Louis Cartier replica was lucky enough to have a fairly quiet war. According to Francesca Cartier Brickell’s The Cartiers, he was mobilized as a driver in 1915 (he was already forty years old) but got a medical exception that kept him in the auxiliaries. He did, however, spend time at the front on several occasions; Cartier-Brickell writes that “He would later claim that it was on one such visit to the front that he came up with the idea for what would become one of Cartier’s most iconic creations: The perfect fake Cartier Tank.”
Which specific front-line tank inspired the Tank, we don’t know for sure. However, Cartier has always said it’s the FT. Louis Cartier was released from his military service in the spring of 1917, and while the first FT tanks were produced in 1917 (the tank is sometimes called the FT 17, although it wasn’t given the name until after the war) few enough were made that year that top quality copy Cartier would have had to be lucky to see one in the metal. But by the time the Armistice was signed, in November of 1918, there were thousands, and Cartier and everyone else in France had seen one, at least in the newspapers.
The FT was the first modern tank. In its own lethal way, it’s a classic of early 20th-century industrial design. It had a fully rotating turret, which carried the main weapon; the engine was in the back and the crew compartment in the front. Since 1917 that’s been the basic body plan for almost every tank ever made. One of its most recognizable elements, however, were the two prominent, wide treads on either side of the hull. In the Cartier Tank copy watch with steel case, these signature features would become the brancards – the elongated sides of the Tank watch case.
“Brancard” is French for “stretcher,” but linking a luxury watch to something used to bear the dead and dying from the battlefield is not exactly what you’d call “strong marquee.” The military tank, on the other hand, was a symbol of Allied victory in general, and French might on the battlefield in particular.
Tanks, up until the Renault FT, had been massive metal boxes bristling with machine guns and cannons. Not for nothing were they dubbed “land battleships.” But they were slow, clumsy, and topheavy for all their firepower. The FT, by contrast, was light, agile, and graceful. If tanks like the British Mark I were Sonny Liston, the FT was Muhammed Ali.
“Whether the idea for Louis’ new watch actually came from the tanks in the war or whether it was just an evolution of the earlier Santos, calling it the Tank was a stroke of genius from a sales perspective … Louis was said to have offered an early prototype of the Tank to the legendary American who helped win the war, General John ‘Black Jack’ Pershing … Just as Alberto Santos Dumont had helped popularize his namesake watch a decade earlier, so Pershing would have been the perfect international brand ambassador for the Tank.”
The Tank Normale, in 1919, was the first Tank watch. The tank – the Renault FT – had an amazingly long life for a piece of military hardware. It was in use up to, and even after World War II. But the best 1:1 copy Cartier Tank has long outlived the tank. “Tank” may be a watchword in warfare, for a near-invincible mobile fortress leaving fire and fury in its wake. But the Tank wristwatch has taken that inspiration and through the alchemy of abstraction, transmuted it into a byword for beauty.
And if anyone out there is sitting on Pershing’s prototype Tank watch and wants to see it immortalized in print, drop me a line – I’d die a happy man. One of the great Lost Watches of all time.