Some will say this is a headline that’s been coming, many more will step into the story without knowing what to expect. At Watches And Wonders, the watch fair taking place – via the web – in Geneva this week, Cartier has reintroduced its silent icon, the Tank Must.
For contemporary style mavens who have been lauding the 1970s, Warhol-era original Tank Must, particularly in its burgundy-dialled livery, this will be a moment of mixed emotions: satisfaction that their appraisal of the dandyish design as a thinking man’s classic has been recognised with a reissue, but perhaps a little disappointment that their secret is now, finally, out.
The Tank Must paradox doesn’t end there. The “Must” suffix will be unknown to many modern-day Cartier fans and yet the form will be familiar. It’s based on the Tank Louis Cartier of 1922, the icon and current collection mainstay. So that explains that.
Different variants of the new Tank Must. Prices start at £2,310
But there’s more. Behind the Tank Must’s relative anonymity is a story that is completely essential to the story of Cartier. Without it, it’s not a wild exaggeration to say Cartier the watchmaker would almost certainly not enjoy the position it does today. That, for the record, is as Switzerland’s third largest watchmaker behind Rolex and Omega, according to independent reports.
Background information on the original 1977 Tank Must is sparse. Into the 1970s, Cartier was a very different company to the uber brand we now recognise. It was several businesses rather than one, for starters. As bits of it were bought up and centralised, new management decided they needed a collection with a universal language that would help put the brand on a global footing.
Cartier’s archives indicate their solution was a product line that included bags, pens and lighters, but, initially, not a watch. The concept was to be not just universal but also more accessible. It’s recorded, for example, that the lighters were available in well-heeled tobacco stores, the sort of pavement stop long since gone from the fashion capitals of the world. The aim was to capture the zeitgeist, to tempt consumers with “must-have” accessories. In 1973, thus Cartier introduced Les Must De Cartier, an anglicisation that still comes as a surprise now.
The watch didn’t follow until 1977. Some reports have it that at the time Cartier was only selling around 3,000 watches a year, chicken feed by our generation’s standards, even if they were mostly gold or platinum. Robert Hocq and Alain-Dominique Perrin, the two visionaries running the show at the time, decided that what Cartier needed was a lower-priced watch that they could sell in jewellers all over the world – and not just through its own boutiques.
They conceived a piece based on the inimitable Tank Louis Cartier and cast it in gold-plated silver, a novel technique for the brand known as “vermeil”. Inside it, they put a battery-powered quartz movement. The look was fashionable, accessible and yet still very much Cartier.
The new burgundy Cartier Tank Must. £2,490
The Tank Must De Cartier watch was a hit. Some reports have it that by the end of the decade Cartier’s annual watch output had shot up to 160,000 units. Into the 1980s and 1990s, Must took on further shapes and forms – Cartier used the name for its first perfume in 1981 – and attracted legion admirers. Cartier, meanwhile, became a luxury behemoth and the jewel in the crown of what today is known as the Richemont Group, alongside fellow luminaries Montblanc, Vacheron Constantin, IWC and Panerai. Those independent reports have it that Cartier the watchmaker now shifts around half a million watches a year. Not all down to the Tank Must, but its part in that trajectory is significant.
Why then today’s esoteric Must story? As these things do, Les Must De Cartier fell from fashion and, at some point, those early Tank Must watches – simple, almost H-shaped, sometimes monochromatic and infused with effortless French chic – developed a mythical patina. As Cartier grew, so the need for a low-priced line faded and the Must name was retired from the company’s watch line-up. Good vintage pieces became hard to find. The gold-plating was usually worn, while the quartz movements had often had it.
The wheels of fashion have turned, though. With 1970s, 1980s and increasingly 1990s trends influential over today’s designers, some had said the return of the Tank Must was inevitable. Why would Cartier not capitalise on its latent aura?
Well, now it has.
To the new line, then, which replaces the outgoing Tank Solo and includes pieces in various sizes and guises. The core Tank Must pieces are steel-cased with the usual Cartier signatures (Roman numeral white dial, “railway” minute track, blued sword-shaped hands and a blue synthetic stone cabochon set into the crown) and come in three sizes, the largest with an in-house automatic and the smaller pairing with quartz movements said to be good for eight years’ autonomy. There’s a version coming later in the year with an innovative energy system fuelled by light too.
These are all fine-looking, but the headliners are the trio with matching straps and lacquered dials. The monochromatic blue, green and burgundy pieces are all glorious – universal and yet somehow unknowable, as all French créations should be. These too are quartz-powered, but the dial aesthetic is stripped bare, save the Cartier logo and sword-shaped hands. The burgundy model in particular is a dandy for our times, no question.
Alongside these are two delicious new Tank Louis Cartier models, one blue with a pink-gold case, the other red with a yellow-gold case. Both carry Cartier’s 1917 MC hand-wound manufacture movements. The form is the same “large model” size as the monochromatic pieces, the distinction being Louis Cartier models are all gold and the Must models all steel.
The new Tank Louis Cartier models, £12,000
Cartier’s present-day motivations are of course very different to those of almost 50 years ago. Since the middle of the past decade, it has been reframing its watch collection under the banner of montres de forme, or shape watches, following a period when the focus fell on its wonderfully experimental but apparently not sufficiently profitable Fine Watchmaking Division (remember the vacuum-sealed ID concept watches?). In that time, we’ve seen Santos and Panthère reborn, alongside a series of special pieces in the Cartier Privé line, such as the Crash, Tank Asymétrique and this year the exquisite, bell-shaped Cloche De Cartier. Tank Must fits the strategy perfectly.
The new Cloche De Cartier, from £25,200
Tank Must is back, then. A Cartier legacy restored for a new style generation.
Sources from: GQ