Welcome to the latest installment in our Cost of Entry series. In this aBlogtoWatch feature, we examine different brands through the lens of their most affordable model. Having previously looked at the entry-level offerings of Rolex, Omega, Panerai, and Hublot… today, a name well-known even far outside the world of watches: Cartier. And none other than the iconic Tank, in the form of the Cartier Tank Solo XL Automatic, represents the most affordable mechanical men’s watch Cartier offers, at around US$3,500. The question is, however, what exactly you get with the Cartier Tank Solo XL Automatic and how well it represents the brand.
We don’t need to tell you that Cartier is one of the world’s most well-known luxury brands. While I like to approach this series as a brand study rather than as how to buy into a prestigious name for the least amount of money possible… Cartier’s prestige and recognizability are undeniably a huge draw for a great many people around the world. Cartier has achieved a remarkably cohesive identity and consistency across a wide range of products, but where does the Cartier Tank Solo XL fit in to that? In this article, we want to look at what exactly the Cartier Tank Solo XL offers in terms of value, history, horological interest, style, and that more vague quality that is Cartier essence. The Cartier Tank turning 100 years old in 2017 also makes it timely to revisit its story that is a big part of the watch we are looking at today.
Short History Of The Cartier Tank
Founded in Paris, France, by Louis-François Cartier in 1847, Cartier as a company will be 170 years old in 2017, but is no longer a small family-run jeweler, of course. The three grandsons of the founder were Louis, Pierre, and Jacques, and together they oversaw Cartier’s expansion to become a globally recognized name – Louis being the most central to our story. The next Cartier generation, the children of the three brothers, sold the business in the 1970s to an investor group. And finally, in 2012, Cartier joined the Richemont Group where it resides today among illustrious colleagues of haute horlogerie.
Entire books have been written about Cartier and even about the Cartier Tank watch itself, and the basic story that Louis Cartier based the Tank design on the shape of WWI tanks seen on the Western Front is probably familiar to many readers. Cartier made clocks, pocket watches, and women’s wristwatches before wristwatches for men began to catch on – and when men did begin to wear wristwatches, Cartier played a major role in their wider adoption and the Cartier Tank was an important part of the transition from pocket to wrist.
The first wristwatch for men is sometimes said to be the Cartier Santos from 1904, designed by Louis Cartier – at least, this began to help popularize men’s wristwatches. It was certainly one of the earliest watches designed as a wristwatch, rather than a pocket watch adapted with straps for the wrist, or “strap watch.” Called a “silly ass fad” by some around the early part of the 1900s (which I find delightful), men’s wristwatches still needed time to be accepted by the mainstream. In 1916, The New York Times admitted that wristwatches were more than a passing fad, and WWI saw soldiers beginning to strap watches to their wrists for practical reasons.
Louis Cartier (1875–1942) designed a number of watches that are still part of Cartier’s lineup today, including the Santos, Tank, and Tortue. At that time Louis perhaps thought that the future of wristwatches meant non-round cases. This would also help distinguish them from the round pocket watches that had simply been adapted for the wrist. The first Cartier Tank watch was created in 1917 and the story goes that those initial models were given to General John Pershing of the American Expeditionary Force and his officers. In 1919, a total of six Tank watches were produced, but an icon had been created, and new versions have followed regularly since – you can see more about early Tanks and other early Cartier men’s watches here.
Part of the Tank’s history is the many significant 20th century figures who have prominently worn it. We won’t (can’t) list them all here, but monarchs, politicians, and true icons of sports and music have helped the tank achieve its status and are testament to its success. And these were not “brand ambassadors” as we know them today, but true fans of the watch – or those just following a trend, like Andy Warhol, who apparently didn’t even keep it wound on his wrist…
Cartier Tank watches have included a range of movements over their history, and the earliest versions used manually wound Jaeger movements. The first Cartier Tanks were somewhat stouter than the perfectly (in my opinion) refined proportions of the Tank we know today, best exemplified by the Tank Louis Cartier that was first introduced in 1922. I have been unable to pinpoint exactly when the predominance of Breguet pomme-style hands gave way to the sword-shaped hands most prevalent on Cartier watches today. Though technically a more recent model, the modern Cartier Tank Solo XL is similar in design to the Tank Louis Cartier and does a good job, I feel, of representing its heritage.
The Cartier Tank Solo XL Automatic
Cartier’s current Tank collection comprises six models: Anglaise, Americaine, Française, Louis Cartier, MC, and Solo. Once again, the Cartier Tank Solo XL Automatic in steel on a leather strap represents the brand’s most affordable mechanical men’s watch. For the record, the least expensive men’s watch overall is – no, not the quartz Tank Solo, but the Cartier Ronde Solo quartz watch seen below at around $2,600. With a 36mm-wide (6.6mm-thick) steel case (30m water-resistant), the Cartier Ronde Solo quartz watch is small for a lot of modern men’s tastes but is simple, without fuss, and still offers a lot what many people want from Cartier.
The Cartier Tank Solo XL Automatic watch was introduced in 2012 and added a larger, mechanical alternative to the quartz Tank Solo. The Cartier Tank Solo XL Automatic initially featured the automatic Cartier 049 calibre, which is an ETA 2892. However, Cartier has confirmed with us that when the Cartier Clé introduced the in-house 1847 MC movement in 2015 a lot of basic models were quietly fitted with the new movement – including the Cartier Tank Solo XL Automatic. It is odd not only that Cartier chose to not announce this change, but that they do not even make the information publicly available – their website currently says little more than “mechanical movement with automatic winding” for the Cartier Tank Solo XL Automatic.
The 1847 MC movement is apparently positioned as a workhorse to take the place of ETA movements found in a range of Cartier collections, and with a diameter of 25.6mm, it will fit about anywhere an ETA 2992 or 2824 would. Bidirectional automatic winding, 42 hours of power reserve, operating at 4Hz with central seconds and date are all welcome modern features and appropriate for an entry level collection. The Cartier 1847 MC seems to mostly receive only basic decoration, but you won’t see it here anyway due to the solid caseback of the Cartier Tank Solo XL Automatic. An in-house movement should add interest and value for enthusiasts, and more so because the switch from a sourced movement was not accompanied by a change in price.
Standard for a modern luxury watch, antireflective sapphire crystal protects the dial, and the crown with its synthetic spinel cabochon is essentially unchanged from the earliest Tanks. The dial is what Cartier calls silvered opaline, and it provides a satiny backdrop for the black
Cartier Roman numerals without any shiny reflections to hamper legibility.
The Cartier Tank Solo XL Automatic is hardly a “large” watch, but it is successful in being a more modern, sufficiently masculine iteration of the design. At 31mm by 40.85mm and 7.65mm thin, I find the Cartier Tank Solo XL to be a masterpiece of design and proportions and a great fit for my 6.5″ (17cm) wrist. For a watch called the Tank with strong military-associated origins, though, the Cartier Tank is mostly seen as the opposite of a rough-wearing, battlefield watch. The Cartier Tank Solo XL is water-resistant to only 30m, comes on a leather strap, and is almost the wristwatch version of a tuxedo.
Calling this model “XL” reminds us that it is still intended as a men’s watch. The basic look of the Cartier Tank has undeniably been very popular for women’s watches, and this might actually turn some men off by causing them to view it as feminine – Ariel discussed this general phenomenon in a dedicated article here. Personally, that is not relevant to my own tastes and wearing habits. Further, if you don’t consider Cartier a “real” watch maker because they also make jewelry – well, then there is probably nothing I can say that will change your mind anyway.