Collector Guide – A Detailed Primer On a Century of Cartier Tanks (1919-present)

Cartier has been making the Tank for over 100 years, and the firm’s penchant for refining and proliferating the design has assured that no one – not even Cartier – has a complete taxonomy of the Tank. This primer takes a bird’s eye view of the Cartier Tank in order to help the novice.

Allen’s Tank Basculante and Tank Louis

We first will look at Cartier’s three main branches in Paris, London, New York, each of which produced Tanks in different ways. Second, we consider the main variations of the Tank.

Even the most persistent variations of the Tank, however, reveal a level of variation that boggles the mind and confuses the collector. Thus, we humbly acknowledge that this primer is incomplete, yet we offer it with the hope that you will emerge with a decent idea of where to begin your own journey into the world of the Cartier Tank.

Before we dive in, it will be helpful to know that Cartier didn’t use reference numbers until much later (likely in the 2000s), so for any vintage pieces one has to rely on serial numbers. The serial numbers are often on the caseback. To reduce counterfeiting, Cartier does not publish their serial numbers, nor do they have an public-facing online database. Both reference numbers and serial numbers can fail to establish a solid provenance.

However, when in doubt about a Tank’s origin, the movement may provide a clue, if not a definitive answer, as we shall see.

One Firm, Three Branches – Paris, New York, London

With the third generation of Cartier jewelers, three brothers set out to dominate the world. Louis, the eldest, would take over the Paris firm, while Pierre would head up New York, and Jacques, the youngest, would find himself in charge of the London branch.

Cartier’s three main branches were dedicated to maintaining Cartier’s high standards and powerful branding, but each branch operated independently to best serve their unique clientele. The result of this arrangement has been a remarkable consistency in the Tank’s core design, but with a vast variation of details coming out of each of the three branches over the years. I think of the Cartier Tank like The Blues: there are a million ways to do the same thing over and over.

When trying to establish provenance for the Cartier Tank, the first thing to sort out (if and when you can) is which branch issued it. Knowing this doesn’t guarantee that you’ll understand a whole lot more about the watch, but it will eliminate 2/3s of the possible explanations.

However, it’s important to take the individuality of these three branches with a grain of salt, as they shared resources, designs, designers, and even stock over the years. For example, London didn’t start producing Tanks until the very early 1950s, typically taking stock from the Paris workshop.

Cartier Paris 

Produced Tanks starting in 1919.

Headed by Louis Cartier from 1903-1942 , Pierre Cartier 1942-1947, non-family heads (1947-1966) (sold to holding company in 1966)

Movements from Jaeger + LeCoultre (later JLC proper), Piguet, Piaget, Journe, and more.

The flagship boutique, at 13 Rue de la Paix, was under the stewardship of Louis Cartier, who designed the Tank and released it in 1919. His two younger brothers would go on to open and run the New York and London boutiques, but Louis is the father of the Tank, and Paris its home. For this reason many people prefer Tanks that bear the Paris mark. You will find “Paris” either on “double signed” dials, engraved on the caseback – or both, or neither. Movement identification can help, but is somewhat random, as supplies came from JLC, Piguet, Piaget, Journe, and others over the years.

With Louis at the helm, most of the Tanks variations derive from his work in the Paris drawing room during the 1920s. Louis was happiest creating Cartier’s cutting-edge 20th Century style, and he is generally considered the genius of Cartier.

Cartier New York

Produced Tanks starting in 1921.

Headed by Pierre Cartier from 1909-1942, Claude Cartier 1942-1962 (sold 1962)

Movements typically from Cartier-owned European Watch Co. (stamped EWC), then later quartz movements from various suppliers.

Manhattan wouldn’t sparkle quite as elegantly without this incredible boutique at 653 5th Ave, which was opened in 1916 after a short stint at 712 5th Ave. Once settled in at 653 5th Ave, Pierre Cartier opened his own workshops and began to produce Tanks.

