In December 1916, it was not a new collection or a set of royal jewels preoccupying the mind of Louis Cartier. Instead, the horological enthusiast was dreaming of watches – or rather, dreaming of one particular watch: a perfect, contemporary and essential watch. But this was not a pipe dream held by a designer in desperate need of inspiration. No, if Louis Cartier cherished such aspirations, it was because he had all the keys in hand to make them happen.
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He already possessed the necessary production capacities; watchmaking technology was sufficiently advanced; and as for the imagination needed to make a splash, he took care of it. The era was particularly conducive to avant-garde ideas. In watchmaking, these ideas started by taking the shape of the wristwatch, an utterly iconoclastic development in the eyes of traditionalists, but of which Louis Cartier was one of the most determined partisans. All that remained was that one spark central to any ingenious idea.
This would come in the form of the recently concluded Battle of the Somme. Featured in the daily news in Paris for months on end, the theatre of operations marked a turning point in the global conflict thanks to the use of the very first armoured vehicles in military history.
However, initially there was no description of the appearance or characteristics of this formidable war machine, a strategic tool whose very existence was kept quiet. Rumours ran rampant and the myth took the form of a ‘monster with an invulnerable shell’.
It was only in December, once the Germans had been defeated, that extremely curious Parisians were able to see the first illustrations of a ‘tank’ – the British armoured vehicle moving on caterpillar tracks – which gave an air of invincibility that made an immediate impression. Translated into watch form by Louis Cartier, the powerful lines of these tanks would give rise to the initial sketches of a watch also known as ‘Tank’, whose story would leave a lasting mark on the century.
Form meets function
If Louis Cartier professed a passion for timepieces, it is because he – as a jewellery designer – sensed the considerable potential offered by these time-telling objects as a new form of expression. He thought like an aesthete for whom style took precedence over function, and technology enhanced form.
For confirmation of this, consider his plans for the development of desk clocks. Louis Cartier would not content himself with adding purely decorative pieces to the maison’s existing ranges. That would certainly mean undervaluing his incredible creative ability. Instead, his partnership with watchmaker Maurice Couet – who was just 25 years old when the pair first met in 1911, and who drew inspiration for his creations from the famous illusionist and inventor of modern magic, Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin – resulted in a sumptuous collection of Cartier mystery clocks that went down in horological history.
This successful desk clock strategy would then be repeated with watches. Louis Cartier’s search for a watch partner in Paris capable of supplying movements that met his expectations initially led him to Bredillard, then Dagonneau, and finally Prevost. At the turn of the 20th century, these watchmakers assisted Louis Cartier with his early style, which revealed Louis XVI-style ornamentation formed of garlands, laurel and acanthus leaves, and scrolls that often surrounded translucent coloured enamel on a delicate guilloche background. However, it was his meeting with Edmond Jaeger that would prove decisive.
Originally from Alsace, Jaeger had been working in Paris as a master watchmaker since 1880. He had made extra-flat watches and marine chronometers his speciality, and had already earned countless distinctions and awards for these pieces. As Edmond Jaeger worked in close partnership with the Maison LeCoultre, the eminent movement manufacturer in Le Sentier, in the Vallée de Joux – one of the nerve centres of Swiss watchmaking at the time – it was a blessing for Louis Cartier. In 1903, he became Edmond Jaeger’s main client, before cementing this arrangement four years later with a contract binding the three partners.
This contract, renewed until the 1930s, would be the key to the watchmaking inception that was beginning to take shape. Now free from technical considerations, Cartier could carry out his aesthetic and decorative investigations.
There were no restrictions in terms of the shapes and dimensions of the watch cases, since inventor Edmond Jaeger would manage to insert a movement inside even the most fantastic case creation. As proof of this, shortly after finalising the agreement with Louis Cartier, he designed a calibre measuring just 1.38mm thick and 39.54mm in diameter, a record which he would hold for a 20 years.
For his part, Edmond Jaeger did not have to worry about his creative momentum being hindered by any production constraints. In fact, LeCoultre was one of the few manufacturers at the time capable of producing a small series of extra-flat movements with increasingly small dimensions. This completely unprecedented production chain meant one very precise thing: Louis Cartier had almost total freedom over creation. And he was determined to use it to bring the Maison’s watches into the 20th century.
The advent of the wristwatch led to a number of horological dogmas being re-examined, with their most ardent defenders eventually changing their minds. As soon as the functional aspect of timepieces became considerably more important, watches had to be available for consultation at any moment, and consequently were exposed to the view of others. From a measuring instrument generally kept hidden away in a pocket, whose aesthetics and sophistication were principally intended purely for the enjoyment of its owner, the watch became an everyday accessory with jewellery potential.
