100 Years of the Cartier Tank Cintrée
What do Fred Astaire, Steve McQueen and Ralph Lauren all have in common? Besides being style trailblazers for several generations of men, they all owned and wore, a Tank Cintrée.
What is it that attracted them, and many others, to this elongated and curved timepiece from Cartier? Distinguished by how the case wraps around the wrist, it was first released one hundred years ago, in 1921. As such, we thought we’d take the opportunity to look back at the origin, evolution and variation of the Cintrée.
When it was first introduced, it ushered in a new way of looking at wristwatches, as more than just functional objects to be strapped to the arm. In the early days of wrist-worn timekeepers, most designs were adaptations of pocket watches, designed with utility and purpose in mind. However, the Cintrée argued for a rather different idea of what a wristwatch could be, born from the mind of a jeweller, rather than that of a traditional watchmaker. Far larger and bolder than anything else on the market at the time, the Cintrée captured the attention of those looking for something different.
An unusual blue dial on a Cartier Cintrée, from Auro Montanari's collection.
An offshoot of the classic Tank watch, the Cintrée has been produced in fairly low numbers over the last century, from the ones imagined in New York and London, to the re-editions for the modern era. Throughout that period, though it has taken on different forms, its central ethos has remained relatively consistent. On this, its hundredth anniversary, we thought we’d take the opportunity to look a little closer at the Cintrée.
Where did the Cintrée come from?
The origin of the Cartier Tank design is a well-known and often-told tale. Louis Cartier saw the new Renault tanks that were dominating the front line of the First World War and their symmetrical shape struck a chord. The result was the launch of a unique case shape that has become synonymous with the brand, having since been reimagined and adapted many times over. Possibly one of the most enigmatic and captivating of these variants is the focus of this article, the Cintrée.
The story of how the Cintrée came to be is a little less clear. Initially released two years after the Tank, its elongated form was rather radical at the time. “We know exactly how the Tank was designed,” says Harry Fane, a vintage Cartier expert who has been handling these pieces for over forty years. “However, we don’t know when they sat down, and how they decided to design the Cintrée.”
The curve that has come to define this unique model, courtesy of Phillips.
Whilst we can’t point to a solid point of origin for this new shape, we can look at the period in which it was created for some useful context. “Wristwatches at the time were a very new thing,” Fane explains, “and getting men to wear a timepiece on their wrist, and not in their pocket, was no easy feat.” It is believed that this is part of the reason why the curved case was adopted. A watch which hugged the wrist seemed more comfortable and natural to wear than many of the other pieces being produced at the time, which had more rudimentary round or square designs. The Cintrée was an attempt to win over the sceptics. This plausible theory was put forwards by Franco Cologni in his book, Cartier: The Tank Watch, with no written records or official explanations put forwards by the jeweller for us to lean on.
The era in which the Cintrée was born certainly also influenced the design. The Roaring ‘20s were a period of economic prosperity following the First World War, which spawned a whole new set of cultural movements in the United States and Europe. In France, the decade was known as the “années folles” – or crazy years – emphasising the era's social, artistic and cultural dynamism. It was out with the old and in with the new. This is evident in the dramatic lines of the Cintrée, which captured the glamour and exuberance of the time, coupled with an embracing of Art Deco design principles. Measuring an astounding 46mm in length, it marked a rupture with the past.
A line up of Cintrée watches from the Cologni book.
Whilst the creation process of the Cintrée may be unclear, its birthplace is certain. It originated from Cartier in Paris, at a time when the jeweller’s three branches operated relatively autonomously from one another. While similar watches eventually appeared in New York and London, the original versions made in the early 1920s were all designed, made and sold in Paris.
It was Cartier New York that first adopted the curved design, with examples leaving their workshop in the early 1930s. There has been some debate around whether these can be labelled as Tank Cintrées or not, as they were never sold under that name. According to Fane, “they absolutely are Cintrée watches. Cintrée is just the French word for curved and Cartier New York didn’t want to use French names at the time, hence why they were referred to differently."
