Anniversary watches are a difficult breed. Contemporary watchmakers have a tendency to use any birthday ending in a “5” or a “0” as an excuse to create some dolled-up version of a well-known (or sometimes not-so-well-known) product as a way to manufacture demand, scarcity, and press. I often find that these watches leave me cold when taken on their own, and feeling disappointed when they interrupt an otherwise interesting and compelling history.
Imagine my concern when it was announced in January that sometime this year we would be getting a collection of watches celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Cartier Tank. This is no 45th birthday and no “I think I’ve heard of that” watch. The stakes seemed pretty high, as far as watch-related stakes are concerned. The Tank is one of the most iconic watches of all time, and I do not use that word lightly here. I also do not think it would be an understatement at all to say that the Tank turning 100 is an event of genuine interest and importance in the history of the wristwatch writ large.
So, I waited. Then, on September 1, the announcement was made. We were getting a handful of new Tank’s for the centennial, including a few with diamonds and one with a curved, skeletonized movement. But the one that really caught my eye was the most understated of them all: the Tank Américaine in stainless steel. Would this turn out to be the subtle anniversary watch I was hoping for? Would it have the right little historical nods while being a quality ticker in its own right? Would it feel like something I would want beyond the context of the Tank turning 100? Just a few weeks later I had one on my wrist, and I got to answer all my own questions.
But first, some history.
A History Of Curved Tanks
The Tank watch was first introduced in 1917, hence this year’s centenary celebration. That original watch was a rectangular watch, nearly square like its cousin the Santos, with large rails (sometimes called brancards, the French for “stretcher”) on either side of the Roman numeral dial, and a design that was, at the time, unlike anything else out there. Quickly, Cartier began to iterate on the Tank, creating different sub-families of Tank watches with different profiles, different dial variations, and different histories.
A big moment in the Tank’s history came in 1921, with the introduction of the Tank Cintrée (which literally means “curved”). This was the very first time the Tank had a curved case, something that has been a mainstay of the collection ever since. Let’s remember that in 1921 the concept of the wristwatch was still a new and somewhat controversial one, and non-round wristwatches were still rare. Now, a curved, rectangular watch? Think about it. What seems elegant and traditional to us today was actually revolutionary.
In addition to introducing the curved case, the Cintrée also displayed a new kind of dial too. The chapter ring was curved on the ends to echo the curvature of the case, and this left a lot more negative space in the dial, making the Roman numerals really stand out, drawing the eye out to the edge and the case.
Variations On A Theme
While the Tank is, at its core, a rectangular watch, it’s not always that same basic shape that probably pops into your head when you first think “Tank.” There are Tanks that swivel in their cases, that are asymmetrical, and that use jump-hour displays. Check out Franco Cologni’s book Cartier: The Tank Watch if you want to learn more.
All of this isn’t to say that the Cintrée was a runaway hit from day one, never faltering though. In fact, after an explosion in popularity in the early 1920s (the Cintrée was the watch to have in Parisian society then), it was dropped from the line-up altogether sometime in the early 1930s. According to Franco Cologni in his comprehensive book Cartier The Tank Watch: Timeless Style, it was “considered too ‘1925’” by then. Luckily, Cartier New York brought the watch back with an Americanized version with Arabic numerals, called the Curved Tank in 1933. Eventually the Cintrée proper would be resurrected in Europe, bringing back the more classic dial style and slightly wider profile.
We’re going to jump forward in history a bit now. Plenty happened with Cartier and the Tank during the middle part of the twentieth century, and the stack of books I have next to me as I write this is proof that trying to give you an exhaustive history of every Tank variation and every little bit of apocrypha here would be a lost cause. So, on we forge to the introduction of the Tank Américaine in 1989.
Originally created in just yellow gold, the Tank Américaine was a response to the changing tides of watch trends. The late 1980s and early 1990s were the beginning of the era of large watches, and Cartier was trying to create something a bit more substantial that might convince someone looking for a heftier piece to wear a Tank instead. The watch was clearly inspired by the Cintrée of old, with its curved case and curved chapter ring, but it differed in a number of ways. One important distinction is that the reverse of the case has a flat (or flat-ish) caseback instead of the dramatically curved caseback of the Cintrée. The result is a watch that still appears curved while being technically easier to manufacture, though you do feel the difference on the wrist a bit.
What seems elegant and traditional to us today was actually revolutionary.
Since then, the Américaine has been made in many different versions, with date functions, chronographs, and other complications included from time to time. However, these have always been made in precious metals, most often yellow and pink gold (white gold models weren’t introduced until 1995, the same year Cartier added the option of a bracelet to the Américaine).
Some of the most collectable and desirable Tanks from over the years – Cintrée and otherwise – are white metal versions. These are exceedingly rare, with many models existing only in platinum in single-digit numbers. So it feels fitting that to commemorate 100 years of the Tank, Cartier would take an important model and render it in a white metal. Choosing the Américaine, the most modern Tank silhouette inspired by one of the oldest, and making it in steel, takes it to the next level.