In 1921, Pierre Cartier bought E.W.C. & Co., which was the European Watch Company. This would become the supplier of movements to Cartier New York, and looking for E.W.C. on the movement is the best way to know if the watch was from the New York branch – especially from the 1920s up through the 1960. After that, quartz movements and new ownership make identifying via movement stamps less clear.

Notably, New York was the first arm of Cartier to be sold outside the family, which resulted in some rather cheap gold-plated silver (called vermeil) Tanks starting in the 1970s. These cheap models were eventually reigned in, improved a bit, and marketed as part of Cartier’s more affordable sub-brand Must de Cartier. These sold like hotcakes through the 70s and 80s, and even a quick glance at eBay will show you how many of these exist out there. 

Most serious collectors avoid the Must de Cartier models, and New York models from the 1920s up through the 1960s will fetch very high prices. The New York Tanks often represent unique variations aimed specifically at New Yorkers, who soon came to prefer the clean lines characteristic of mid-century minimalism.

Cartier London

Produced Tanks in its English Art Works studio starting in the very early 1950s.

Headed by Jacques Cartier (1919-1945), Jean-Jacques Cartier (1945-1974) (sold 1974)

Movements from JLC and other companies who were building for Cartier Paris.

In London, the youngest of the Cartier brothers, Jacques, opened his boutique and eventually moved it to its current location at 175-177 New Bond Street. Jean-Jacques was enamoured with watches, and he tirelessly designed and re-designed the Tank in attempts to keep it relevant for his increasingly hip Londoner clientele, including the incredibly rare “Crash” model of 1967. The Crash can be interpreted as just about any Cartier watch on LSD (and, thus, isn’t necessarily a Tank).

Collectors tend to love London-made Cartier Tanks, and because fewer were made than in Paris or New York, they’re a bit more rare. Prices will reflect that rarity.

As you can surmise, the operations of these three branches inspired a proliferation of unique approaches to the Cartier Tank, and yet the design remained profoundly stable. Some rules about proportions existed in the minds of the Cartier brothers, if not on paper, and these included a straight line from the case to the lugs, thinness, as well as exceptional casework and dial finishing (until the 1970s, see above). The Tank provided an incredibly flexible recipe, one for which almost any element could be manipulated in rather extreme ways without undoing the essential qualities that make a Cartier Tank instantly recognizable. Thus, the endless variations we fans of the Tank must navigate as we collect them.

The Shape of Tanks

Despite the extensive variation in the shape of Cartier Tanks, there are two unalterable rules that Louis Cartier felt were very important: 1) the lugs would always form a straight line from the brancards, and 2) the dial would have right angles.

Sizes of Cartier Tanks

Tanks were traditionally measured in lignes, but this referred to the size of the movement. There are 12 lignes in an inch, and this is a French measuring convention still used widely in watchmaking. (Note: today Tanks are offered in Small, Medium, Large & Extra Large.) 

Today’s watch collector tends to think in millimeters, so even if a Cartier Tank was issued with a ligne number, you’ll mostly see today’s sellers using the metric system. It’s not difficult to do a conversion to lignes, and this tool makes it exceptionally easy.

Or you can crunch your own numbers: 1 ligne = 2.25583 mm

A 1960s London Tank with a JLC movement.

Cartier’s early movements were designed by Edmond Jaeger and built by LeCoultre (They’d later form Jaeger LeCoultre / JLC). Ranging from 7 to 11 lignes in the first decade of production, Louis Cartier was already proliferating the Tank’s variations. To put it in perspective, Cartier only released six tanks in 1919, but these went out in four sizes: 7, 8, 9, and 10 linges.

Because the watch cases were proportional to the movement, one can think of the ligne number as a size, with 7 being quite tiny and 11 the largest (until much later when the XL Tanks were released). It’s important to mind the ligne numbers for the early models, because nearly every Tank type (with a few exceptions) was offered in different sizes. 

Some Other Relevant Terms

Brancard – this is the rail (or track) that runs directly from lug to lug.

