I’ll begin by saying this: Cartier Replica deserves your respect. In fact, I would say that Cartier is one of three Richemont-owned watchmakers that are pushing things forward in a major way yet do not receive the mass approval of horological enthusiasts because of historical positioning (the other two being Piaget – just wait ’til you see what they plan to announce on December 5th – and Montblanc, who is slowly but surely converting more than a few purists). Cartier is an impressive company, and one that I think will be a true force in the high-end watchmaking world for years to come, and it’s about time people wake up to just what Cartier is doing.
Now I don’t want to pretend for a second that Cartier is deserving of any pity or sympathy. I it’s not like I’m comparing Cartier to someone like Laurent Ferrier, Roger Smith, or the Grönefelds (all three also deserving of more praise for what they do) because that would be foolish. Cartier is a veritable powerhouse brand, on par with and perhaps even surpassing the global reach of a brand like Rolex. But there is a reason that Cartier has been able to gain such a foothold with watch buyers of the 20th century, and there is a reason why I fully expect to own a Cartier timepiece within the next three years. They have tremendous resources, a world-class watchmaker at the helm, and arguably the greatest design DNA of any watchmaker around.
Today, I will be reviewing a watch that is part of Cartier’s in-house, but commercially oriented family: the Calibre de Cartier Chronograph. This watch, and the entire Calibre family, sits well above those ETA-powered Tanks and Roadsters that seemed to come in the mail with samples of Tide if you lived in the suburbs of any major coastal city. The Calibre family, including the original Calibre de Cartier time-only (from 2010), the Calibre de Cartier Chronograph (2013) and the Calibre de Cartier Diver (last year) all use excellent manufacture movements, and in my opinion offer a ton of technical points in a package that is extremely well thought through. But, before we get to this chronograph from Cartier today, it’s important to understand first why Cartier matters. And it matters – a lot.
The Earliest Commercial Wristwatch
Though a widely known fact, I am compelled to bring up Cartier’s role in popularizing the wristwatch as a thing. What I mean is that while bracelet watches date back to the time of Caroline of Naples in 1810 (original order in Breguet archives seen here) or the time of the Hungarian Princess in 1868, should you be more of a Patek lover, those really were bracelets that happened to tell time, whereas the wristwatch as we know it today is barely 100 years old. This is something that is lost on many – the wristwatch isn’t but maybe four generations old, and could be, in the grand scheme of things, a flash in the pan. Still, without Cartier, there is no flash at all.
Louis Cartier, the man behind much of this legendary mark’s earliest successes, had already made a name for himself as a jeweler in the late 1800s, and there are pocket watches shown in Cartier’s registry all the way back to 1853. Just for comparison’s sake, that’s just two years after Patek & Cie became Patek, Philippe, & Cie. But Cartier came into its own as an important watchmaker in 1904, when Louis Cartier was approached by his friend, famed aviator and bon vivant Albert Santos-Dumont. Dumont was a playboy by nature, a pilot by trade, and he told his friend Cartier that he simply needed quicker access to his watch, which he was forced to pull out of his pocket mid-flight. And so, it was in 1904 that Santos-Dumont would take flight with a watch on his wrist – but not a converted pocket watch, an actual wristwatch.
The Santos-Dumont was designed by Louis Cartier with a geometric form: rounded corners and harmoniously shaped joints that converged towards the strap. This was vastly different than most watches of the day, which, if able to be worn on the wrist at all, were simply large pocket watches retrofitted by soldering lugs to the case. Dumont’s love for his Cartier wristwatch was so profound that by 1911, Louis Cartier decided to commercialize the product he made for his friend.
But even before we get to Cartier commercializing wristwatches, I want to bring this up: there was a contract signed back in 1907 that I think says a lot about Cartier’s foresight and ambition. It was in this year, some time before the likes of Patek or Vacheron would choose to make a complicated wristwatch, that Cartier signed a terms sheet with Edmond Jaeger to gain the rights to all of his complicated mechanisms. This means that Cartier would be able, down the line, to create calendar watches, chronographs, and even minute repeaters. The movements would end up being built by LeCoultre (as Jaeger and LeCoultre would become close allies before officially merging). We’ll come back to the result of this partnership with Jaeger in the next section, but suffice to say, it worked out quite well for everybody. This was in 1907, people!