It is easy to see why the wristwatch was subject to intense formal and structural scrutiny in the first 15 years of the 20th century; the main problem was finding a suitable method of incorporating the strap attachments into the case. As almost all watches were round at the time, the attachment of straight bars to a curved case was seen by many as a hybrid solution, and in any case an unattractive one.
This explains the rapid proliferation of ‘shaped watches’ – any timepiece whose outer case edge is not round. Louis Cartier was naturally involved. In 1906, he presented the Tonneau, whose curved case was a feature that would go down in history. Six years later, the jeweller launched the Tortue-shaped watch, which was spectacularly successful, as were the oval watches that followed it.
But even before these creations, Louis Cartier had imagined a model that, in retrospect, could be considered the first ‘modern’ watch. In 1904, he presented his friend Alberto Santos-Dumont – a young Brazilian multimillionaire who had already earned fame for his aeronautical feats – with a watch whose dial had to be immediately visible at the flight controls. It was therefore a wristwatch, probably developed with Edmond Jaeger, which could not be found anywhere else on the market, and was one of the first to be destined for civilian use.
What made it distinctive was its square case with integrated, and not added, attachments, since it was designed to be worn on the wrist from the outset. In short, it was a watch whose very principle was to have a strap.
There was no separation between the case and the attachments; the curved corners of the square simply continued into harmonious curves that received a leather strap. At the same time, this piece stood out thanks to a design that radically departed from precious ornamentation. With a flanged bezel revealing nails and screws, it was presented as an instrument watch whose beauty arises from its function. While there is unfortunately no trace of this piece today, there is every reason to believe that it looked very much like the model designed by Louis Cartier in 1908, named Santos II, and which was brought to market three years later.
Send in the Tank
In December 1916, when Louis Cartier learned the latest news from the front, like everyone in France, he finally discovered what a tank looked like in L’Illustration magazine.
The most striking features of these tanks were their gigantic roller belts over cogged wheels, which surrounded and extended past the central body of the vehicle, and which were its primary advantage in combat.
Reduced to their bare graphical essentials, they form two shafts, which continue on from two sides of a square. Louis Cartier did well to trust the intuition it inspired. By applying this formula to a watch design, he solved the nagging issue of strap attachment. Gone were the deviations that characterized the Santos; the attachments and case became one, erasing their structural distinction.
Despite its geometrical strictness, straight lines and right angles, this unprecedented shape gave an impression of profound harmony. Applied to watchmaking, the functional geometry of the case, which did not betray the slightest hint of an instrument watch, manifestly asserted its function – a particularity shared by both Tank and tank. This unique characteristic would make them both revolutionary symbols of a new era in their respective fields.
However, we would have to wait until 1919 before the Tank was brought to market, naturally featuring a Jaeger movement: a calibre measuring nine lines (20.30mm in diameter). The first models were therefore small watches by contemporary standards, but nonetheless immediately identifiable with their flat brancards, or shafts, with sharp corners and their whitened silver dials.
The Cartier watchmaking codes were also clearly present, the same features already found on the Tonneau, Santos and Tortue, and which considerably helped to make these wristwatches some of the most sought-after models in the pre-war period.
Cartier timepieces could be distinguished by their radiating Roman numerals, apple-shaped blued-steel hands, and a ‘rail-track’ indicating the minute circle. These were supplemented by two further characteristics unique to Cartier. The first was the use of platinum, which first appeared in Cartier’s jewellery in the 1860s, before being included in its watches four decades later. Released in 1906, the jeweller’s Tonneau watch would be the first ever wristwatch to be made from this precious material, superior to gold in that it accentuated the modernity of the watch.
The second feature meanwhile was the precious cabochon-cut stone adorning the beaded winding crown. This detail is far from insignificant. While Louis Cartier looked for practicality in the case’s aesthetics, he made
a point of keeping the rather old-style ornament of the cabochon on the winding crown as a jewellery signature. Without compromising the modernity of the entire watch, it serves as a reminder that a Cartier wristwatch is also and above all a piece of jewellery. The cabochon on the winding crown would remain one of the major distinctive features of the newly created Tank.
The last of the Cartier watchmaking codes present on the first pieces from 1919 is the folding buckle, another of Edmond Jaeger’s inventions, which was introduced at Cartier in 1910. Replacing the classic ardillon buckle, this was an innovative system that made the clasp invisible to improve the bracelet’s aesthetics – not to mention the security that it provided by making it almost impossible to lose the watch.
Louis Cartier and Edmond Jaeger’s attention to detail demonstrates the care with which the two men carried out their investigation of the wristwatch, without ever overlooking a single constituent part of these new jewellery pieces.
An edited extract from The Cartier Tank Watch by Franco Cologni – out now (£65; Flammarion, 2017).