Breguet Hands – used throughout the watch industry, these have a small circle toward the point, sometimes called a “moon tip.” These appear on many Cartier Tanks from the early days onward.

Cabochon – a rounded and polished gemstone (as opposed to a faceted cut). Sapphire cabochons are common on the crown of tanks, though sometimes one finds other gems.

Chemin de Fer –  French for “railroad,” you will see this referring to the minute-track on Tanks.

Deployant Buckle (boucle deployante) – the folding buckle patented for Cartier by Edmond Jaeger in 1910.

D-clasp – this is what shows when the deployant buckle is closed.

Types of Cartier Tanks (1919-1968)

Keep in mind that every branch did things differently, with different clientele in mind. However, Louis Cartier devised many of the Tanks in Paris quite rapidly after the first release in 1919. Naming conventions are pretty stable, with a few early exceptions that should only impact the most elite collectors seeking very early examples. (e.g., Cartier only made six Tanks in 1919).

Tank Normale

Currently produced as: Tank Solo & Tank Francaise

Originally just “The Tank” upon release in 1919, the Tank Normale took its name in Cartier’s inventory books when variations emerged, as they needed a way to distinguish the original design.

A 1940’s Tank Normale.

Features: stout rectangular case, wide brancards with square edges, chemin de fer with either roman or arabic numerals on silvered dial, sapphire cabochon topped crown, leather or bracelet.

Today this Tank Francaise and the Solo (sort of) represent the Tank Normale today.

Today’s version, the Tank Solo, is not quite like the originals, but it approximates the wider and sharper brancards that distinguish this model.

Tank Louis

Currently produced as The Tank L.C.

A 1922 Platinum Tank Louis (Image: Matthew Bain)

First issued in 1922 and named for Louis Cartier in 1924, this was his first refinement of the Tank, and was his personal favorite. It is distinguished by a much narrower “bezel” than the Tank Normale and by rounded brancards.

A modern Tank Louis remains faithful to the original shape, more or less. Date window is not original, however.

Features: elongated rectangular case, thinner brancards with rounded edges, minimal “bezel”

Tank Cintrée

Currently produced as: Tank Américaine

“Cintrée” means curved in French, and the Cintrée was quite a departure from the Tank Normal. As we shall see, this model was highly affiliated with the NYC branch, and thus has taken on the name Américaine, starting in 1989.

1924 Tank Cintrée (Image: Matthew Bain)

Features: a curved case that hugs the wrist, wide bold brancards, elongated rectangle dial.

Tank Shape

This is essentially a 8-ligne Cintrée produced in New York under Pierre Cartier’s stewardship and with EWC movements. The first Tank Shape was released in 1929. It will have an EWC movement.

Curved Tank

Also from the New York studio, the Curved Tank was an 8-ligne Cintrée, significant in the mid 1930s for being smaller than the 9-ligne Cintrée Louis Cartier was producing in Paris. It is worth noting that Pierre Cartier was exploring bolder arabic numerals during the 1930s, which would become a significant feature of the New York Tank. By 1935, the numerals in New York were often arabic, while Paris typically used roman numerals. But these are not hard rules by any means.

Tank Chinoise

Following the Tank Louis in 1922, the Tank Chinoise took its name in 1923 to distinguish it in Cartier’s records. This watch followed a craze for all things “Oriental” during the Art-Deco era.

A 1930 Tank Chinois (Image: Matthew Bain)

Features: square dial, rounded brancards, bold horizontal “bezel” reminiscent of Chinese architecture (as those in the West saw it, anyways).

Tank Allongée

Again a 1922 creation, the Tank Allongée is like a Tank L.C. that’s been stretched vertically.

An early Tank Allongée.

Features: narrower, rounded brancards, long rectangular dial

Tank Baguette

Like the long skinny loaf of bread (not the jewel cut), this watch was based around a marvel of a movement from Jaeger which was exceptionally narrow (accomplished by building the escapement and going train separately). These are extremely rare, and (to our knowledge) were never recreated.

