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  • Harry Fane

Cartier London Watches: The Cream On the Cake

In the early 1970s, long before I was the least bit interested in Cartier, my best friend, Mark Shand, bought a Cartier watch. I remember it to this day as I found it absolutely beautiful. Strangely I wasn’t really jealous of the watch, it was his new shoes, Gucci loafers with shinny brass snaffles, that I really hankered after! These were very ‘in’ back then. It’s funny how one remembers things.

His watch was, it so proved, to be my very first brush with Cartier and, once in a blue moon, I come across the same model and I am reminded of that day and my old friend.

The watch was a 1970's Cartier, London Tank. Even now, so many years later and after a career of buying and selling all manner of Cartier pieces, I still find this particular watch absolutely beautiful. In the specific world of Cartier wristwatches, this model, along with all of the Cartier London watch production, has become the most sought after of all Cartier watches.

In the early 1960s, Cartier as a family business began falling apart. By 1966, Jean Jacques Cartier was the only family member left running one of the Cartier branches. He remained at the helm of Cartier, London until 1974 and was the last family member to fall. He was a quiet and creative man and under his tutelage, Cartier, London made a tremendous contribution to the entire Cartier wristwatch story. Cartier made their first wristwatches back in the very early years of the 20th Century. In 1919, the Tank was introduced which remains, to this day, the cornerstone of all Cartier’s watch production. The design, which was actually established in 1906/1907, has remained unchanged ever since; that is, until Jean Jacques started making some subtle changes in the early 1960s.

Before moving into the different shapes of the cases that ultimately developed under Jean Jacques, the first most dramatic step in establishing a unique identity for Cartier London watches, outside the long-established designs of Cartier Paris, was the removal of the ‘chemin de fer’ minute track. This gave space which was utilised to extend the Roman numerals into a more elongated and bolder form. The dial became cleaner, more minimalist (long before that term became mainstream) and, all of a sudden, here was a design that was quite different, absolutely stunning yet absolutely in keeping with the long-established Tank design. A very radical shift without being radical at all.

This change in the dial became Cartier London’s trademark and these watches were, thereafter, easily recognisable. For this reason, collectors today seek them out.

It is not known how many watches were made in London from the early 1960s until 1977/78 when production, to a great extent, ceased. It is suggested maybe 200 in all but I suspect it was fewer. Of these, they were the Tank LCs/JCs (now the JJCs), the Tank Normales, the Tank Cintrees, the Baignoires and other iterations of the classic Paris models. Starting in the mid-60s, some completely new models appeared: The huge Maxi Oval, The Decagonal, The Carre (Square) and ultimately the world-famous Crash. With the Crash, we saw radical which truly was radical. This particular design was very much tied to the times which are now referred to as The Swinging Sixties. Into the 1970s, we saw the introduction of other unique London models: the elongated Octagonal, the famous and elusive Pebble, the Squares without lugs and the series of enamel watches which are also radical in their translation of the 1920s ‘gently’ enamelled cases into bold blue and red cases which are very dramatic.

But when all is considered, all these watches seen and admired, in my opinion, none is more successful than the one I saw so many years ago on my friend Mark’s wrist. More recently, a friend asked me to find for him twelve perfect vintage Cartier watches from the 1920s and 1930s. It took about eight years and his collection is amazing. It even contains a platinum Cintree from 1926 along with a yellow gold Cintree from 1924. At one point I offered him a 1963 London Tank JC with the London dial. ‘Oh no,’ he said, ‘too modern’. But I persevered and explained that this watch warranted a place in the group. Because he trusted me, he, rather grudgingly, agreed. Of course, now, it is his favourite watch. I completely understand why. It really is stunningly beautiful.

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