When Princess Diana’s marriage started to unravel, she stopped wearing the Patek Philippe gold watch that Prince Charles had given to her on her 20th birthday. In its place, she frequently wore a classic Cartier Tank Louis on an alligator strap, which was a gift from her father, Earl Edward John Spencer. While she had numerous timepieces, Diana favored the streamlined classic watch and it aligned with her emerging independent spirit.
The Cartier Tank Louis wasn’t the only Tank watch that Princess Diana owned. On more formal occasions, she wore a gold Cartier Tank Française watch, which her sons inherited after her death. Harry later gave the timepiece to his wife, Meghan Markle, who also appears to place significance on the watch: She recently wore it in a rare portrait of the couple that was released ahead of their episode of Time100 Talks. But Meghan had already considered this iconic design an empowering accessory: She purchased a two-tone Cartier Tank in 2015 as a gift to herself and a symbol of her independence and had ‘To M.M. From M.M.’ engraved on the back. At the time, she said hoped to pass it down to her own daughter one day.
The remarkably simple, unadorned Cartier Tank has been coveted by a diverse group of tastemakers, from Duke Ellington and Yves Saint Laurent to Liz Taylor and Madonna, for over a century. It’s the perfect balance of form and function, with an enduring legacy that ranks alongside Marcel Breuer’s Wassily chair as a modern design with lasting appeal in every generation.
The Cartier Tank may be a classic now, but it was considered a radical design when it was unveiled in 1917. It was conceived by Louis Cartier during World War I, while he was living at the Ritz Paris on Place Vendôme. His brothers Pierre and Jacques were serving in the armed forces, but Louis, 41, was rejected because of earlier injuries. He sketched the concept—just four lines forming a square with two sides extended, like a stretcher, with a strap fitted between them. The story goes that he was influenced by the first appearance of armored tanks during the war, hence the name.
The Cartier Tank’s sleek, rectangular lines defined a new aesthetic in watchmaking and one that would change the future of timepieces. Designed for men, the first watch was given to General John Pershing, the commanding officer of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe.
Post-World War I, the revolutionary new Cartier watch quickly became a universal symbol of modern, elegant design. During the Jazz Age when Art Deco style dominated, the watch was favored by stylish men like Rudolph Valentino, who insisted on wearing his Tank while making the film The Son of the Sheik in 1926, even though it didn’t coordinate with his period costume. Valentino wasn’t the only style icon of the 20th century who was devoted to his Tank watch: Avid watch collector Andy Warhol was smitten, too. “I don’t wear a Tank to tell the time,” Warhol famously said. “I wear a Tank watch because it’s the watch to wear.”
During the 1960s, the Tank became the watch of choice for stylishly elegant women. Devotees included actresses Ingrid Bergman and Catherine Deneuve and Princess Caroline of Monaco. But it was style icon Jackie Kennedy who made the timepiece part of her signature look, along with her oversized sunglasses and headscarf. Her gold Tank watch on a black lizard strap was a gift by her brother-in-law, Prince Stanislaw, who inscribed it on the back: “Stas to Jackie – 23 Feb. 63 – 2:05 am to 9:35 pm.” The date and times refer to the 50-Mile Hike they went on in Palm Beach in 1963, which was part of then-President John Kennedy’s policy to promote health and fitness.
Cartier continues to reimagine the classic Tank model in new iterations, but always with the signature elongated lines, because it is hard to improve upon the perfect design. That’s why Meghan Markle already mentioned passing it down to her daughter—it’s a watch that remains modern in every generation.
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