After the 1911 launch of the Santos-Dumont wristwatch, the next big step in Cartier’s prodigal history of wrist-bound timekeeping would take place in 1917, when the world would first lay eyes on the Tank. The story goes that Louis Cartier designed the Tank during the First World War after being inspired by the horizontal mid-section of a Renault tank. The first tank produced was presented to General John Pershing, the commander of the U.S. Expeditionary Forces in Europe at the time. Its design was stark, industrial, and formal. The tank is both a square and a rectangle at once, with joints built into the case, and a strap connected to the case under the sharp, flat vertical bezel. The world simply hadn’t seen anything like it. 1917 was also the same year that Cartier would move into its now historic home, 653 Fifth Avenue in New York City. The Gilded Age mansion was acquired in trade for a string of Cartier pearls and $100. 1917 was a good year to be Cartier.
The Legend Of The Tank(s)
When one speaks of watches that have truly transcended things that chumps like me write about on blogs into cultural icons at large, there is a very small handful of timepieces that can be mentioned: the Rolex Day-Date, the Submariner, and possibly the Speedmaster. But one that surely has been more successful than most at attracting the eye of not only collectors, but also actual historical luminaries is the Cartier Tank. The list of its owners is second to none, and there was a wonderful piece on it in Vanity Fair some years back worth reading. Princess Diana, Jackie Kennedy, Elton John, Grace Kelly, Andy Warhol, Warren Beatty, and even first lady Michelle Obama in her official portrait were just some of the luminaries to own the Tank, and its position in pop culture and fashion history can simply not be overstated.
There are countless variations of the Tank, and I will not begin to cover them all. Instead, I will highlight some of the most interesting and iconic so you have an understanding of the entire family.
The Cintree / Tank Américaine
Originally dubbed the Cintrée, this thin, elongated case first seen in 1921 mimics the human wrist. In 1989, Cartier re-introduced this case shape under the nomenclature Tank Américaine, named as such because this watch is believed to live somewhere between a formal and casual setting. In other words, a very “American” way of being, according to Cartier. The Tank Américaine is still in production today and early/rare examples are highly sought after.
The Tank Basculante
I bet you’ve seen one of these before, thought it was cool, but didn’t know it had a name or its own following. The Tank Basculante was first patented in 1932, and its fold-over case make it one of the most interesting of all Tanks.
The Tank Oblique
This is one of my favorite of all vintage Cartier pieces. The Tank Oblique dates to 1963 and features a slightly rotated dial. But it’s more than just the dial, it’s as if someone pulled the upper right hand corner higher and the case stretched into a parallelogram. There has been a re-make or two of these and I happen to think they make excellent dress watches.
The Tank Française
This is the one you all know, and well, likely don’t really love. It was launched in 1996, and is surely one of Cartier’s most iconic designs. Still, if there was one absolutely ubiquitous Cartier timepiece, it’s the Tank Française. It’s beautiful, (relatively) affordable, and a true icon, but at best, ETA-powered, at worst, quartz. ‘Nuff said.
The Louis Cartier Tank (Tank LC)
First shown in 1922, the Tank LC (Louis Cartier) was designed as the “ultimate watchmaker’s manifesto of elegance and timelessness.” In 2012, Cartier showed a redesigned Tank LC with ultra-slim case proportions and lovely Piaget mechanical movement called the XL Slimline. It remains one of my favorite Tanks of today. They’ve also skeletonized the Tank LC and the result is just stunning.
The Tank Anglaise
The Tank Anglaise, introduced in 2012, followed up the Française and Americaine by providing a sportier, bulkier Tank dedicated to the Brits. But, what they got right with it is the use of the 1904-MC movement that is the base of the Calibre family, including the chronograph I will (eventually) be reviewing down below.
The Tank MC
The Tank MC, or “Manufacture Cartier,” we assume, is the latest in the Tank line. It is a new case design and again uses the 1904-MC movement. It was shown to journalists in the summer of 2013 and hit stores a few months after. It is, again, a larger, even more modern take on the modern tank and its legacy still hasn’t been written.
