said that in 1904, Louis Cartier was tasked with inventing a watch for his friend, the famous Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont, who complained about the unreliability and impracticability of using a pocket watch while flying. Cartier ingeniously produced a square, flat watch of Deco inspiration intended to be worn on the wrist. The watch, named in the pilot’s honour, was worn on his wrist and allowed his hands to remain free while flying. This solved the aviator’s gripe in a true historical “necessity as the mother of invention” moment. Since its launch in 1911 the small Santos-Dumont, with its exposed screws and square profile, has been the inspiration behind the model known today as the Santos, where timeless elegance meets functional practicality.
Cartier watches are historically made up of square, rectangular, cushion, and tonneau-shaped cases. A rich heritage meant that the company’s design foundations could always be relied upon to proffer a new model that would be innovative and distinctly Cartier. So, when in 2007 Cartier announced its biggest ever launch of a round watch, it was never going to be the usual, just any kind of ‘round’. The name, form, and versatility of the Ballon Bleu recalls a floating a balloon which encompasses a circle within a circle, with the blue cabochon crown imaginatively nestled in the band.
If you needed further evidence of the ground-breaking, dynamic design capabilities of Cartier, then you will find it in my personal favourite of all Cartier watches, the Cartier Crash.
Released by Cartier London in the late 1960s, the asymmetric crushed shape of the Crash found its inspiration from a car accident involving a Vice President from the Cartier London office. His Cartier Baingnoire melted in the wreckage, leaving it in a surreal state akin to the melting clock in Salvador Dali’s ‘The Persistence of Memory’. In tribute to this tragic event, Cartier created the Crash wristwatch in which the asymmetry of the case appears as if the watchmaker had taken an oval watch and crashed it. Furthermore, the mechanical skill and ingenuity involved in bending, elongating and compressing the components of the watch so that it is fully functional whilst appearing wrecked is mind boggling, humorous, and avant-garde – showcasing Cartier at its creative best.
Patricia Kontos / Senior Jewellery & Watches Specialist
Banner Image: Cartier Advertising Poster 1993 / Alamy