An early piece from the Paris workshop from 1926, courtesy of Sotheby’s.
However, Auro Montanari, a renowned collector with an impressive collection of early Cartier pieces, partially disagrees. We do indeed see Curved Tanks sold in New York as early as 1934. However, as we move throughout the century, the quality drops dramatically, such that they are not on parr with the Cintrées produced elsewhere. According to Montanari, the Curved Tank was eventually reduced to “a gold-filled, curved wristwatch, manufactured by Bueche-Girod in Switzerland for Cartier New York, at the end of the 1970s. For me it is not a real Cartier object, but just a wristwatch sold by Cartier New York.”
This distinction between the Cintrée watches produced in Paris, London and New York highlights one of the most interesting aspects of the jeweller’s history, namely how independent its three branches were. Whilst one may assume that a Cartier watch is a Cartier watch, regardless of where and when it was produced, this is not the case. Therefore, while the curved designs may be similar, their names and quality can be different based on where they were made and sold.
The Quintessential Cintrée
Though the Cintrée has appeared in a range of different configurations, there are a few fundamental features of the original Paris models which define the quintessential Cintrée. The first Cintrée watches came in three sizes, which were dictated by the measurements of the movements which powered them. These came in 7, 8 and 9 ligne – with ligne being a unit of measurement for movements – which made a drastic difference to the overall proportions of the cases. The largest 9 ligne Cintrée reached a staggering 46.5mm in length as it wrapped around the wrist and was 23mm wide.
The three sizes that Cintrée’s could originally be found in.
The movements were all made by Jaeger, due to the special relationship that Edmund Jaeger had with Louis Cartier. It is said that the extreme curve of the Cintrée was only made possible thanks to Jaeger developing an especially thin rectangular movement that could fit inside of the case. This thinness, Fane points out, was crucial to Cartier, as “he wasn’t concerned with making complex horological creations, but rather elegant timepieces.”
It is worth pointing out that though some Cintrée movements may be signed by the European Watch Company, they were still made by Jaeger. In fact, the European Watch and Clock Company Inc. was simply a joint venture between Jaeger and Cartier, with the intention of producing exclusive mechanisms for Cartier wristwatches.
The Cartier signed dial and European Watch Co. signed movement of a platinum Tank Cintrée from the 1930s, courtesy of Bonhams.
One design change from the original Tank Normale that many point to on the original Cintrée is the curved top and bottom edge of the minute track, otherwise known as a chemin-de-fer. This subtle touch helps the dial flow with the curvature of the case. The extremities of the minute track seem to fall away from the centre of the arched dial, just as it slopes down.
“He wasn’t concerned with making complex horological creations, but rather elegant timepieces.”
Pair this with the elongated Roman Numerals, which are most commonly found on this model, and you end-up with the sort of distorted proportions which are reminiscent of the work of Salvador Dalí. This speaks to the essence of Cartier’s design approach which is to take the same fundamental principles and play around with them, pushing the boundaries of what is usually expected.
Cintrée’s from every era, from top left 1929, 1950, 1970 and 2005. Courtesy of Revolution.
Cartier also decided to, more often than not, make use of Breguet hands for this model, a feature which can often be found on very early Tank Normale pieces. This also helped to distinguish this family from the Tank Allongée pieces, which were often equipped with leaf-shaped hands. The final component of this Cintrée, which marks it as quintessentially Cartier, is the blue sapphire cabochon. Protruding a good distance from the beaded crown, this Cartier flourish would be flattened down on later models, but the first variations had a more dramatic, pointed jewel. In combination, all the elements highlighted above have come to define the quintessential idea of a Cintrée.
The archetypal design, courtesy of Cartier.
The Vintage Variants
Despite our overview of the core Cintrée design features, there is endless variation to be found. Across different case metals, dial designs and accompanying bracelets, the Cintrée has taken many forms. This is because each of them essentially amounted to a unique piece, with very small numbers produced prior to the modern era. Indeed, Cartier's early watch production was so niche that in some years, the output of all Tank watches never reached double figures. For example, in 1932, only six Tanks found their way into the world. Cintrées would only have represented a fraction of that total, limited output.
