Cartier’s fame in high jewelry is unquestioned, but in the parallel universe of haute horology, the brand has often been overlooked. It’s not that the watches aren’t admired; the elaborate jewelry timepieces for ladies are dazzling works of art, and the Tank may be the most sought after watch in the world. Recently, though, the French jeweler has entered the upper echelons of high watchmaking with a range of ultra-luxury mechanical watches, debuting its Fine Watchmaking Collection in 2008. Today that collection has grown to include 47 complicated watches.
Cartier, in some ways, is a bit the victim of its own success or, at least, of the Tank’s success. First sold in 1919 and identified as the Cartier watch ever since, the universality of its appeal has been phenomenal. (The Tank will make a splash yet again, when its latest model, the Tank Anglaise, debuts next month; see “Cartier Tank Watch Timeline,” below.)
But the glare of the Tank’s fame has also obscured Cartier’s long history as a maker of some of the most complicated and beautiful watches and clocks ever produced.
Cartier’s rare “mystery” clocks not only show the pinnacle of its watchmaking skills but also set the foundation for today’s Fine Watchmaking Collection, which the company launched with the Ballon Bleu model. The mystery clocks are an almost unsettling illusion, in which the hands are suspended between two planes of rock crystal and seem to move, suspended in space, with no visible connection to the rest of the clock. They’re literally magic tricks, invented in 1912 by French magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, the father of modern magic, whose work inspired the film The Illusionist. It’s this mechanical ingenuity that Cartier has carried over to its fine watchmaking designs.
At the helm is Cartier’s master watchmaker, a soft-spoken Parisian named Carole Forestier, who’s traded the City of Light for the small Swiss town of La Chaux-de-Fonds, hidden in a mountain valley almost two hours outside Geneva. Here Cartier’s state-of-the-art manufacturing center for the Fine Watchmaking Collection rises from the snowy hillsides like a visiting alien starship. Inside the 355,210-square-foot facility, a team of 30 occupy an entire floor, crafting timepieces.
The painstaking task of hand-assembling and hand-finishing movements (which adds hundreds of hours to the creation of a watch and demands both an artist’s eye and a neurosurgeon’s dexterity) is combined with a battery of exhaustive tests that examine everything from the ability of a steel bracelet to resist corrosion to the precise amount of pressure necessary to activate a particular function—tests that are applied to all Cartier watches.
In the arcane, closed-door world of watch enthusiasts, Forestier is a celebrity. Her specialty is the tourbillon—a mechanism originally designed to improve accuracy by putting the most critical of a watch’s innards inside a miniature rotating cage to neutralize the disruptive effects of gravity’s tug, thus making it more accurate. The difficulty involved in making one, plus their mesmerizing spinning motion (“tourbillon” means “whirlwind” in French), has made it a favorite addition to fine watchmaking, especially in the past decade.
With Forestier’s experience, it’s no surprise that two of the most fascinating pieces from Cartier’s collection, the Astrotourbillon and the Astrorégulateur, have a tourbillon and a tourbillon-inspired movement, respectively. The Astrotourbillon pleases and puzzles the eye; the pulsating wheel and spiral spring are exposed below the dial, mounted on the tip of the second hand. Once per minute, it travels around the dial like the hands of Cartier’s classic mystery clocks, with no apparent mechanical linkage to the rest of the watch. At first glance, the Astrorégulateur seems to be a tourbillon, but it’s not. The self-winding Astrorégulateur’s spiral spring and wheel are mounted on the swinging weight that uses the wearer’s movements to wind the mainspring, and the second hand is mounted on the swinging weight as well, visible through the dial. As with the Astrotourbillon, this all takes place with no visible connection to the rest of the mechanism.
