Cartier Watches for Men: A Brief History and Guide to the Most Iconic Models

Cartier Watches for Men: A Brief History and Guide to the Most Iconic Models

Once dubbed “The King of Jewelers and the Jeweler of Kings” by no less a personage than King Edward VII of England, Cartier is regarded by many watch aficionados as a jewelry house first and a watchmaker second — and a watchmaker prone to feminine, jewel-bedecked watches at that. Historically, however, nothing could be further from the truth. Cartier’s horological roots run even deeper than its high-jewelry history, and the French-Swiss luxury powerhouse has contributed some of the most historic and influential watch designs in the world, many of them aimed at men long before their appeal expanded to women. 

Family Foundations 

Louis-Francois CartierLouis-Francois Cartier (above, 1819-1904) apprenticed under master watchmaker Adolphe Piccard before founding his eponymous company, at the age of 28, in Piccard’s Parisian workshop in 1847. As Cartier’s watches and jewelry found widespread success, and an esteemed client list that included royalty like Princess Mathilde, cousin of Napoleon III, the firm moved to more luxurious quarters in the Palais-Royal District and eventually to the current world headquarters at 13 Rue de la Paix. Louis-Francois passed the reins of the growing company to his son Alfred in 1874, and Alfred brought in his sons to succeed him toward the end of the 19th Century.

Cartier Mansion NYC

It was this third generation of family ownership, under brothers Pierre, Jacques, and Louis Cartier, that truly catapulted Cartier from the boundaries of France to the world stage. While Jacques was traveling the world to establish outposts and relationships, and Pierre was setting up the world-famous Fifth Avenue shop in New York City (above), Louis, an aesthete who nurtured a love of Islamic and Far Eastern Art, became the primary creative force behind Cartier’s most iconic watches, most notably the Santos, the Tank, and the Pasha. His hand-picked Creative Director, Jeanne Toussaint (nicknamed “Panther”), contributed nearly as many innovative designs on the jewelry side, establishing the Panther as the maison’s key symbol, used in bracelets, brooches, and eventually timepieces. In the 1920s, Cartier entered into partnerships with some of Switzerland’s top horological firms, including Audemars Piguet, Jaeger-LeCoultre, and Vacheron Constantin, to produce movements for Cartier watches.

Pierre, Louis, Jacques, Alfred Cartier

Family ownership of Cartier came to an end in 1964, with the death of Pierre Cartier and the decision by the heirs of Pierre, Louis, and Jacques (pictured above, with their father Alfred Cartier) to sell the company, which had split into three separate entities in Paris, New York and London. In 1979, the Cartier companies were reunited as “Cartier Monde,” with South African businessman Anton Rupert holding a majority stake. After a series of labyrinthine corporate maneuverings over the next several years, Anton’s son Johann Rupert founded the Richemont Group in Switzerland, with Cartier as its crown jewel, in 1988, eventually adding more than a dozen other luxury watchmakers and a handful of jewelers to the stable. Today, in addition to being one of the world’s most successful jewelry houses, Cartier is the second largest Swiss watch brand in the world in terms of revenue, much of whose success can be traced to the watch collections explored in detail below.

Santos de Cartier: First in Flight

Alberto Santos-Dumont

The first men’s wristwatch, and the first watch built for aviation, traces its origins to the friendship between two historical figures: Cartier heir and creative dynamo Louis Cartier and Alberto Santos-Dumont (above), a Brazilian-born aviation pioneer and social bon vivant, known for flying his steerable balloons over the rooftops of Paris. In 1904, Santos-Dumont lamented to Louis about the difficulty of keeping both of his hands on the controls of his aircraft while also checking the time on his pocket watch. Keeping track of the time was crucial in the early and very competitive days of aviation, which were all about setting and breaking time and speed records, but wearing a watch on one’s wrist, a more practical solution for an aviator, was still considered feminine by gentlemen of the era. The wrist-borne timekeeper that Cartier made in 1904, which inspired today’s Santos collection, addressed Santos-Dumont’s concerns while also offering an avant-garde, stylish look that suited the aviator’s alpha-male reputation. Basing its design on a square-cased pocket watch that he’d previously made, and equipping it with a Jaeger caliber, Louis mounted the watch on a leather strap and added elements inspired by the Art Deco style popular at the time, as well as subtle distinctions that defined it as Parisian, like the exposed screws of the rounded-square bezel that evoke the rivets of the Eiffel Tower, and the radiating Roman hour numerals that legend has it were inspired by a street map of Paris. The Santos has grown into an expansive product family in the modern era, though all the models still retain the original’s signature elements, including the square bezel with visible screws, Roman numeral hour track, and elegant sword hands.