Now you have a good idea about all the different tanks, and many of them are highly collectible in their own right. The original Obliques, Basculantes, and Cintrées are especially sought after, and can command fantastic prices. But collecting Cartier doesn’t end there, and while there are certainly two clear pinnacles in the world of watch collecting – Patek Philippe and Rolex – if there were to be a third, it would be Cartier.
There are a few reasons for this: the first is that still, today, like Patek and Rolex, Cartier is very much a valuable name that garners tremendous respect from consumers. Second, Cartier was a jeweler and designer first, and watchmaker second – so what you end up with are timepieces that look simply like nothing else out there. Third, vintage Cartier pieces are rare. It’s hard to believe now, but according to Franco Cologni’s “Cartier: The Tank Watch,” between 1910 and 1960, Cartier made just 1804 Tanks in all. In the earliest years, Cartier was making less than a dozen Tanks per, and at no point until 1960 did yearly production cross 100 pieces. And those are the simple Tanks, that doesn’t speak to how rare the complicated pieces are.
Here, for example, is a Cartier Tortue Minute Repeater dating to 1929. It sold at Antiquorum for over 900,000 Swiss Franc, over 12 years ago!
Here is a single-button Tortue chronograph from the 30s that brought in over SFR 80,000 in the year 2000, and here’s one that brought in over 100,000 back in 1993! The complicated Tortue watches are rarified air in the collecting world, and frankly, if I could find a set of more recent examples of results, I’d show them to you. But that shows just how uncommon and desirable these pieces are – once they go into collections, they do not leave.
And then there is the Crash. The Crash is another piece that is so well known, so iconic, and so special that it’s almost superfluous to mention as something collectible because everyone knows the full story, right? Wrong. Ninety-nine percent of the Crash watches that you see day-to-day are re-makes. The original piece, which dates to 1967, is something truly special – it is much larger than you’d think, and incredibly uncommon. In fact, the watch seen above was sold by Matthew Bain in Miami last year, and a long-time employee of his told me that it was the first and only example of the original he’d ever seen for sale. Bain sold his for above $100,000. Then, another example came up for auction at Christie’s in London in a jewelry auction with an estimate of between £6,000 and £8,000. It sold for £80,500, or over $130,000. In 1991, Cartier showed incredible foresight by re-releasing the Crash in a limited edition and even those pieces are quite collectible. Let’s remember that the early ’90s were not exactly a time of great horological development or interest, so I give them a lot of credit for bringing out such a special piece in that time period. The Crash remains one of the tenets of Cartier’s collection to this day and frankly, I don’t believe there is a cooler ladies watch on the planet. And as for the original? If it’s good enough for Goldberger, it’s good enough for anyone.
Mystery Clocks And Objects Of Art
While not technically watches, Cartier’s Mystery Clocks and timekeeping accessories play an enormous part in defining who this Parisian jeweler is, as well as what makes the Cartier brand so powerful today.
The Mystery Clock from Cartier dates all the way back to 1913 – and these wonderful little pieces of clever design and engineering have a small but remarkably dedicated following all over the world. These watches and clocks offer the hour and minutes that appear to be floating in thin air. There are countless different shapes and designs in the Mystery Clock family, including the simple and sterile seen above, all the way to something like this. Cartier still makes mystery clocks today and in 2013, they showed the first ever Mystery wristwatches, which use fantastically clever in-house mechanical movements designed completely by Cartier.
Cartier produced countless other objects of art throughout the 20th century that regularly fetch truly remarkable prices. One such example is the turtle clock you see below. It was sold by Sotheby’s New York this past June for $875,000, and is a perfect example of early-20th-century Cartier design and craftsmanship still having weight with today’s collectors.
There are countless other beautiful Cartier objects that warrant incredible demand from collectors of today, including cigarette lighters, pens, money clips, and other accessories. Some of these items are on display at the Denver Museum of Art right now, and we will be back to show you more of them soon enough.
Cartier As A (Value Add) Retailer
The final part of what makes Cartier such an important brand to collect is that its mere presence in relation to any watch actually makes that piece more valuable. You are, no doubt, familiar with the trend that double-signed watches from the likes of Patek Philippe or Rolex can warrant prices two to four times normal, but the presence of a Cartier signature can do much more. For example, this stainless-steel Rolex Submariner reference 1680, which we would call a $7,000 watch any day of the week, was sold via Cartier, and sells for a very, very different price than a normal 1680, or even a Tiffany-retailed 1680.
