If you were asked to think of a pilot’s watch, chances are the first thing that springs to mind is something like the chunky oversized frame of a Breitling or the boxy utilitarian stylings of an IWC. That’s because the very first pilot’s watch, created in 1904 by Louis Cartier for his friend, Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont, bears little resemblance to the designs we associate with the style.
Small, with barely legible Roman numerals and a crown that would have been very hard pressed to be used with gloves on, it has more in common with today’s dress styles – yet it was a watch that not only revolutionised wristwatch history, it put Cartier on the map.
Cartier’s story started over half a century earlier, in 1847. Its jewellery was worn by the crème of Parisian society as well as royalty – but it wasn’t until Louis Francois was succeeded by his sons, Louis, Pierre and Jacques, that the business went global. They opened stores in London and New York, and it wasn’t long before every royal worth their crest was wearing pieces designed by Cartier.
This global presence – and a canny ability to spot burgeoning trends – influenced Cartier’s watch design. When Louis designed the timepiece for his friend, wristwatches were seen as a daring statement; items worn by women, while men used pocket watches. Cartier was a major influence in convincing Parisian society that an adventurous, dynamic gentleman – rather than being hindered by a pocket watch – would benefit from a wristwatch, too.
While Europe was mired in the drudgery of WWI, Louis Cartier found time to design another 20th century icon – the Tank. As the name suggests, its design – severe square inside a rectangle case – was inspired by the vehicle of the same name; more specifically an innovative Renault tank used by the French. It remains one of Cartier’s most enduring successes. Worn by a roster of famous names from Andy Warhol (who never wound his, wearing it purely as a status symbol) to Jacqueline Kennedy, Princess Diana and Fred Astaire. Its design has been tweaked over the years – the softer Anglaise; sporty Francaise; curved, elongated form of the Americaine; the masculine Tank MC – but it has never been out of the collection.
Always a brand able to anticipate a fashion moment, Cartier responded to the exaggerated design language of the 1960s, unveiling the Crash in 1967. Rumour has it that its melted form was inspired by a watch taken from an actual car crash, its case distorted by the heat of the blaze; later it was mistakenly renamed the Dali watch and wrongly attributed to the artist. Whatever its origin, it was a construct like no other and the beginning of Cartier’s experimentation with watch-case shapes – the house went on to fill its collections with a confection of forms from exaggerated ovals like the Baignoire to the squared circle of the Tortue and the slinky-braceleted Panthere.
Historically, the movements for Cartier’s mechanical watches were provided by the likes of Piaget and Jaeger-LeCoultre until, in the early Noughties, it set up a huge Manufacture in La Chaux-de-Fonds. Watchmaking prodigy Carole Forestier-Kasapi was appointed director of movement creation and set about making some seriously insane timepieces: flying tourbillons, mystery watches (for which the movement is made from sapphire crystal so as to appear invisible) and beautifully rendered moonphases, as well as creating its own in-house movements.
Cartier’s fine-jewellery prowess has also led to some of the most remarkable jewellery watches too. Cartier’s spirit animal, the panther, has its paws all over these, appearing on dials as a mosaic head or rendered in tiny gold balls that appear and disappear as the wrist moves. Its lithe form is transformed into bracelets, with claws obscuring dials or hiding them in its mouth.
Like everything Cartier does, such designs are shot through with a sense of fun – a constant reminder, perhaps, that time should never be taken too seriously.
Yes, the Tank is the classic Cartier but the revamped Cartier de Panthère is the smart choice. Its bracelet, with the brick-like links, is ridiculously smooth (no impromptu arm waxes here), while the soft edges combined with the curved lugs and case adds to the overall sense of a panther’s tail coiling seductively around your wrist. Keep it simple in steel or go full big cat and opt for onyx and gold.