Cartier Santos de Cartier

Most evocative of Cartier’s (and the world’s) first men’s wristwatch are the Santos-Dumont models, which are understated in size, at a 33.9mm x 31.4mm diameter, and can be outfitted with quartz, hand-wound mechanical, or automatic movements. The softly squared bezel features the emblematic exposed screws but not the shoulder-like crown guards that add heft to the larger Santos de Cartier pieces (above). Santos de Cartier watches start at 35.1mm for the “Medium” model, go to 39.8mm for the “Large” version and top out at 43.3mm for the “Extra Large.” 

Cartier Santos Chronograph

Cartier has supplemented the three-hand-date Santos models with the Santos Chronograph (above), available in all rose gold, two-tone yellow gold and steel, and steel and black DLC and draws its inspiration from the devices that Santos-Dumont would have used to time his flight speed records in the 1900s. The cases are Large (35.1 mm x 45.9 mm) or Extra Large (39.8 mm x 47.5 mm), with an ergonomic shape that incorporates a single start-stop chronograph pusher at 9 o’clock and a zero-reset reset button directly integrated into the crown. The dial’s familiar Roman hour numerals and sword hands are joined by three subdials at 3, 6 , and 9 o’clock and a date window at 6 o’clock.

Cartier Santos Skeleton Microrotor

Cartier unveiled the newest version of the Santos Skeleton at Watches & Wonders 2023, which pays the most direct visual tribute yet to the model’s aviation origins. Distinguishing the watch from previous Skeleton models is the intricately sculpted microrotor that winds the new Caliber 9629 MC; visible from the front side through the sapphire dial, it is designed to replicate the Demoiselle, an early airplane that Santos-Dumont invented in 1907, flying over a globe. 

Tank: Icon from the Battlefield

Cartier TankLouis Cartier created the Tank watch in 1917, deriving its rectangular, curvilinear case shape as well as its name from the Renault FT-17 tank, a French military vehicle used during the First World War. Perhaps fittingly, the recipient of the first prototype Cartier Tank watch was U.S. General John “Black Jack” Pershing, a commander of the Allied forces. Taking some cues from the Santos, the Tank, which made its commercial debut in 1917 and exploded in popularity in the 1920s, was like no men’s watch that had been seen before, and one of the watch world’s most enduring examples of the era’s Art Deco aesthetic influences: a rectangular ring of Roman hour numerals, an interior rectangular minute track, blued sword hands, and a beaded winding crown with a blue sapphire cabochon. Its appeal extended to the silver screen, where Rudolph Valentino wore one in the 1926 film The Son of the Sheik, and decades later to the halls of power in Washington, DC, where President John F. Kennedy and his style-icon wife Jacqueline were both photographed wearing Tanks.

Cartier Tank Francaise

The Tank remains Cartier’s most emblematic and recognizable timepiece and has proven to be one of the watch world’s most enduring unisex designs. now in a variety of iterations all paying some sort of homage to the original. The original “Tank Normale” finds its most direct descendant in the modern Tank Francaise, housing the Cartier in-house Caliber MC 1853 in its “Large” version (36.5mm by 28.15mm), and defined by a case with curved, rounded brancards and a deep-set, faceted crown; as of 2023, the Tank Francaise is offered on a smoothly integrated bracelet. 

Cartier Tank Americaine

The Tank Americaine debuted in 1989; its distinctive case shape, with a flat back and a curving, domed front, takes many of its stylistic cues from the early Tank Cintrée models, which were first seen in 1919, just a few years after the first Tank debuted, and featured a curving caseback as well as a domed front. Both the Tank Americaine and its ancestor, the Cintrée (the latter was resurrected as a special edition in the Cartier Privé series in 2019) are recognizable by their elongated rectangular cases and dials. The Small models measure 34.8mm by 19mm in diameter and 7.09mm thick; Mediums are 41.6mm by 22.6mm and 9.65mm thick; and Large Tank Americaines are 45.1mm by 26.6mm and 9.84mm thick. Small models have quartz movements; Medium and Large feature automatic movements.  Cartier Tank Must

The Tank Must is considered the “entry level” Tank and derives its name and styling from a series of Tank models that Cartier released in the 1970s, which were remembered for their colorful lacquered dials with a minimalist aesthetic, i.e., just a simple pair of sword hands for the hour and minute, sans Roman numeral markers or the rectangular chemin-de-fer minute track. Several of the modern Tank Must pieces carry on that tradition today: the Small models, at 29.5mm by 22mm, contain quartz movements and are mounted on shiny leather straps color-coordinated with the dials. The Large watches, with a more traditional Tank dial, are 33.7mm by 25.5mm and also equipped with a quartz caliber. Only the Extra-Large (41mm x 31mm) Tank Must timepieces carry the automatic Caliber 1847 MC, and also feature the classic dial with Roman numerals, blued sword hands, and the hallmark flinqué guilloché pattern in the dial’s center. 