When it came up for sale over three years ago through a private dealer,the price was over $100,000.
In November of 2013, Christie’s offered a Patek Philippe 2499 signed by Cartier. This particular 2499 is part of the third series (arguably the least desirable) and with the Cartier signature, the price was over $1,000,000, or roughly double what you could expect a normal yellow gold, third series 2499 to bring.
Those are double-signed watches, but what about those watches that just hold the Cartier name on the dial? Let’s look back at Eric’s What’s Selling Where round-up of the most recent Sotheby’s sale. He says that he wishes the Audemars Piguet-made triple calendar that reads “E. Gubelin” on the dial simply read “Audemars Piguet.” And no one should blame him for that. But imagine if that watch read “Cartier” on the dial. I don’t think Eric would be saying the same thing, and a Cartier triple calendar would be even rarer and more valuable than a vintage AP triple calendar!
Finally, even watches that do not have Cartier written anywhere on the watch, but were just sold by Cartier, offer something special to collectors.Here, for example, is a yellow gold Patek 130 sold at Cartier. Would the seller make note of where this watch was sold if it were literally any other watch retailer on the planet besides Cartier? Absolutely not. And thus is the power of the Cartier brand.
Now that you have a fundamental understanding of Cartier as an important historical watchmaker, it’s time to fast-forward to the modern era and explore why I said that within three years, I could see myself owning a Cartier timepiece. Cartier has always been dedicated to complicated timepieces, from the minute repeater and mono-pusher chronographs I showed you in the Tortue cases from the ’20s and ’30s, to the tourbillons Cartier showed in 1993, to the Collection Privée Cartier Paris (CPCP) from 1998, the first full collection with complications. These are all modern classics in their own rights, but it was in 2008, when Cartier launched the Fine Watchmaking division, that things got serious.
Cartier now has a mega haute horlogerie think tank and manufacture situated in the heart of the watchmaking capital of Switzerland: La Chaux-de-Fonds. At the helm of Cartier Fine Watchmaking is Carole Forestier-Kasapi, one of the most revered watchmakers in all of Switzerland. Since the launch of fine watchmaking in 2008, she has overseen the development of over 50 fine watchmaking references and 37 calibers for Cartier (29 of which are considered “fine watchmaking”). What Cartier has been able to do in such a short period of time is truly game-changing. Nobody has been working harder than Cartier in making new movements over the past seven years. Nobody.
For example, have a look at the the Caliber 9402 MC found inside the 2011 Minute Repeater with flying tourbillon. Or, have a look at last year’s Astrocalendaire, or the Rotonde de Cartier Earth and Moon tourbillon, seen below.
Cartier has also placed an incredible importance on bridging beauty and function with their skeleton pieces showing numerals in the bridges themselves. These watches are some of my favorites from Cartier’s current high-end collection, and I think they really express the Art Deco, early-20th-century beauty that made this brand what it is today, with a dose modern cool and cutting-edge watchmaking.
Still, perhaps the coolest takeaway from the Fine Watchmaking division of Cartier is the ID concept watch program. Launched in 2009, the program was/is the first of its kind, developing true concept timepieces that could, in theory, change the future of mechanical watchmaking.
If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend this in-depth story I wrote about the ID Two watch the day it was shown to us in 2012. This watch will never be made, but some of the research put into it will certainly trickle into consumer pieces over the next few years. Or, feel free to watch this quick video prepared by Cartier on the ID Two to get a quick idea of what this concept watch is all about. It is nothing short of incredible.
It is Cartier’s Fine Watchmaking products that I am most excited to hear about each SIHH, and I believe there is tremendous potential there to do absolutely fantastic work that will appeal to true purists. For example, if Cartier could produce an ultra-slim, mono-pusher chronograph in a platinum Tortue case that looked similar to those from the 1930s, I would be first in line to buy it. I believe that Cartier will do some amazing things in the coming years with this division, and while now things are a little too large and a little too busy for my personal tastes, there can simply be no debate about how seriously Cartier is taking its haute horlogerie. And with concept watches like the ID One and Two, they just might change mechanical watchmaking in general.
