Ultimate Guide To Vintage Cartier Watches (Everything To Know)
Cartier, a brand that needs no introduction, was founded in 1847 by Louis-François Cartier and quickly became a favorite among royalty and the wealthy elite. Over the years, Cartier has crafted absolute masterpieces – definitions of style and panache – adorned with gems, precious metals, and intricate designs.
Cartier’s signature style is unmistakable; elegant lines, clean designs, and iconic shapes. The brand’s most well-known watches, the Tank and the Santos are certified classics and are beloved among celebrities, royals, and aristocrats the world over. It’s a simple truth that one can’t think of a quadrilateral wristwatch without confronting the image of a Cartier.
In this ultimate guide, we’ll explore the history of Cartier, from its modest Parisian start to its modern-day stylistic dominance, delving into the intricacies of some of the brand’s vintage timepieces. Whether you are a seasoned collector or just beginning your journey into the world of vintage watches, this guide will provide you with everything you need to know.
From Pilots to Princesses – The Endless Allure of Cartier
Cartier watches have been worn by some of the most influential figures of the past century, from aviators to royalty. Cartier can make the stunning (and surprising) claim of having produced the first-ever dedicated pilot’s watch (more on that shortly) as well as having supplied multiple royals with suitably elegant timepieces.
Princess Diana was a notable wearer of Cartier watches, whose enduring admiration for the humble Cartier Tank was a well-known aspect of her style. Another fan of the simple Tank, John F. Kennedy, could often be seen wearing his. Likewise, Madonna’s Panthere and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Santos are undoubtedly watches that speak to and for the character of their owners – uniquely stylistic pieces that combine classic design elements with modern innovation, resulting in an effortlessly enduring product.
The only Cartier is, quite clearly, Cartier. Nothing else even comes close, and that’s why so many people have chosen the brand’s watches as their daily accompaniment for over a century.
A History of Cartier – The Tradition of Style
Cartier is one of the most respected and recognizable luxury brands in the world of watches, but it hasn’t always been so. Established in Paris in 1847, Cartier made its start as a bespoke jeweler under its founder, Louis-Francois Cartier, before eventually expanding into the world of high-end timepieces and, indeed, taking that world by storm thanks to the efforts of Louis’s enterprising grandchildren.
One of Cartier’s earliest and most famous watch designs is the Santos de Cartier, created in 1904 for the Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont. This innovative watch was designed to be worn while flying, with a leather strap that was more comfortable than the metal bracelets of the time.
The Santos also featured a square case, which was a bold departure from the ubiquitous round cases of the early 20th century. This four-sided design ethos would carry forward to the present day as a signature element of Cartier’s most highly renowned watches.
Shortly after creating the Santos wristwatch, Cartier signed an agreement with Edmond Jaeger (yes, that Jaeger) to supply all of the company’s movements exclusively. So began Cartier’s pursuit of commercial horological success, and in the 1920s, the company introduced another profoundly iconic watch.
The Cartier Tank was inspired by a birds-eye perspective of the design of tanks in World War I and featured a clean, simple rectangular case that quickly became a symbol of sophistication, minimalism, and style. Over the years, the Tank has been updated and refined, but it remains one of the world’s most identifiable and enduring watch designs and a signature part of the Cartier catalog.
Cartier’s success was propelled almost exclusively by the Tank for years until the 1930s when the brand began considering different styles and designs inspired by the one-off creation of the first ‘Pasha’, a timepiece made for the Pasha of Marrakesh. Known for its oversized case, screw-down crown, and distinctive Arabic numerals, the Pasha became a symbol of luxury and sophistication upon its public release decades later, adding a dimension of boldness and unabashed charm to Cartier’s visual identity.
In the 1980s, Cartier introduced the ‘Panthere’ watch, a distinctly-80s women’s timepiece designed to capture the spirit of the brand’s iconic panther motif. The watch featured a square case with a diamond-set bezel and a flexible bracelet representing a panther’s agility and grace. The Panthere watch was a hit among discerning ladies and remains a pleasantly obscure favorite to this day.
Cartier has continued to innovate and push the boundaries of watch design in recent years, exploring new materials such as carbon fiber with great fanfare. However, the attraction of the brand’s flagship designs is still the driving force behind Cartier and certainly represents the ideal version of Cartier’s watches, hence why we’re focussing on the company’s vintage offerings here.
Notable Vintage Cartier Watches
Since its public release in 1911, seven years after Louis Cartier created the first model for his friend, Alberto Santos-Dumont, the Santos line has become a key part of Cartier’s catalog and may well be the brand’s most popular watch among men.
Traditionally masculine features such as a square face and a prominent bezel are key attributes of the Santos. But, of course, Cartier has done things their way, rounding the edges of the case and creating a frame-like bezel with exposed screws. These subtle changes place the Santos in a singular realm of design; strong yet soft, conclusive yet fluid.
The most notable version of the Santos is the Cartier Santos Dumont, the longest-running iteration of the design and, thus, the closest to the original watch. These can be found with both quartz and automatic movements in steel, gold, and two-tone finishes. As with all the Santos variations, the Dumont looks best on a bracelet. Trust me.