Pasha de Cartier: Waterproof Royalty

Cartier Pasha - vintage

In the early 1930s, several decades after the invention of the Santos, another request from another wealthy and stylish patron led to another immortal Cartier creation. The Sultan (or “Pasha”) of Marrakech, Thami El Glaoul, approached Louis Cartier about making for him a watch that was elegant enough to wear while hosting state dinners and performing other royal duties but also water-resistant enough to wear while basking in the palace swimming pool. Cartier’s solution, regarded as the maison’s first waterproof watch, was a timepiece that used a repurposed gold case from an existing Tank model whose crown screwed shut with the aid of a crown cap attached to a small chain, and which featured a protective grill over the dial and crystal. The Pasha was exiled from the throne in the 1950s and the fate of this first Pasha watch remains a mystery. Cartier liked its innovative design, however, and the Pasha (vintage model pictured above, via Christie's) entered the commercial collection in 1943. Later, in 1985, Cartier enlisted none other than Gérald Genta, legendary designer of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and Patek Philippe Nautilus, to reimagine the Pasha as a watch with a round case and dial offset by a quirky, square minute track inside the decorative Arabic hour numerals, an emblematic design that lives on in the modern Pasha family, which was revamped most recently in 2020, with new in-house calibers and a skeletonized version.

 Cartier Pasha de Cartier group

The base Pasha de Cartier is a three-handed watch with diamond-shaped blue hands on a silver flinqué dial and a fluted crown cap, linked to the miniature chain, with a synthetic blue spinel. Sizes range from 30mm in diameter to 35mm to 41mm in the largest incarnations. As with other models, the smallest model uses a quartz movement, while the two larger sizes both contain the automatic Caliber 1847 MC. 

Cartier Pasha Chronograph

The Pasha de Cartier Chronograph (above), equipped with the in-house chronograph Caliber 1904-CH MC gives a utilitarian nod to the model’s aquatic roots with its unidirectional dive-scale bezel and adds three subdials at 3, 6, and 8 o’clock, as well as subtle 4:30 date window, to the classic Pasha dial, dispensing with the squared inner minute track and leaving only the stylized Arabic numeral “12” to balance out the chronographic elements. Cartier has grown the Pasha family briskly since its 2020 reboot; in addition to the Chronograph models and the three-hand Pasha Skeleton, Cartier has added a Moon Phases model and, at the highest echelon of high horology, a Skeleton Flying Tourbillon.

Ballon Bleu de Cartier: Well Rounded Elegance

Cartier Ballon Bleu Automatic

The Ballon Bleu series is one of Cartier’s youngest in terms of longevity — the first models launched in 2007 — but its popularity has already grown to the point where it accounts for a significant portion of annual sales; by one estimate, Ballon Bleu would be the fourth-largest watch brand in the world if it was removed from the portfolio to stand on its own. The case of the Ballon Bleu, while more conventional than those of the Santos or Tank, is not technically round, but more pebble-shaped, with a slightly bulging, sloped crown guard on the right that protects the beaded crown with the blue sapphire cabochon (“blue balloon”) that lends the model its name. The guilloché-motif dials have a radiating Roman numeral hour ring and interior minute track similar to those of the Tank but more rounded for the dial’s contours. Being a 21st-Century addition to the collection, Ballon Bleu models are all equipped with in-house Cartier movements and range in diameter all the way from 26mm to 42mm, in both steel and precious metals. The Ballon Bleu Automatic (above) is the most elegant, particularly in this blue-dialed version that plays on the azure hue of the cabochon for a monochromatic appeal, but the extended Ballon Bleu family also encompasses moon-phases, chronographs, and a flying tourbillon, not to mention the various female-targeted models that add precious stones to the mix — a trait of all the collections covered here, actually, and one that further cements Cartier as a watchmaker that is truly devoted to meeting the desires of both its male and female clientèle. 

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