The Tank Américaine In Steel
Now onto the watch in question. This is the Tank Américaine, and it is in stainless steel for the very first time. It’s also at a much more approachable price point, sitting at $5,100 as you see it here. Up until now, the Américaine has been made in precious metals only, placing it at a far higher price point and making it less of an everyday watch. There are three sizes of the new steel model available, with the small containing a quartz movement, and both the medium and large containing an automatic movement. I opted to review the medium, as it suits my wrist size best. For the most part, everything you read here applies to the large as well, though the proportions are a little bit different. The large model is a little wider, which to my eye isn’t quite as elegant as the elongated medium form, despite being closer to the original Tank Américaine proportions (with the medium being more Cintrée-like). However, again, that’s down to personal preference. Technically and structurally speaking, the two are identical.
As with any watch, the case is critical here; but, more so than with most watches, the case is one of this watch’s biggest distinguishing features and most compelling selling points. First off, it’s stainless steel. The medium size measures 41.6mm x 22.6mm, while the smaller model comes in at 34.8mm x 19mm ($4,000) and the larger at 45.1mm x 26.6mm ($5,750). To me, the result is a watch that works for both men and women, nodding a bit to vintage sizes without appearing dainty.
Cartier’s done a nice job adding interest to what could have been a rather plain design too. The brushed sides and polished rails give the edges visual definition, making the watch appear much punchier and better defined. A single finish would have resulted in something that looked sort of amorphous and, for lack of a better term, blobby. The case we have looks extremely architectural, with the intersecting sections of the case creating points of interest where they meet.
Now, look at the watch from the side. You really get a sense of the curvature and how nicely balanced it is. Then there’s the crown, with the quintessentially Cartier look of a blue stone set into geometric metal. However, it’s worth noting that here it’s a synthetic spinel cabochon looking back at you, not a sapphire. Considering the price of this watch and what a real sapphire would add, I can’t argue with this decision at all. If the watch were platinum, we’d be having a different conversation, but Cartier made the right call here.
One of the stand-out design traits of the Cintrée has traditionally been its curved caseback that gives the watch a completely crescent-shaped profile. That’s not the case with the Américaine. If you look here, you’ll notice that the curved front portion of the case is anchored by a caseback that is flat but with curved sides that rise up to meet the case itself. To accommodate the automatic movement here, the caseback itself has some depth, but you notice it much more on a table than on the wrist.
In total, the package comes in at 9.5mm thick at the center, the thickest point. While the watch doesn’t wear like an ultra-thin – or a vintage Cintrée, for that matter – it does have a relatively svelte profile that is in good proportion to its size. Finally, while you probably won’t be taking this watch diving (and you shouldn’t, for a lot of reasons), the Tank Américaine is water resistant to three bars of pressure, or approximately 30 meters.
Once you get past the basic form, there’s the brilliant sunburst-finish dial waiting for you. All the things you’d expect are there and intact – the black radiating Roman numerals, the “Cartier” signature hidden in the number seven, and the chapter ring that curves at the top and bottom. You’ll notice though that there are three blued steel hands instead of the more traditional two. This is to show the running seconds, as there’s an automatic movement beating away inside.
Another point of differentiation here is the finish of the dial. There is no guilloché center or contrasting outer edge. No, the entire thing has a uniform sunray finish on the silvery ground. While I’m a sucker for some good guilloché work, I much prefer this cleaner execution for a watch like this. It keeps it from feeling too much like a throwback and the even surface allows the bold black printing to stand out and the blue hands to be instantly legible.
As I mentioned, this watch is automatic. This is a mixed bag for me. I’m thrilled that the watch isn’t quartz (except in the smallest size). That would have been a really easy thing for Cartier to do, and, to be totally honest, most customers looking at this watch probably wouldn’t even notice or care. However, I do wish the watch was a manual-winder. There would be something so charming about taking this off and carefully winding it every day or two. Just thinking about it gets me excited.
Ultimately, I’m going to count the automatic movement as a win. Cartier isn’t providing any details on the movement inside, but from the dimensions of the case we know it’s got to be one that’s relatively small. Beyond the fact that it’s automatic and has a central seconds hand, I’m as in the dark as you are.
Update: Though Cartier has not confirmed this, we have it on good authority that the unnamed movement in question is an ETA 2671. This is a 17.2mm diameter automatic with 25 jewels and a 38-hour power reserve. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s a small, reliable movement well-suited to a watch like this.
The Strap And Buckle
The strap and buckle for this watch are a bit unusual. When you first pick the watch up, you’ll notice that there are no holes at all on either side of the strap. You’ve got two identical pieces of rich blue alligator, each of which has a semi-matte finish and comes to a point at the end. Accompanying the watch is a steel folding buckle in the shape of the familiar Cartier logo. I legitimately had to ask one of my colleagues (shout out Cara!) how the heck to get this on my wrist.