Cartier’s portfolio includes masterful renditions of some of the most sophisticated complications. This year’s Rotonde de Cartier Minute Repeater Flying Tourbillon combines a tourbillon with a mechanism for chiming the time on tiny gongs. It’s as stunning a piece of classical watchmaking as any traditionalist could desire—but Cartier is also on the bleeding edge of research into solving problems that have plagued watchmakers since the Renaissance. Take the concept watch “ID One.” Its case is made of a shock-resistant niobium titanium alloy; inside, its carbon crystal and spiral spring are made from a glass-ceramic hybrid. Immune to magnetism and temperature changes—and no need for conventional watch oils—it would have made a watchmaker of yesteryear weep for joy. Yet despite its ultrahigh performance, it still has a magical transparency and eerie beauty that mark it as a descendant of the mystery clocks.
Cartier Tank Watch Timeline
Legend has it that the Tank shape was inspired by the aerial profile of the first tanks used in World War I. Though it’s ubiquitous today, the Tank was, for much of its history, a rare watch; Cartier made only a very limited number in its first 50 years. In June, the dizzying plethora of Tank models is joined by the Tank Anglaise, which, like the Française and the Americaine, represents one of Cartier’s three core boutiques in London, Paris and New York.
1917: Tank Normale
The prototype was designed in 1917 and given to U.S. general John Pershing. Two years later, six watches were sold.
1921: Tank Cintree
Over the years, the shape has alternated between a square and a rectangle. The Cintrée was the first rectangle.
1922: Tank Louis Cartier
Named for the Tank’s creator and third-generation Cartier, the Art Deco watch is still available today.
1928: Tank a Guichets
A favorite of Duke Ellington’s, it featured a closed dial and apertures that were used to show a jumping-hour complication.
1952: Tank Rectangle
The all-gold dial and matching gold case of the otherwise simple Rectangle was a reflection of 1950s opulence.
1963: Tank Oblique
With its off-kilter dial, Oblique took its cues from an earlier model, the Asymétrique, which was introduced in 1936.
1969: Jackie O
One of the many celebrities to wear a Tank (Clark Gable, Truman Capote, Princess Diana), Jackie sported a Louis Cartier.
1973: Andy Warhol
“I don’t wear a Tank to tell time. In fact, I never wind it,” Andy Warhol, a Tank collector, once said. “I wear it because it’s the watch to wear.”
1977: Tank Must de Cartier
Its shape was the Louis Cartier, but the dials were done in bright coral, lapis lazuli and tortoiseshell.
1996: Tank Francaise
With its chain-link bracelet, the Française was a bold update after the understated 1989 Tank Americaine.
2012: Tank Anglaise
Out in June, the newest model has a similar bracelet as the Française, but its winding crown is enclosed in the case brancard. Tank Anglaise in white gold, $41,600.
A Watch of Another Kind
Amid the more than 40 specialty workshops at Cartier’s manufacturing center in La Chaux-de-Fonds, near the restoration department, sit the jewelers and craftsmen who create the company’s Metier d’Art timepieces—a collection that showcases unique artisanal techniques such as enameling, straw marquetry, gemstone mosaic and mother-of-pearl engraving. In 2008 Cartier introduced Le Cirque de Animalier, which features animal-themed motifs; each year since, it has debuted limited-edition pieces that focus on animals of a specific continent. This year’s Europe collection displayed diamond-and-enamel honeybees, ladybugs and other insects. The Santos-Dumont XL watch, with a horse motif (below), is also new this year and has two different types of gemstone mosaic, which took more than 120 hours to complete. Herewith, the intricacies of the process.
Sourcing Stones: The mosaic stones must be meticulously examined and cut according to color and tone for a cohesive look.
Setting the Canvas: Cacholong opals are cut into tiny irregular-shaped tesserae and set in gold edging to form the horse motif.
Matching Shades: More than 400 miniature tiles, from pink opal and chocolate obsidian to earth jasper, are used to form the mosaic.
Piecing It Together: Using a pair of tweezers, each mosaic tile must be placed one by one onto the gold-engraving plate. —Shannon Adducci