Most people have heard of the Paris-Dakar Rally, the gruelling motorsport event that began in 1979 as a 6,200 mile race from France to Senegal via the Sahara desert – but who can remember the Cartier Challenge?
The world’s toughest off-road competition and the high-end jeweller may seem worlds apart, but they came together 39 years ago in an unlikely collaboration to be remembered in the sale of a unique wristwatch that sold at auction this week for $1.1 million.
The story of thw watch dates back to the start of the fifth Paris-Dakar in 1983, when the then Cartier CEO Alain Dominique Perrin approached the event’s founder Thierry Sabine with the idea of offering a glittering prize to anyone who could achieve what both men considered impossible: to win the Paris-Dakar two years in succession using the same category of vehicle.
But the pair had not counted on the remarkable talent and superhuman endurance of diminutive Belgian motorcycle racer Gaston Rahier, the triple 125cc motocross world champion who, after giving up scrambling, became a BMW-mounted rally raid superstar.
No sooner had the Cartier Challenge been announced than Mr Rahier clinched victory in the 1984 event, and proceeded to follow it up with a win in 1985 – thus meeting the requirements of ‘the challenge’.
His prize was the decidedly, er, unusual ‘Cheich’ watch which was offered for sale direct from his family at Sotheby’s Paris.
Inspired by the rally’s logo – the silhouetted face of a Tuareg tribesman wearing the traditional cotton head protector known as a ‘cheich’ – the watch is forged from three colours of 18 carat gold (white, rose and yellow) to create a monumental case that meticulously replicates every one of the garment’s soft folds.
Nestled within them is a typical Cartier dress watch dial with a rectangular central minutes track, hour markers in the form of a combination of batons and Roman numerals and a winding crown set with the maker’s signature blue cabochon.
Such is the design of the case that conventional lugs could not be used – instead, the leather band passes ‘invisibly’ through the back.
As well as that original strap, the watch is also accompanied by the bespoke case in which it was presented to Mr Rahier, the lid of which carries the legend ‘Trophee Paris Alger Dakar’ in gold script.
Only three Cheich watches are known to have been created: the one awarded to Mr Rahier; another for a potential woman winner and a third made in 1985 for anyone else who achieved the necessary ‘double’.
In the event, the Cartier Challenge came to an end almost as quickly as it had begun due to the sudden death of Thierry Sabine in a helicopter crash that was caused by a sandstorm towards the end of the 1986 event.
The other two examples of the Cheich remain in Cartier’s historic collection and will never be sold – meaning that the sale of Mr Rahier’s, the only one ever to have been awarded, was likely to represent a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Recent sales of vintage Cartier watches have shown rising demand for rare pieces – in May, online auction site Loupe This sold a 1967 ‘Crash’ model for $1.65m.
But while no more than a couple of dozen examples of the original Crash are thought to have been made, it is positively commonplace compared with the Cheich.