Cartier Tank: History and Popular Watch Models, Explained

For over 100 years, Tank de Cartier’s unmistakable rectangular case has made it an icon of the watch industry. In this article, you will learn about the Cartier Tank’s origins in World War I, its Art Deco influences, and how it became a favorite of style icons like Princess Diana and Jackie Kennedy. We will also explore the Tank’s many models over the years and why some variations, like the Tank Louis Cartier and Must de Cartier Tank, remain as prized as ever. With prices ranging from a few thousand dollars to well over $100,000 for rare vintage pieces, the Cartier Tank is a storied timepiece that continues to represent the height of luxury watchmaking.


The History and Evolution of the Cartier Tank Watch

Sleek and sophisticated. Sometimes masculine, sometimes feminine. This beloved design icon from Cartier turned 100 years old in 2017, and its popularity keeps its momentum. Let’s walk down memory lane and delve into the history of Cartier Tank watches. 


The Birth of an Icon

In 1917, Louis Cartier designed the first Tank timepiece, inspired by the linear design of military vehicles from World War 1. With its distinctive square case and strap, the watch was an instant success and established Cartier as a pioneer of modern watchmaking.


A Timeless Classic

Over the decades, Cartier has released many variations of the Tank, from the Tank Louis Cartier to the Américaine and Française. However, the original design essence remains intact. The Tank is a paragon of elegance and sophistication with its clean lines and Art Deco sensibilities.


Advancing While Preserving Tradition

While honoring its rich history, Cartier continues improving the Tank. Recent models incorporate in-house movements and new materials like palladium. For example, the Tank Must de Cartier is a more affordable model targeting younger clients. Nonetheless, attributes such as the sword-shaped hands, railtrack minute markers, and a cabochon crown are consistent features across all Tank models, contributing to its status as a horological icon.


A Centennial Celebration

In 2017, Cartier celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Tank’s debut. Among the celebratory events was the unveiling of a skeletonized rendition of the Tank Cintrée model, showcasing its meticulously crafted in-house movement. This milestone is a testament to the enduring relevance and timeless charm of a timepiece that defined an era and reimagined the essence of modern luxury. Today, the Cartier Tank continues to hold its place as a cherished collector’s item and a quintessential emblem of horological mastery.

Related: 10 Facts About Cartier: From Humble Beginnings to Global Domination


Popular Cartier Tank Watch Models Over the Years

Let’s move on to some of the most coveted Cartier Tank models.

Tank Normale (1917)

The Cartier Tank Normale was the first-ever Tank, manufactured in 1917 and officially offered in stores in 1919. Its four-line layout with parallel shafts integrated the strap seamlessly into the case. The simplistic design belied its revolutionary nature: aligning the circle of hours with the strap, creating a wrist-hugging silhouette.   

Hallmarks that would define all watches from the Tank line were present from the start: Roman numerals, railroad minute track, blued hands, and a winding crown set with a blue cabochon. Powering it was a thin, manually-wound caliber, which Edmond Jaeger engineered by LeCoultre produced.

The Tank Normale was a limited production. Today, rare and vintage models in precious metals command high prices at auctions. The Tank Normale established a template that persisted over a century later.


Tank Cintrée (1921)

The Cartier Tank Cintrée (French for “curved”) is the embodiment of horological elegance among Cartier Tank watches. While maintaining the essential framework of four lines and two parallel shafts, the Tank Cintrée possessed a unique design feature, often accentuated by the inclusion of Breguet-style hands. However,  Cartier produced the Tank Cintrée in limited quantities over the years, rendering it a rare masterpiece.


Tank Louis Cartier (1922)

Although the Tank Normale laid the groundwork for the style, it was the Tank Louis Cartier that solidified its place in horological history. Fondly referred to as the “LC Tank” by collectors, this coveted piece was the personal timepiece of its creator and namesake, Louis Cartier. Its slightly larger size, sleek lines, and more masculine feel had won over influential figures across generations.

Among its admirers was the iconic American painter and Pop art figurehead Andy Warhol, who frequently wore the LC Tank in photographs despite never winding it. In one interview, Warhol confessed, “I don’t wear a Tank to tell the time; I wear a Tank because it is the watch to wear!” His comments echoed the sentiments of several others who valued the timepiece for its form and function.


Must de Cartier Tank (1977)

Emerging during the tumultuous quartz crisis of the early 1970s in the Swiss watch industry, this line bore a striking resemblance to the esteemed LC Tank, but with distinct differences. Encased in vermeil-coated sterling silver instead of the usual 18k gold, the Must de Cartier Tank deviated from its luxurious roots. Cheaper, more affordable ETA mechanical movements also powered these watches rather than high autonomy quartz movements. In addition, while the dials offered a vibrant array of colors, they veered from the Roman numerals and railway track minute counter that consumers associated with the Tank line. Regardless, the Must de Cartier achieved remarkable success in terms of sales, broadening Cartier’s reach to a more diverse audience.


Tank Américaine (1989)

By the 1980s, the Tank Cintrée was too delicate for modern preferences, especially among men. To address this concern, Cartier introduced the Tank Américaine. Larger and bolder, yet retaining the desirable curved case, two versions of the Tank Américaine quietly debuted in the 1980s. In the 1990s, the larger Cartier Tank Américaine, equipped with the mechanical 430MC movement, made its international debut. In those days, the size (44 x 26.5 mm) was astonishingly large. It featured a vintage-inspired dial without a date window or small seconds hand. The Cartier Tank Américaine is still one of the brand’s most popular watches today.


Tank Française (1995)

While the Cartier Tank Américaine faced a slow climb to market prominence, the Tank Française achieved instant acclaim during its 1995 debut. Central to its appeal is the exquisite chain-link bracelet, reminiscent of tank treads. Available in four distinct case sizes, spanning from small to medium to large, it is Cartier’s first full-steel timepiece, boasting both case and bracelet crafted from this durable material. Even amid the evolution of Cartier’s collection, the Tank Française maintains its stronghold as a beloved model.


Rarer Cartier Tank Watches

In 1922, Cartier introduced the Tank Chinoise, which features a square case inspired by Chinese temple architecture. In 1928, they unveiled the Tank à Guichet, showcasing a solid face with two windows for hours and minutes. Then, in 1932, came the Tank Basculante, which had a pivoting case to protect the dial during activities like polo. These Cartier Tanks are high in demand at auctions.

Since 1917, Cartier has released new interpretations of the Tank, all while paying homage to the original design. With such a rich history and a variety of model options, the Cartier Tank watch is a timepiece for life (with an impressive resale value to match). Its timeless silhouette, Art Deco design elements, and easy-to-wear quality also contribute to the reasons why Tank de Cartier is the ultimate investment timepiece.


Where to Sell Your Cartier Tank Watch in Phoenix, AZ

The Cartier Tank’s value increases with age, as demand grows for these timeless classics. If you decide to sell yours, Biltmore Loan and Jewelry will pay you competitively based on your piece’s model, condition, and rarity. Uncommon vintage Cartier Tank watches can earn you the most, so consider selling now while the values are high. We welcome walk-in clients at our Scottsdale location. You can also complete this form to request an appraisal.