Truman Capote, author, once admonished a journalist during an interview for the watch he was wearing: "Take that ugly watch off your wrist, and put on that one," said Capote offering the Tank off his own wrist. Meeting protestations from the journalist in the face of such generosity, Capote remarked, "I beg you, keep it, I have at least seven at home."
The Cartier Tank, with its distinctive elongated square case, is recognisable to anyone with more than a passing interest in watches, and has a storied history that fewother timepieces can match. Past incarnations have been feted over by such diverse people as boxing legend Muhammad Ali, the pop artist Andy Warhol and the designer Yves Saint-Laurent, a noted collector of Tank watches. Silent film star Rudolph Valentino even wore his own Tank in 1921's The Sheik, a swords and sandals epic set in a desert blinded by glaring sandstorms of factual inaccuracy yet guided by the art of time.
That illustrious Cartier Tank history gained a new chapter on a wet July evening in Shanghai, at the Shanghai Exhibition Centre where 800 guests - including Andy Lau and Monica Bellucci - convened to witness the Asian launch of the Cartier Tank Anglaise, a new iteration of the established classic. "Few designs can give birth to entire books," says Pierre Rainero, the style director of Cartier, referring to the book by Franco Cologni; "The Tank is an iconic design and has been since the very first watch in 1917."
The Tank was created by Louis Cartier in 1917. He was said to have dreamt up the idea after seeing aerial photographs of military tanks in the first world war. Cartier created a watch with a squared-off case that evoked tank tracks, a schema that became more prominent when it was put together with a metal bracelet.
Since then, the Tank has gone through numerous iterations, or what Rainero calls an "evolution on the original design." Later models include the Tank Chinoise - inspired by the architecture of Chinese temples, the Tank Louis Cartier and the Tank Allongee; all collectors' items today. More recent iterations include the Tank Americaine (1989) and the Tank Francaise (1996) but all watches have a single design DNA running through them. "The evolution of design of the Tank is never whimsical; it goes together with the original intentions of the design to create the purest shape possible," says Rainero adding that successive Tank watches have to live up to the inherent Cartier principles of design. "The Tank watch, for us, is the purest shape ever created. It has 'essential design,' design that looks for the essence of things. We don't like useless décor but we are not just talking about function. The features, a sense of proportion, the volume, and colours, everything is considered and everything belongs where it should."
The Tank Anglaise follows in the innovative traditions of the earliest Tank watches by hiding its crown in the vertical brancards that sit parallel on the case and give the distinctive shape to the watch. Though the crown is hidden, the signature Cartier precious stone that caps the crown is slightly revealed. The rounded edges of the case are a tribute to Cartier watches made in London after the second world war, and particularly the 1960's.
Rainero admits that communicating such an evocative story can be challenging, particularly in the emerging markets of Asia where consumers are bombarded by luxury retail promotions. Still, Rainero stresses that the Tank Anglaise, alongside the Tank Americaine and Tank Francaise, completes the homage to Cartier's three historical boutiques in Paris, London and New York. No doubt Capote had at least one Tank from each.