That being said, there are still some interesting variants to highlight. The first area we can focus on is the dial. These have featured a range of different signatures, fonts and numerals. One of the most interesting departures from the archetypal Cintrée design, and one that was introduced fairly early on, is the use Arabic numerals. The very first examples of this are painted in classic, black ink. However, as we move into the late 1920s and early 1930s, the use of luminous material starts to appear on a handful of pieces.
The Cintrée gifted by Fred Astaire in 1929.
Possibly the most famous example of an Arabic numeral Tank Cintrée was bought by none other than Fred Astaire, the renowned dancer, singer and actor. This piece not only swaps-out the black painted numerals for luminous ones, but the Breguet hands are gone in favour of lume-filled cathedral hands. Sold in 1929, it is believed that the watch was gifted by Astaire, with a simple engraving on the back reading “Felix from Fred ’29.” Quite the gift, from quite the man. The watch now resides in the Cartier archives.
The next variation links back to a previous article that we dedicated to the ‘jeweller of kings’ and the ‘king of jewellers’, as King Edward VII referred to Cartier. We are of course talking about Tank Cintrées made in London. Mainly produced under the stewardship of Jean-Jacques Cartier in the 1960s, these pieces gave a Swinging Sixties feel to this Roaring Twenties design. The most distinctive version of the London-made pieces are the ones that do away with the chemin-de-fer, and which stretch out the painted Roman numerals, making them unmistakable among collectors. Cologni describes these dials as giving the models “a surprising degree of vitality and idiosyncrasy.” Again, these pieces were not named Tank Cintrées at the point of sale. While many similarities remain from the original Paris-made pieces, the dimensions do slightly differ along with a change in cabochon, London usually opting for a far flatter jewel.
Two Cintrée watches made in London, marked by their distinctive lack of chemin-de-fer, courtesy of Auro Montanari and Eric Ku.
Moving onto the cases. At the start of production of the Cintrée, the cases were all made in the Paris workshop and fitted with movements made in Switzerland. Eventually, this changed and soon Jaeger were able to make the entirety of this watch for Cartier and ship it back to them complete.
When this change happened is unclear, yet the hallmarks on the back of any piece should reveal the point of origin, at least for the case. However, as with the dials, you find all sorts of variance in the cases. Some of the early pieces from the ‘30s are noticeably thinner than those produced in the ‘50s, for example. The style of screws and hallmarks can also be different.
Across vintage Cartier Cintrée watches, there’s a great deal of diversity. The style of the font, size of the numerals, thickness of the case or even the style of the screws can all vary quite significantly. This great level of variety, which is to be expected with a truly handmade object of this nature, explains why collecting vintage Cartier has traditionally been do difficult. Not only are early pieces exceedingly rare, but it also requires a high level of knowledge and expertise to determine the authenticity of a watch. Is the dial signature correct? Has it been restored or reprinted? Could it possibly be a fake? All questions that are much harder to answer without a single point of reference.
One area of vintage Cartier collecting which is particularly interesting, and which reminds us that we’re dealing with a jewellery brand and not a watchmaking one, are the bracelets found on some of these pieces. From Milanese bands to fishscale meshes, there is a great level of variance to be found in Cintrée bracelets. Because the design of the case is already curved and hugs the wrist, a bracelet logically becomes a natural extension of this idea.
A small selection of the type of bracelets that the Cintrée came on.
One example worth highlighting is a platinum Tank Cintrée, which appeared at Phillips back in in 2017, with a matching platinum seven-link bracelet. This goes to show how early on Cartier were willing to experiment with creative bracelet styles, seeing as this piece was purported to have been made in 1927, just six years after the model’s release. To highlight some of this variance, it’s useful for us to refer again to the Cologni book, where he has managed document many of the of known bracelet variations that originally appeared on early Tank watches. Though Cologni does not clarify which ones specifically appear on Tank Cintrée models, a fair few of these have been identified on the small handful of the pieces which have appeared publicly.
