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The colourful past, present and future of Cartier watches

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Simon de Burton recalls halcyon days cruising a windswept Scarborough seafront; sparking up a doobie, perhaps, using a Cartier lighter and cocooned in a Cartier edition Lincoln Continental.

“It made me feel like Yorkshire’s answer to Huggy Bear,” recalled my old friend Bruce when I reminded him of the time we cruised Scarborough’s seafront in his 1979 Lincoln Continental, acquired the previous day as a mobile marketing tool to promote a thriving jet ski hire business — in exchange for just 10 crisp, £50 notes.

With its 462 cubic inch engine (that’s 7.6 litres in Euro-speak), white leather interior, white shag-pile carpet and dazzling white paintwork, it certainly turned heads amid the faded Victorian grandeur of the northern resort where more usual traffic comprised Ford Escorts, Vauxhall Astras and Austin Allegros.

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By then, Bruce’s ‘79 Continental – once a passable Cadillac rival – was 15 years old and a down-at-heel luxury dinosaur that had succeeded in living up to its name by roaming to a continent on which it was entirely irrelevant.

And it wasn’t any old Continental, either, but a top-of- the- range Cartier edition, complete with numbered dashboard plaque, the word ‘Cartier’ sprinkled liberally throughout the interior and distinctive, square instruments marked with the famous entwined ‘C’s and featuring the ribbed look found on Cartier’s Oval lighters.

Lending its hallowed name to a pimped-up ride was just one of the dubious decisions made by Cartier management during the 1970s, a period when the ‘jeweller of kings and king of jewellers’ was experiencing a financial downturn of right royal proportions, leading it to follow a business model established by Pierre Cardin that revolved around offering licensing arrangements — some of which were more appropriate than others.

Among the best was the one granted to entrepreneur Robert Hocq in 1968.

At the time, Hocq was head of the Silver Match cigarette lighter company which was licensed by Cartier Paris to produce the aforementioned Oval lighter, a good-looking, pleasingly tactile and innovative item with a retractable spark wheel.

Although it was every bit as well-made as a Cartier item was expected to be and was supplied in the brand’s distinctive and coveted packaging, the Oval came with an unusually affordable price tag due to being gold plated rather than made from the far more expensive 18 carat stuff with which the brand was associated.

Just a year later, Hocq recruited a 26-year-old Alain-Dominique Perrin to work at ‘Briquets de Cartier’ and, within 12 months appointed him as managing director.

The Cartier family had sold the dynastic business in 1964, leaving the ‘original’ Cartier with just four stores — in Hong-Kong, Geneva, Munich and Paris, with Cartier London and Cartier New York no longer being part of the main group.

Hocq and Perrin, together with another entrepreneur called Joseph Kanoui, set about unifying the world of Cartier, first by buying-back Cartier Paris in 1972, followed by London (‘74) and finally New York (76) to create ‘Cartier International’ (of which Perrin served as managing director from 1981 to 2001).

Cartier’s Oval lighter.

Roaring sales of the Oval lighter led Hocq and Perrin to ponder if the answer to getting Cartier back on its feet might be to offer a whole range of more affordable products, which led to the arrival of Cartier leather goods, pens and perfumes. All provided grist to the mill, but it was the decision in 1977 to launch a less expensive Cartier wrist watch under the umbrella of the ‘Must de Cartier’ sub-brand that really got things going.

Must de Cartier (allegedly named after a junior member of the marketing team suggested ‘Cartier: it’s a must!’ as a potential campaign slogan) was established by Perrin and Hocq on the basis that ‘luxury’ could also apply to practical objects; that Cartier needed to expand its horizons while retaining its air of exclusivity; and, most importantly, that the firm needed to capture a wider audience with an offering of more affordable, still stylish product.

The result was the original Tank Must de Cartier, a gold-plated wrist watch with an Ebel mechanical movement that retailed at just $500.

Cartier used the more exotic word ‘vermeil’ rather than ‘plated’ to describe the result of coating silver with a layer of gold — but it was no cover-up because everything about the watches was nicely made, the coating was an impressive 20 microns thick and dials, initially available in dark blue, black or ‘Cartier red,’ were simple but exquisite.

Such was the success of the Tank Must that the brand’s lifetime watch sales tally soared from a mere 3,000 in the late 1960s to 160,000 within a decade; helped, undoubtedly, by examples of the watch appearing on the wrists of celebrities such as Yves St Laurent and Andy Warhol.

In 1980, the round-cased Vendome Must became available with a quartz movement, followed by the Tank Must two years later, a move that kept the watches affordable while also making them of-the-era at a time when traditional clockwork appeared to be on the way out.

As we now know, that proved not to be the case and, in the 20-or-so years during which the mechanical watch has experienced a revival of Lazarus-like significance, quartz watches came to be looked down upon by hardcore horophiles, Tank Musts included.

With the passing of the years, however, the once-derided decade of the ‘70s has come to be viewed through increasingly rose-tinted spectacles and values of old Tank Musts have risen from a few hundred pounds a while ago to as much as £3,000 today, indicating a renewed affection for the watches that Cartier would have been foolish not to take advantage of.

Well, now it has.

Last month’s Watches and Wonders show saw the launch of a whole new range of Tank Musts in small, medium and large sizes that include mechanical and quartz versions as well as one with a ‘Solarbeat’ photovoltaic, solar-powered movement.

And, if those online inflation calculators are to be relied upon, the £2,270 entry price for a small, quartz-powered Tank Must is more or less equivalent to the $500 originally asked in 1977.

All of which goes to prove the truth of the old saying that ‘what goes around, comes around’.

Except, that is, for Lincoln’s Cartier editions. They disappeared in 2003 and probably won’t be coming back.

Although we used to think that about the Must Tank, too.

Cartier in colour

Tank Louis Cartier.

Cartier has returned to some of its design codes of the 1980s for a suite of Tank Must watches with stripped back burgundy, blue and green dials, shorn of hour markers and decorated with only with a subtle Cartier logo just above centre.

Cartier is labelling its Tank watches small, large and extra large; a nod to the current trend for gender-neutrality, perhaps.

The colourful, quartz-based, Tank Must family is in the large size, which in this case is 33.7mm tall by 25.5mm wide and more likely to appeal to female customers. They retail for £2,490.

Also in the large size, and in burgundy or blue colourways, are two Tank Louis Cartier watches that house in house manufacture automatic movements.

They have 18ct gold cases and alligator leather straps in matching colours to their dials.

The dials are not, in fact, all blue or burgundy, but have rectangular insets of the colours on a background of gold or silver.

Tank Must SolarBeat.

Colourful straps are also coming on entry level Tank Must watches, which use a Solarbeat photovoltaic movement that Cartier says will keep ticking unattended for 16 years if exposed to a bit of sunlight from time to time.

There are small and large versions of the watches, which have classic white Cartier Art Deco faces with black Roman numeral hour markers. They are on sale for £2,390.

The range of new Tank references for 2021 is too extensive to describe them all; a total of 17, according to the Cartier team, so customers can pick from three sizes, steel or precious metals, with or without diamonds, and mechanical or quartz movements.

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