Features: rear-mounted winding and setting crowns, wide and bold brancards, long narrow dials

Tank Savonette

A 9-linge model with a cover to protect the crystal (a bit of an obsession at the time, as we’ll see), the design didn’t quite take off and these are exceptionally rare and very expensive.

Features: flat crown, flippable watch case, oddly proportioned case

Tank Basculante

Basculante means “tilting” or “horizontally pivoted.” Originally dubbed the Cabriolet Reversible upon patent applications dating to 1932, the Basculante is the predecessor to the JLC Reverso. Folding in on itself, the successful design of the Basculante is likely why the Tank Savonette didn’t proliferate.

A Tank Basculante dating around 1927-1930.

Features: top mounted flat crown, reversible case, refined brancards

Petit Tank

Often called Jewelry Tanks, offered and intended for women.

In 1926, Louis Cartier released the Petite Tank for women. It is yet another subtly different take on the Tank. The movements are tiny at 7-lignes, and often held jewels on the case and bracelet. Variations abound, and Cartier always had something of this ilk on offer.

This Jewelry Tank sold at Christie’s for over $100,000.

Features: originally small 7-ligne movement, longer dials, plenty of jewels

Tank à Guichets

Translating roughly to “a small opening,” these odd and rare Tanks were following a trend during the 1920s and 30s for “digital watches.” Jumping hour movements were, and are, a must.

Tank Guichets from around 1927.

Features: a variety of solid metal faces with apertures for viewing digital time. Occasionally these have a more traditional dial with only the hours appearing in a window.

Tank Étanche

Making a watch case with right angles waterproof was no easy task, and Cartier never did quite get it to work all that well. Nonetheless, the Tank Étanche began to appear in Paris during the very early 1930s, with New York following suit in the 1940s. This model is exceptionally rare, and has to the best of our knowledge) never been reissued.

Tank Étanche – likely from the late 1940s and likely from New York.

Features: locking crown mechanism, two-tiered case design, stout rectangle

Grand Tank

During the 1950s, the New York studio continued to serve its American clientele’s fast-changing tastes, and the Grand Tank cemented a distinct New York style for The Tank. Doing away with the traditional numerical markers for the svelt stick markers seemed to leave Europe behind and embrace the New World.

Tank Arrondie

Arrondie means “rounded” in French, and some have argued that this watch fails to live up to the essence of The Tank. However, because the inside line from the brancard to the lugs is straight, it meets the design brief. This was in fairly regular production out of NYC during the 1960s through the 1980s.

Tank Asymetrique

Originally called the Tank Parallelogram, the Asymetrique is one of the most desirable Tanks for collectors. Originally issued as one-offs during 1936, the Asymetrique makes an appearance now and again, always in limited numbers.

Features: asymmetrical case and dial

Tank Divan

Not released until 2000, this is a radical take on the Tank, but one that adheres to the basic design brief of right angles and straight lines out to the lugs from the brancards.

Beginning in 2000, Cartier squished the Tank to form the Divan.

Features: squat case

A Note Regarding 1950-1970

As with so many things in the 20th Century, the Tank became self-referentially postmodern by the time WWII was over. Rather than growing stale, however, the Tank continued to enthrall people around the world, and Cartier responded by offering many of its traditional models with tweaks for changing post-War tastes (e.g., the minimalist mid-century Grand Tank, etc…). With the exception of Jean-Jacques Cartier in London, who continued to make high-craft watches out of his own love for them (including the Crash), the studios in Paris and New York didn’t innovate as much as they riffed and bejewled the traditional variations of the Tank.

A typical 1950s NYC Tank variation, adopting the clean mid-century style popular in Manhattan at the time.

Post-Cartier Tanks from 1968-Present

Because Cartier was finally out of the family’s hands by 1973, many collectors draw a line somewhere around 1968-1970 after which they consider the Tank to have slipped into a mediocre state of affairs. It’s a fair assessment. As luxury for the masses became a lifeline for heritage luxury brands, Cartier Tanks split into two main categories: 1) the boutique editions that carried on the tradition of making dials, cases and bracelets in-house with specially developed movements from third parties, and 2) starting in the early 1970s the cheaper vermeil editions. In 1977, the cheaper end was rebranded as Must de Cartier models. Those hunting down Tanks will encounter myriad Must de Cartier examples.