A Cintrée with an interesting number of lugs from the Cologni book.
While this bracelet selection goes from fish-scale meshes to notched bracelets, an interesting quirk we came across was a distinctive kind of leather bracelet. Indeed, it seems that Cartier produced a 9 lignes Cintrée with an additional metallic lug which sits in the middle of the other two lugs. Apparently, Cartier did this to bring the Cintrée in line with the style of other watches which were being produced at the time, specifically those targeted at women. It’s not often you see a watch with six lugs on, but Cartier imagined it.
A Cintrée bracelet on full display, courtesy of Sotheby's.
Things really began to change for Cartier from the ‘60s onwards. Following the death of Pierre Cartier in 1964, the remaining members of the family, who respectively headed the Cartier affiliates in London, New York and Paris, sold the businesses. In 1972, Robert Hocq, assisted by a group of investors led by Joseph Kanoui, bought Cartier Paris. In 1974 and 1976, respectively, the group repurchased Cartier London and Cartier New York, bringing the Cartier name under one, global umbrella.
The thinness of a Cintrée from 1928.
From that point onwards, the brand moved in a different direction. As Fane puts it, “they were going towards the mass market. This was a brilliant idea, and they were the first people to really do it successfully.” However, as Cartier went mass market, they produced more watches, with less of a focus on craftsmanship and inventive designs. Whilst Cintrée pieces were occasionally released, and the design continued to be interpreted in different ways, it’s important to note that these modern pieces are a different beast entirely to the earlier ones. This distinction is clear when looking at auction results, when a Cintrée from the ‘40s will usually hammer for several multiples of what one from the ‘90s would go for.
That being said, Cartier created some truly interesting Cintrée watches in the modern era. Notably, between 1998 until 2008, the brand operated the Collection Privée Cartier Paris programme, or CPCP for short, which spawned some of the most interesting pieces in the maison’s modern history. Powered by high-quality mechanical movements, sourced from specialised brands, Cartier re-created some of their most iconic models from the past, such as the Assymétrique, the Crash and, of course, the Cintrée.
A Platinum example of the CPCP Cintrée.
In 2004, the Cartier Paris Collection Privée range gave birth to a limited edition of 50 pieces in platinum, and 150 pieces in yellow gold. The design of the dial was actually inspired by the 1929 Cartier London Tank Cintrée with radium Arabic numerals sold to Fred Astaire, which we mentioned above. As is to be expected with the CPCP pieces, there was also a real focus on the quality of the movements, as an homage to the early collaboration between Cartier and Jaeger. Indeed, the 2004 Cintrée pieces were powered by a manual-winding Jaeger LeCoultre caliber 849. The proportions were also in line with the largest of the original Cintrée pieces, the 9 ligne, with the curved case being 46mm long and 23 mm wide. There was also a version with two time zones, introduced in 1998, at the birth of CPCP, including one made specifically for the Chinese market.
Moving forward into more recent times, Cartier has re-affirmed its commitment to the Cintrée design. Back in 2017, Cartier gave the Cintrée a skeletonised treatment. They made use of the recognisable, curved chemin-de-fer to act as the structure around which the exposed movement was mounted. The year after, we saw a limited run of regularly-dialled Cintrées in pink and yellow gold, as well as platinum. Here, Cartier decided to mix the use of Roman numerals – at 12 and 6 – with minimalist baton markers for the rest. They also brought back the pronounced cabochon, as a subtle nod to the early pieces.
A Dual Time Zone Cintrée from the CPCP era, courtesy of Watch Club.
During this more modern period, Cartier has also given a small handful of collectors the opportunity to create custom Cintrée watches. Quite a few of these have appeared publicly, with interesting designs to discover and appreciate. Prior to being purchased by Richemont in 1993, it seems that they gave certain special clients slightly more liberty in the creation process of custom Cartier pieces. Since then, they continue execute custom requests, though the scope for customisation has been reduced somewhat. For example, it is understood that the dial layout cannot be overly modified or that certain signatures cannot be removed. As a matter of policy, custom pieces created today are also never labelled as unique but are rather simply referred to as “commande spéciale”, meaning special order in French.
