The return of perfect fake Cartier Tank Asymétrique is just one symptom of a horological renaissance chez Cartier. For much of this century, Cartier dabbled in complicated, experimental watchmaking, rather pointedly ignoring its fabulous history of strong designs – but recently all that has changed.
Dating from 1936, the Tank Asymétrique was the final creation from a golden age of watch design at Cartier that began in 1904. This is the date from which Cartier replica can legitimately lay claim to having been one of the inventors of the wristwatch, when it made the Santos for the dapper little aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont, who used to pilot single-seater dirigibles around Belle Époque Paris.
What made the Santos different was that it was not a pocket watch (or, more usually, a ladies’ pendant watch) adapted for wear on the wrist, but was actually purpose-built. The so-called “shaped” (as opposed to round) case signified the modernity of the wristwatch and Cartier became the king of the shaped case. Before the First World War, it tried curvilinear with tonneau- and tortue-case shapes, but it was the new-fangled weaponry of the Great War that bequeathed the name to Cartier’s most enduring success: the straight-sided Tank. One of the great design classics not just among watches but among any object category, ipso facto it signified that the wearer was bang up to date, drove a Bugatti, appreciated the work of Picasso and Braque and listened to jazz.
Part of the strength of the Tank design proposition was its versatility: during the 1920s and 1930s it was variously interpreted, resulting in such classics as the Tank Cintrée (1921), Allongée (1922), Chinoise (1922), Rectangle (1926), Savonette (1926), à Guichets (1928), Étanche (1931), Basculante (1932) and Asymétrique (1936).
Of these, the Swiss quality replica Cartier Tank Asymétrique is one of the most esoteric – a parallelogram-shaped watch, it is almost as much of a geometry lesson as it is a timepiece – and its idiosyncratic shape accounts for its infrequent appearances. After its debut in the late 1930s at the tail end of the Art Deco period, it came back into fashion during the golden era of Cartier London during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Cartier’s London branch, which acted independently of the New York and Paris branches, went through a highly experimental, almost psychedelic phase with bold case shapes and exaggerated dial designs.
The best 1:1 copy Cartier Tank Asymétrique surfaced again in the Privé Collection – a brilliant initiative during the late 1990s and early 2000s – that revived the splendid designs of the early 20th century. The reintroduced Asymétrique was the three-lug version. This involved cutting the strap on the bias to fit the head of the watch – the third, middle lug providing extra stability on the wrist, particularly in the larger case sizes. Privé Collection models are sought-after at auction, but most people who own them tend to hang on to them, which is why, 20 years or so after it was last seen, the announcement of a new issue of this little-known Cartier classic (as part of the revived Privé Collection) is so welcome. A handsome triple-lug edition, it is further evidence that Cartier realises the value of its back catalogue of superb designs.