Cartier is a brand that is known for its many classic designs. It is one of the world’s most desirable luxury jewellers still manufacturing today, as it has been for the last 170 years since its founding. We can argue, however, that it is Cartier’s watches, and not jewellery, that have come to define the brand over the last fifty years.
If watches have come to define the brand, then how might be define Cartier’s watches? The answer proffered by many is a simple one, and one we will run with here – case shape. In the bigger picture of a history of watches, the wristwatch is a relatively new invention. Many women began wearing watches on the wrist from around the turn of the 20th century. This feminine association presented as a stigma at first, and the ‘wristlet’ initially remained the preserve of women. It was WWI that perpetuated the major shift to a watch worn on the wrist for men too. On the battlefield, on board ship and in the air, this mode is far more practical than one in the pocket. This practical edge of wrist over pocket ended the gendering of watch form.
Most gentlemen made the shift from pocket to wrist by the early 1940s. Although there were a small number of alternatively-shaped pocket watches, the vast majority of pocket watches were round. Some of the first wristwatches were in fact converted pocket watches. It naturally follows then, that most, if not nearly all, of the first generation of wristwatches had round cases. The Cartier Santos represented something quite different in having a square case. Some suggest that this massive design departure from the old-fashioned round norm perpetuated its popularity, and indeed that of the square and rectangular watch in general.
As befits the illustrious and glamorous stories of the Cartier and its clients, the Story of Cartier’s Santos watch is an exciting one. Alberto Santos-Dumont was a Brazilian competitive aviator who lived in Paris from the 1890s. Known for his stunts and races in the Paris airspace, Santos was friends with Louis Cartier, one of the three brothers at the helm of the company at the time. Santos commented that pocket watches were impractical mid-flight, and Cartier set out to design him something altogether more useful. The result, in 1904, was the Cartier Santos. A distinctly masculine piece with stronger lines and screw head motifs to the bezel, the design was a significant departure from the house’s lady’s wrist watches within their existing (and very successful) repertoire. The external appearance and overall form of the Santos made it fit for purpose and very well-received – however its mass popularity came later as it was another seven years before the watch was commercially available.
Moving forward from the Santos, Cartier went on to create a number of alternative-to-round watches. The Tank is perhaps the best known, now synonymous with the Cartier brand. It has been credited with many famous devotees since its release in 1917, including Jacqueline Kennedy. With several iterations created in the following decades (the Americaine, Francaise and Anglaise to name a few) it remains as one of the brand’s most important models. Later, the Panthere can be seen to continue this legacy. Similar looking to the Santos, the Panthere was first released in 1983 and features the familiar round-edged square case and screw head motifs to the bezel. Originally available in different metals and sizes, but only with a quartz movement, it appeal was far-reaching and its success was huge. The low profile of the case (partly due to the small quartz movement) and the slick and very neat ‘brick’ link bracelet mean that it sits snug to the wrist and is comfortable to wear. It too has seen several iterations but was in fact discontinued for a time, between 2003 and 2017. The reappearance of the Panthere in 2017 was to great applause, prised once again for its elegance and versatility. (Although those from the 2017 family are all smaller, 27 and 29mm only, with no larger ‘gent’s’ sizes.)
So how do you create a classic timepiece? Well looking at these watches, we can start by saying the first criterion is clear - a good design. It needs to be fit for purpose, whether that be timing a flight or just wearing well on the wrist. It also needs to look good – different to what has gone before but appealing to current aesthetic. The most important thing we have learned though is stick with it. The Tank and Panthere have existed in different forms for over 100 and nearly 40 years respectively. Cartier persisted with production of these watches, making sure that they endured, and bedded into our collective consumer consciousness. Updating these pieces keeps them fresh and this practice renews our interest as we appreciate something familiar while the changes catch our eye. The Panthere’s hiatus may seem anomalous here, but it sort of proves this rule. During its time away, the Panthere was never truly gone – if we consider the Santos its older brother, his continual presence kept the Panthere in mind. Additionally, there’s nothing quite like an absence to make the heart grow fonder, and our desire to buy grow stronger.
Our Christmas 2020 Jewellery, Watches & Silver auction featured two Cartier Panthere wristwatches (lots 336 and 337).
Lyon & Turnbull’s watch auction and valuations department is a dynamic one with significant expertise, creating diverse watch auctions with fine, rare, modern and vintage timepieces. In line with the growth of the pre-owned watch market in recent years, we hold six specialist auctions each year, across our Edinburgh and London salerooms. These frequent auctions feature examples from renowned watch makers including Rolex, Cartier, Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet.
If you would like further information about consigning to one of our watch auctions or to have a watch valued, please contact our Head of Watches Sarah Fergusson at email@example.com or call 0141 333 1992.