The Calibre de Cartier Chronograph sits well above those ETA-powered pieces you see everywhere, but also well below the Fine Watchmaking pieces I just spoke of. The Calibre family is really Cartier’s most interesting collection because it is a consumer product that shares much of its research DNA with the FWM product line.
This watch houses Cartier’s very first in-house self-winding chronograph, of any kind. All other chronographs were either outsourced (like everyone else was doing in the early 20th century) or more recently, produced in partnership with other folks such as THA for the CPCP Monopusher.
A watchmaker’s first chronograph is a big deal, and while this complication is certainly not uncommon, it’s not easy to make either. That is why, after all, there were basically three chronograph calibers on earth for generations. Remember, Patek Philippe didn’t make its own chrono until 2005 with the 5960 and Rolex didn’t have one until 2000 with the caliber 4130 found in the Daytona, so Cartier isn’t that far behind. Further, until recently, it could be said that the average Cartier consumer cared very little about what was inside the case. That’s changed, and the caliber here, 1904-CH MC, is a great one. In fact, the strongest point about the Calibre de Cartier Chronograph is, in my belief, the quality of its movement. But let’s get into the rest of it first.
The Calibre de Cartier Chronograph is offered in a range of dial colors, and as of last year, in this two-tone, reverse panda configuration. The dial is undoubtedly high quality with diamond-cut snailing on the accents. Each hour marker on the top half of the dial is transferred (not applied), which many would argue is a less costly way of dial work. In this case, however, I would say that applied numerals would make this already slightly shiny watch even shinier. On the lower half of the dial, the transferred Roman numeral hour markers are replaced by applied hour dashes with white gold surrounds. Then the jumbo Roman numeral 12 goes back to being applied. The mixture of applied and transferred hour markers, jumping from Roman numerals to dashes, including the oversized 12, is a curious choice to me, I must admit.
Further, at 10 o’clock there is a hidden “Cartier” signature. These hidden signatures were commonplace in early Cartier timepieces and I don’t love it, nor do I hate it. I think the signature would be cooler on this dial if it were slightly more staid, more refined.
Still, the outer ring snailing plus the details on both the hour counter register and chronograph minutes register shows high quality, for sure. Surrounding the dial is a graduated, engraved railroad-style bezel, sloping inwards towards the center, which is quite nice.
At six o’clock, you have a date window that shows three dates at once, which is part of the Calibre family’s design code. In the traditional Calibre and the Calibre Diver, the date window is at 3 o’clock and vertically oriented.
Covering the dial are large snow white luminous sword-shaped hands lined in oxidized steel. Coupled with the oversized hour markers, this Calibre de Cartier Chronograph is exceptionally legible. Is the dial exceptionally balanced, though? I can’t say that it is.
To accompany the large-and-in-charge styling of the dial, Cartier has opted to design a 42 mm brushed-steel case. The case wears well on the wrist, and like the dial, you can’t get away from the bold nature of this watch.
The super-wide lugs and large rectangular pushers give the Calibre de Cartier Chronograph an undoubtedly masculine look and feel. Case finishing is excellent, and visible screws on the lugs are something I particularly enjoy.
Having said that, one thing that I wish wasn’t preserved from the more traditional Cartier lines is the jewel-set crown. It is a synthetic blue faceted spinel and frankly, I don’t think it belongs on this watch. Again, I understand that just about every major Cartier timepiece of the last century has had a crown like this, but I look at the Calibre family as the line to bring Cartier to a whole new set of buyers, and I don’t think this appeals to many young watch buyers.
I’ll say that I wish this watch didn’t have it at all, but if it is a must, why choose a stone that in natural sunlight, is so, so bright blue? A more muted color would’ve done the trick just as well, without the watch reading as if it’s gem-set.
Overall, the case is well-executed, but it does wear slightly larger than the advertised 42 mm. This is in part due to the reinforced crown system that effectively protects the crown and extends the pushers out from the case by a few millimeters. That being said, I imagine that most buyers of this watch have absolutely no problem with the slightly larger size.
The 1904-CH MC is the brainchild of Carole Forestier, and that, practically by definition, means it’s excellent. The 11.5 ligne movement features 269 individual parts, 35 jewels, beats at 4 Hz, and provides a power reserve of 48 hours with the chronograph running. That’s the easy stuff. What makes the 1904-CH so interesting is just how many technical benefits it has relative to the competition.
