A Century Of Traction: The 100th Anniversary Of The Cartier Tank

Ah, the Cartier Tank watch. To many trad aficionados, it is a holy grail, like the perfect set of P3s. To others — those who prefer thrift shop wristwatches selling for less than $50 dangling from brightly colored straps costing less than a fiver — it is little more than a crass display of materialism that would embarrass King Midas himself.

This so happens to be the centennial of the original Cartier watch. Yes, the tale of the Tank originates way back in 1917, during the height of the First World War. The unique case design, with its thick sides inspired by a contemporary military tank, went on to become one of the most instantly recognizable of wristwatches.

In 1921, an advanced model Tank was introduced; the curve-case Tank Cintrée that was shaped to follow the curve of the wrist. In the ensuing decades many more Tank variations were released, along with the inevitable knockoffs, copies and counterfeits.

Fast-forward to 1989 when Cartier released the Tank Américaine. Now if Ivy enthusiasts and prepsters were already predisposed to an affection for tanks, now they had even more reason to love the real Tank, for now there was a version dubbed the Tank Américaine! One problem; the Américaine only came in precious metals. Some purists would rather wear white patent leather shoes than don anything so vulgar.

The good news for trads who happen to be connoisseurs of fine timepieces is that in celebration of the anniversary, Cartier has released the first-ever stainless steel-cased Américaine. Steel, the metal of the everyman. The same material used for the brightwork on your grandfather’s Chevrolet and your neighbor’s F-150. Real salt-of-the-earth stuff!

The steel Tank Américaine comes in three sizes. We can dismiss the large one out of hand as no Ivy buff worth his collar buttons would be seen in an overscaled timepiece. That leaves the medium and small for your consideration. The medium sells for a reasonable (for a fine horological instrument) $5,100, with a mechanical automatic self-winding movement. The small is priced at $4,000, but houses a quartz movement, which means it likely will not hold its value like the medium version. Both watches come on a dark navy alligator strap which coordinates nicely with the blued-steel hands and blue cabochon set into the winding crown.

With a steel Américaine, the self-effacing Ivyist can sport not a tawdry imitator, but a genuine Cartier Tank, reflecting 100 years of design heritage with no apologies. Armed with the knowledge that it is crafted from the humble metal of the proletariat, when the time comes that you are inevitably complemented on your good taste, you can truthfully reply, “What, this old thing?”

And when that fateful day comes, one of your progeny will be able to gratefully enjoy it after receiving it the grandest old-school way possible: inheritance. And there above the mantle in his library will be your portrait, with the Tank Américaine just peaking out from beneath the cuff of your OCBD. — JAMES KRAUS

22 Comments on "A Century Of Traction: The 100th Anniversary Of The Cartier Tank"

  1. Fun fact: “The prototype watch was presented by Cartier to General John Pershing of the American Expeditionary Force.”

  2. You need deep pockets to own a Cartier watch. The regular servicing costs over $500. Probably the most expensive cleaning/servicing of any Swiss brand.

    Personally, I am fond of Piaget watches and my Seiko 5.

  3. Adding a fun fact: Warhol never wound his watch, only using it as a fashion accessory!

  4. In the top photo, JFK is wearing an Omega, not a Cartier Tank.

  5. The page that had the JFK image pointed out that he wore both, and seemed to suggest that photo featured the Tank.

    I certainly didn’t want to use Crazy Andy as the lead photo….

  6. @Mitchell, cost of regular service for a Jaeger Le Coultre is $600. Thankfully only need it every 3-5 years or so. Your point is well taken, however. These baubles ain’t cheap!

  7. Greg Summers | November 17, 2017 at 3:02 pm |

    Tradly acceptable watch: Seiko SUP880:


  8. Nothing wrong with a Seiko, but I would encourage the selection of a Seiko that looks like an honest Seiko, not a plagiarized knockoff pretending to be something else.


  9. I have very little in the way of truly heirloom belongings, but three I keep to my heart. I inherited three of my most important possessions from my Grandfather and Father. From both, our name. From my Grandfather, his roll top desk. From my Father, his gold tank watch. I will proudly leave all three to my children, hopefully as honourable as when I received them.

    As an aside, my second child filled with me pride this morning, without her even knowing it. As the weather finally begins to turn chilly, she asked “Dad, have you seen my houndstooth scarf?” Considering what most of her peers wear, well, this made my day. At least I can say I’ve done one thing right to influence her.

  10. Cartier is a very finicky piece. I would not recommend anything other than the Tank Francaise for everyday use. Full servicing for my Roadster XL was $650. I’ve since shelved it for formal use only and even then pass it up. Purchases made by my younger self often embarrass my older self.My wife wears her Francaise often with little trouble; Quartz movement though.

    Warhol looks like a complete psychopath.

  11. “Crass display of materialism.” You would think this was a post on Breitlings and the other oversized lot favored by nouveau riche pirates and parvenu from the Far East.

  12. @James Kraus,

    Thanks to Lands End “plagiarism” those of us who can’t afford J.Press or Brooks Brothers are able to dress decently in OCBDs and Chinos.

  13. Goes without saying that wearing quality clothing calls for a quality watch. When you’ve bought your quality watch follow the advice an old horologist gave me years ago: don’t take the back off until it stops. He restored a basket case Seamaster for me in the early 80s that’s kept perfect time since without ever being touched. But my greatest watch love is for my Reverso, original size, and sported sporadically.

  14. The Tank is a beautiful an iconic watch, too bad the contemporary ones are mostly oversized, overpriced quartz. It’s often cheaper to get a vintage manual Tank which are much finer timepieces both asthecially an technically.
    On a sde note, I really don’t get the whole big watch trend, to me it most of looks just plain vulgar.

  15. A question for the community: Are dive watches preppy?

  16. Six degrees stuff here, but George Will is a fan of the tank.

    And, oh by the way, his penny loafer of choice?

    Alden 986, shell cordovan handsewn moc. Confirmed:


  17. I believe I saw that same picture of Gary Cooper at the Polo Mansion the other day. Always dashing.

  18. “Some upper-class devotees of the Cartier tank watch with the black lizard strap will argue that even a second hand compromises a watch’s class, implying as it may the wearer’s need for great accuracy, as if he were something like a professional timer of bus arrivals and departures.”

    Paul Fussell. Class. 1983

  19. Fussell is Funny.

  20. For those of you interested in the Seiko tank model, I suggest trolling eBay to get one from a few years ago. These have a slightly smaller, more traditional size case (I find the current model too large), and no gold dots around the face. They do come up from time-to-time. Handsome watches.

  21. Michael Brady | April 15, 2019 at 4:02 pm |

    In the seventies Cartier introduced a quartz, gold-filled case version of it’s famous Tank watch. These were very popular and the men’s store where I worked during college sold dozens of them. If I got the story right, Cartier had changed ownership at that time and this was adecision of the new management to make Cartier more approachable.

  22. It’s cool when you have a special message engraved on the back of the watch. Look up the engraving on the back of Jackie Kennedy’s watch. Or the engraving on the back of Paul Newman’s Rolex with Paul Newman’s wife, Joanne Woodward’s message: “Drive Carefully Me”.

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