Another strong contender for the most attractive vintage Santos is the Santos Galbee, which was released in the 1980s. Cartier’s response to the quartz crisis, the Galbee (which means ‘curved’ in French), is a touch more bowed than previous models, hugging the wrist with its slightly arching profile. For this reason, the Galbee is generally considered the most comfortable Santos, a claim I wholeheartedly agree with!
The Tank is quite obviously the most iconic member of the Cartier watch family. Its simple design and universal wearability make it a celebrated timepiece – a rectangular-shaped case, and gently rounded form have become definitive elements of horological culture since the Tank’s creation in 1917.
The brancard case sides are not only frames for the dial but lugs as well, and it is this transition from frame to lug that defines the minimal personality of the Tank. Like most Cartier watches, the Tank is traditionally adorned with Roman numerals, so expect to see a lot of Xs and Vs during your search for the right one.
The Tank Louis Cartier was the second generation of this classic timepiece (the first being the Tank Normale) and, thus, remains a highly sought-after and respected watch that certainly has a place in every collection.
The Must De Cartier Tank was introduced in the ‘70s as a more affordable entry into the brand, with either an ETA or quartz movement and a reductively plain face. Although the Tank Must can be found with a variety of dial designs, the single-colored variations are the most definitive of this model and, if you ask me, the most beautiful.
Finally, the Asymetrique is perhaps the most daring version of the Tank, having turned heads with its slanted appearance since 1936. The Asymetrique is certainly an acquired taste, given its off-center design, but this watch is an absolute icon in the world of fashion and haute horology.
What makes the Ronde De Cartier range different from most Cartier watches is obvious – these timepieces are round. The fact that, like most watches, the design of the Ronde case is circular doesn’t detract at all from the stark Cartier-ness of these tickers.
The Cartier Ronde Must, a highly affordable steel design that’s available with either a quartz or automatic heart, is Cartier’s most approachable watch. Fret not – the dial, blue hands, and blue stone crown all define this watch as a Cartier, even if it doesn’t have four sides.
As with the Tank collection, there is a Ronde Louis Cartier, which represents a higher-end version of the Ronde Must, with an automatic movement, rose gold case, and blue sapphire crown. Like the Ronde Must, the Louis Cartier is available in altogether approachable sizes, with the most common being the 36mm.
First seen in a watercolor painting made for Louis Cartier in 1914 (which would go on to become Cartier’s main symbol), Cartier’s favorite cat would eventually (inevitably, some would say) lend its name to the brand’s seminal unisex release. Studded with diamonds and produced in smaller sizes, the Panthere line was unveiled in 1983 and represents the merging of Cartier’s jewelry and horological pursuits.
Reminiscent of a smaller, more feminine Santos Dumont, the Panthere line is defined by a riveted, square bezel, Roman numerals, a faceted octagonal crown, and a five-piece link bracelet.
From its introduction, the Panthere was made available in 5 sizes, mini, small, medium, large, and jumbo. Note that although jumbo brings to mind images of building-sized trucks and human head-sized burgers, the Panthere Jumbo maxes out at a dainty 31mm. Hardly the wrist-eating watch that its size descriptor alludes to.
Although they’re available in steel and all-gold, it’s the two-tone Panthere that has caught the eyes and hearts of most Cartier enthusiasts, and I certainly think that the dual-metal finish is the most attractive. If you’re particularly interested in the Panthere and have some scratch to spend, look out for the coveted Moonphase model in 18k white gold – it’s one of the most gorgeous watches you’ll ever see.
Should You Buy a Vintage Cartier?
I know – it’s hard not to be captivated by the idea of a Cartier on the wrist of a cooler, classier version of you. But before you take the plunge and make a brash, costly purchase, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons of buying a vintage watch.
On the one hand, vintage Cartiers are a testament to the brand’s history and heritage, given that they exhibit a unique charm that simply can’t be replicated by modern timepieces. They also often feature vintage movements made by some of the most talented watchmakers of the time, rendering them tangible vestiges of Cartier’s illustrious past.
However, these timepieces also come with their fair share of demerits. Being vintage means that whatever you’re buying will have been through years of wear (and tear), and it can be difficult to determine the true condition of an item without the help of an expert.
Additionally, many vintage Cartier watches will have been subtly modified or repaired by unauthorized hands over the years, which can greatly impact their value and authenticity. Ultimately, whether or not you should buy a vintage Cartier depends on your individual preferences and risk tolerance.
If you’re willing to take the time to research and verify the authenticity and condition of a vintage Cartier (which you should definitely do), it can be one of the most rewarding purchases you’ll ever make. However, if you’re not comfortable with the potential risks and uncertainties, it may be better to opt for a modern timepiece instead.
‘Old’ is the New ‘New’
Just as we know the sun rises in the morning, so too do we accept that no collection can be truly complete without a Cartier. With their timeless elegance and rich history, vintage Cartiers offer a uniquely storied glimpse into the world of luxury watchmaking.
Although purchasing one requires careful consideration and research to ensure its authenticity and value, it’s a quest worth embarking on if you’re after an incomparable timepiece. After all, a Cartier never goes out of style.
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