Of course, this is a nice chronograph, so it features a column-wheel. This is becoming par for the course these days. But there is much more to the 1904-CH-MC.
This is a really a state-of-the-art, self-winding chronograph, one meant to take advantage of all the work put forth by Cartier’s movement makers over the last few years and one that is meant to be more durable and long-lasting than most. On top of the column wheel, there is a vertical clutch coupled mechanism that allows the chronograph timing mechanism to operate without any impact on overall timekeeping. A vertical clutch has the physical benefit of preventing any hand jitters or jumps when the chronogrpah is started, stopped, or reset.
Additionally, this chrono has something called “linear zero resetting” via a hammer mechanism. This allows the chronograph to be reset with the optimal force, no matter how hard or soft the reset button is pushed. You might not think that’s a big deal, but with traditional chronographs, pushing the reset too hard or not hard enough can cause damage.
Finally, the double-barrel configuration of the caliber 1904-CH MC isn’t intended to extend power reserve (a pretty standard 48 hours), but rather to increase precision of timekeeping no matter how much winding has been done to the watch. And speaking of that, the winding mechanism sits atop ceramic ball bearings and a clever click system that increases the efficiency of the bi-directional winding.
Actuation and feel on this Cartier chrono is truly excellent, and I’d put it right up there with the best self-winding chronographs I’ve ever felt. That includes the F. Piguet based AP Royal Oak Chronographand Patek’s in-house 5990 (also used in 5980 / 5960). However, one place I feel this chrono is really lacking is in the movement finishing. Cartier has used simple Côtes de Genève on the solid rotor, and circular graining on the invisible plates. It is my belief that while the movement is truly top tier in many regards, the lackluster finishing does a disservice to the entire watch. This watch would almost be better with a closed back. Here’s why…
The Calibre de Cartier Chronograph is playing in a price range with some extremely strong competition. The watch, as tested, retails for $10,700, which puts in direct competition with IWC’s in-house Portuguese Classic, Omega’s Dark Side of the Moon, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s many in-house chronographs, Zenith’s El Primeros, and a little watch called the Rolex Daytona. All of those I just mentioned have leagues of die-hard fans that will be delighted to tell you why their choice is better than any of the rest. The thing is, when talking about the movement alone, I’m not sure any of them actually are better than this Cartier. But, some of them certainly look better from the rear. Here, for example, is the backside of the $13,000 IWC Portuguese Pure Classic that Blake reviewed.
Here is the back of the $12,000 Omega Dark Side of the Moon, which Kelly reviewed for us.
Both are, rather objectively, nicer looking than the Cartier’s chronograph movement. That doesn’t mean that they are better movements, but when you open a case back, it means you should expect to be judged on your finishing. Both Rolex and Jaeger-LeCoultre have chosen to keep the case back closed, effectively saying “focus on how this chrono caliber performs, not how it looks.” Cartier should do the same here, or simply step up, at the very least, the finishing on the rotor of this watch.
The Calibre de Cartier Chronograph is a new player from a traditional powerhouse brand in a crowded segment, a segment that Cartier isn’t that familiar with. I think because of this, there will be a learning curve. Cartier must realize that the buyer of a $11,000 in-house chronograph is very different than the buyer of a $3,000 Tank Francaise, or even a $6,500 Ballon Bleu. Very few will spend $10,000+ on a watch like this because of name alone. And while the Cartier has a tremendous movement inside it, a blue-chip name on the dial, and massive street appeal, I really feel that this watch could be refined down to something much tighter.
The watch wears too large (that is assuming Cartier actually wanted to make a 42 mm watch), the dial cues are all over the place, and the movement finishing leaves something to be desired. But, with the exception of the movement finishing critique, my complaints are relatively subjective. If you like the looks of this watch, and the way it wears, you can be sure you are getting a well-made product that will last a lifetime. This could very well be the first step towards a dream Cartier chronograph, and despite my minor gripes with the execution of this watch in particular, I’ll re-emphasize this fact: I am extremely optimistic about the future of Cartier as a watchmaker, and you should be too.