The Must de Cartier was also an attempt to compete with the massive counterfeiting of Cartier Tanks at the time, and, unfortunately, the quality reflects this. The plating is not terribly thick, the silver beneath easily dented, and the movements seem to corrode. However, some people find these a very sweet way into a vintage Tank, and many are available for under $1000 today.

Some amazing Tanks were produced through the 1970s into the 1980s, of course. In 1973, Cartier released the first bonafide “historical collection” with the L.C. Gold Collection, which was extended throughout the 1970s to include the Tank Ordinare (the square dial’d version most like the Tank Normale of 1919), Tank L.C., of course, as well as the Mini Tank, Tank Allongée, Tank Cintrée, and Tank Chinoise.

1980s-90s

The Must de Cartier line of Tanks continued to be popular through the 1980s, Cartier would also begin to reflect the new wealth concentrations of the trickle-down economic era with expensive platinum models and countless “jewelry Tanks” which were paved with diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, and rubies – often all at once in Tutti-Frutti designs. This was also an era during which the mechanical watch revival was in full-swing, so there are quite a few mechanical complications to be found, mostly starting in the late 1980s.

A quartz movement inside a jeweled marvel from the 1980s.

It’s worth noting that during this time one rarely sees Paris, New York or London on any of the watches, as the brand had become – more or less – a singular international brand under corporate leadership by this time.

1998-2008 CPCP (Collection Privée Cartier Paris)

From 1998 to 2008, Cartier was releasing some exceptional watches of the highest quality under the CPCP label. From dual-dial Tank Americaines to gold Basculantes to platinum Asymetriques, the CPCP collection is already hotly sought after by collectors.

These watches have Paris on the dials, and that alone distinguishes them from everything else coming out of Cartier during the 1970s through to the late 1990s. Issued as limited editions rarely cresting over 100 pieces, the CPCP Cartier Tanks are not impossible to find, but they are expensive when you do find them. The CPCP collection set the stage for Cartier to open their own manufacture in 2005, where all Cartier Tanks are made today.

2005 – The Cartier Manufacture in Geneva Switzerland

When the Manufacture opened in 2005, this was the first time Cartier became its own movement maker. It’s quite ironic that a firm known for some of the finest metalwork in the world took until 2005 to get into that end of the business, but movement manufacture was always secondary to Cartier. The Tank didn’t get an exhibition caseback until the 1990s, and basically Cartier was more concerned with the refinement of the design than of the works.

At the same time, however, the CPCP collection allowed Cartier to show off its style in the movement for the first time, with beautiful branded engraving and exceptional metalwork throughout the newly exhibited movements. To say that Cartier caught up with the best of modern horology with the opening of the Manufacture in Geneva in 2005 is a fair statement indeed. Many consider modern Cartier watches as some of the most beautifully constructed and decorated timepieces being made today, able to hold their own among the Holy Trinity of Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, and Audemars Piguet.

Whether it’s a base model steel Tank Solo (more or less a Tank Normale) with a quartz movement or a skeletonized tourbillon Tank in platinum, today’s Cartier Tanks are as good as they’ve ever been – and some would say better.

A Note on Movements

Cartier has used a number of movement makers over the decades leading up to 2005 when they opened their own manufacture in Switzerland. We will revisit the movements before too long, as that’s an entirely complex and well-shrouded history deserving of its own guide.

Suffice it to say that early models were using Jaeger designed movements built by LeCoultre, then Cartier New York used EWC movements, and the Paris studio began to use makers like Piguet, Piaget, and Journe for their Tanks over the years. It’s a bramble of a topic, but we will do our best in a future guide to help spell it out as best we can, because sometimes the movement is the only way to achieve provenance with the Cartier Tank.