Essentially you thread the two sides of the strap through two parts of the buckle, loop them back to lock it all in, and then wear-away. This makes it infinitely adjustable on both sides, so you can get the right fit. I had some reservations about this idiosyncratic system when I first pulled the Tank out of its packaging, but more on that in a bit (spoiler alert: it’s great).
A Week On The Wrist
It probably won’t surprise you, but from the moment I strapped the Tank Américaine to my wrist, I was smitten. There aren’t too many designs that can go relatively unchanged for 100 years while remaining relevant, but I challenge anyone to put a Tank on their wrist and tell me that it’s stale or ugly. Sure, it might not be everyone’s personal taste, but from as objective a perspective as is possible, the Tank is a well-designed wristwatch through and through.
The Américaine case sits extremely well on the wrist. In the medium size, it’s not so small as to feel precious (at least not on my wrist – and there’s a size up if you’re worried about that) but it still sits on the wrist, without hanging over. I find rectangular watches tend to suffer from the overhang problem that makes them feel clumsy and ungainly. No such problem here. Also, while the back of the watch isn’t curved like with the Cintrée, the way the caseback and lugs create some negative space on the rear of the watch makes it wear almost like it is curved.
There aren’t too many designs that can go relatively unchanged for 100 years while remaining relevant…
In addition to the steel case making it a little more robust, it also makes this model much lighter in weight than its gold counterparts. There’s enough heft that you know you’ve got a mechanical movement inside (I find even the gold quartz Tank watches feel a little light on my wrist), but I wore the watch all day, every day for a week and had zero comfort issues.
However, I had two concerns right off the bat: 1) That the folding clasp would prove to be a pain point (literally) and 2) That the watch would look a little too dressy for my daily life. I’m happy to report that neither of these was a problem in reality. The folding clasp shocked me – I’m a known detractor of the deployant buckle and champion of the simple pin. While setting up the strap and buckle takes a few minutes, once you’ve got it all set, the package wears like it has a pin buckle. I’d be just as happy without the special clasp, but it’s there and I didn’t mind it.
The second question is another subjective one, but I think the Américaine straddles the dressy/casual line much better than I expected. I wore it to a few meetings in a suit, for a night out with my wife in a sportcoat, and to the office with a classic grey sweatshirt, and it never felt out of place to me. It’s definitely more at home with something tailored (or at least a cashmere sweater), but there’s something that feels very old-school preppy about wearing a Tank with casual wear that I enjoyed. I’ll go right out and say it: To me, this qualifies as an everyday watch. No question in my mind.
If you’re with me so far, there’s one big question left to answer: What else is out there? To me, this relatively generic question can carry massively different connotations depending on what type of watch you’re talking about. In the case of the Tank Américaine, I think the task at hand is finding what watches are available that mix traditional and modern styling, sell for $4,500-6,500, and have a bit of history to lean on. Here are a few that come to mind.
Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Classic Medium Thin
The most obvious competitor to any Tank is a similar Reverso. The Reverso Classic Medium Thin is probably the closest thing Jaeger-LeCoultre makes to the Tank Américaine right now. It’s about the same size, has a silver dial with blue hands, and has a slim mechanical movement inside (this one is manually-wound, FYI). At $5,300, it’s a hair less expensive than the Tank, but not by much. To me, the question here is one of style and by now you’ve probably already decided which you prefer.
Grand Seiko SBGW253
Alright, it’s not rectangular, but I think the Grand Seiko SBGW253 ticks a lot of the same boxes as the Tank Américaine. It also comes in at a similar price point, retailing for $5,700 (if you can still find one – it’s a limited edition of 1960 pieces). The watch has an elegant profile, a modestly-sized 38mm case, and a clean, legible dial. The mix of white, silver, and blue verges on austere without quite getting there, and if you swap out the black croc strap it can wear much more casually than you’d expect.
Other than these two watches, I struggled to come up with good alternatives to this Tank. Some of that is due to what I believe is the genuine strength of the design and the relative uniqueness of what it’s offering in the marketplace; some of it is down to the dearth of rectangular watches available today, since they tend to sell far worse than round watches. If you think I’ve missed anything, let me know in the comments below. I’m genuinely curious to see what you come up with.
If you couldn’t tell already, I’ll come out and say it flat out: The stainless steel Tank Américaine is an excellent watch. Like, a really excellent watch. It’s well-made and well-priced, and it balances historic design with adding something new to the portfolio. It’s a watch that I think a lot of people could make their only watch, while being equally appealing to someone who is a collector of vintage or modern watches, with more than a few options for what to strap on each morning. I’ll even go as far as to say that this is one of my favorite watches of the year so far. It’s just that good.
Zooming out a bit, the Tank Américaine makes me happy for other reasons too. It’s proof that celebrating an iconic watch’s birthday doesn’t need to be done with a pile of diamonds or a handful of tourbillons to be successful. For a watch as refined as the Tank, marking its centennial with something like this seems a much more fitting tribute – and one that will ensure the Tank is as relevant come its 150th anniversary as it is today.
For more, visit Cartier online.