The 2021 Cintrée, taken by Andy Kyaw for Hodinkee.
This brings us to this year and the anniversary that it marks. To celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the Cintrée, Cartier has released one of its most faithful reeditions to date, taking many aesthetic cues from the original design, such as the Breguet hands, removal of any signature other than “Cartier” and the slightly elongated chemin-de-fer.
Rather interestingly, it appears to be the thinnest Cintrée ever made, at only 6.4mm in thickness. For reference, the original was 6.7mm, whilst the Cartier Paris Collection Privée models were 7.2mm thick. “In order to get it so thin I believe they had to give up the water resistance,” Fane speculates. This would make this new model not only aesthetically close to the original, but functionally similar as well.
Those who wore them
It’s difficult to discuss any Cartier timepiece without touching on its wider cultural impact. Whether it’s Andy Warhol wearing a classic Tank or Kanye West wearing a Crash, creatives and industry leaders have already gravitated towards the brand. This only reinforces the iconic status of the designs, which manage to penetrate popular culture in a significant way.
We’ve already mentioned the Cintrée that Fred Astaire bought and gifted to his racehorse trainer, Felix Leach Jr, in 1929. However, he wasn’t the only one to have a penchant for the design. Steve McQueen famously wore one under his cuff whilst he was portraying the titular character in The Thomas Crown Affair. Another actor who is known for wearing a Cintrée is Stewart Granger, a leading man from the Golden Age of cinema. It can be assumed that he was a fan of Cartier, especially their more unusually shaped models, as he has also been seen wearing a Cartier Asymétrique.
Steve McQueen and Stewart Granger both sporting their Cintrée’s.
It isn’t just actors and performers who are connected to this celebrated off-shoot of the Tank. The famed fashion designer an entrepreneur, Ralph Lauren, collects vintage Cartier watches and owns a few Cintrée pieces. His most distinctive one is an early yellow gold example from the ‘30s, which he has fitted to a rather singular bracelet. Interestingly enough, the solid, cuff-like bracelet used to belong to none other than Andy Warhol. At an auction of Warhol's watches, the designer spotted the cuff on one of the watches coming up for sale. Though the watch itself was worthless, and Lauren has no memory what he did with it, he bought the cuff and added it to his own Cintrée.
Ralph Lauren’s Cintrée, courtesy of Hodinkee.
As is to be expected, the Cintrée was also seen in royal circles. There is a design sketch for one to be made for Princess Louise Van Alen Mdivani, a member of the Astor family who married into the Mdivanis for just a year before getting a divorce. This helps us date the design sketches with her name at the top fairly accurately, to between 1931 and 1932, assuming she dropped the Mdivani name after the divorce. A few other Cintrée wearers that Montanari shared include “Porfrio Rubirose, Gianni Agnelli and the Prince of Monaco, Rainier III.” An impressive list of names, who are without a doubt, tastemakers in their own circles.
Very few designs have enjoyed the longevity of the Cintrée. A century later and it still feels “current,” as Fane puts it. For any design – be it a car, watch or building – to remain appealing after one hundred years is certainly an accomplishment. The impact of the Cintrée is all the more impressive when you consider just how few were made over the years. There has never been a stead of flow of them to the market and, even today, Cartier refuses to produce them in large numbers. This helps keep the design special.
A Cintrée from 1924 and the model released this year, courtesy of Cartier.
Whilst few were produced, the different variations of the design feel almost endless. Owning a Cintrée must certainly be a fulfilling experience but studying them can also prove to be a great pleasure. From dissecting the different thicknesses of the vintage cases to discovering the special order pieces that were made in modern times, there is plenty to get lost in. Looking back at the curved design, it’s certainly a lesson on how to age gracefully.
Our thanks to Harry Fane and Auro Montanari for sharing their knowledge and thoughts on this model as it celebrates its 100thanniversary.