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Cartier Tank: Muhammad Ali, Kanye West, and Steve McQueen All Wore This Watch

The Cintrée was a variation on the Tank first produced in 1921. The watch was longer than the original and curved so that it would sit neatly on the wrist. “The watch McQueen’s wearing is actually a rare Cintrée,” says Fane. “It was made in New York in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s and it’s quite modified—not like the 1920s ones. This one is a little bit thinner and maybe a millimeter or two longer.” If there is one universally true rule about men’s style it’s that people wanna be like Steve. “Every time I have one they sell very quickly because they just look great on the wrist.”

Muhammad Ali Shadow Boxing

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A gold watch with a black leather strap

1976: Muhammad Ali’s Cartier Tank JC

Even for the guy who was known to float like a butterfly, there’s still a disconnect seeing the heavyweight champion of the world wearing such a delicate watch.“There’s a big question today around, ‘Are these Cartier watches very small?’” Fane says. “Well, they’re not small. It’s only a perception of fashion. And today, because everyone’s used to getting these kitchen clocks on their wrists, Cartier watches do look small by comparison. But in their heyday, people as powerful and huge as Muhammad Ali saw the elegance in them and wanted to own one.”

“Ali is wearing the Tank JC, which is a classic Tank,” says Fane. “It was the second model they made. It was originally called the Tank LC after [founder] Louis Cartier. And then by the ‘70s, when Ali was wearing his, it was called the JC after Jean-Jacques Cartier [the son of Louis’s brother Jacques Cartier, who helped establish the company in the early 1900s].”

Princess Diana talking to an officer after watching an air display at RAF Wittering Lincolnshire September 1995. On the...

Princess Diana Archive

A gold watch with a black leather strap

1995: Princess Diana’s Cartier Tank

Are you starting to notice a trend here? What people who wore the Cartier Tank have in common over history is both enormous fame and great style. You could throw the greatest cocktail party in history if you invited the people I don’t have room to include: Andy Warhol, Michelle Obama, Cary Grant, Truman Capote, Fred Astaire, Duke Ellington, and both John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie, all of whom wore the watch. Princess Diana would have worn hers as part of a slightly different tradition.

“In the so-called upper classes of England, that’s very much what women wore,” says Fane. “A Cartier watch was a part of the uniform along with the crocodile handbag, the nice shoes, the pearls. [Diana] didn’t create the image, but she very much bought into the image.”

Nowadays, when Fane is speaking with customers, he’ll often use the association with Diana as part of his sales pitch. “When people buy these watches, there is a very legitimate history that gives people a thrill,” he says. “They have a real connection to these people and a connection to history. It’s a lovely story that you are wearing the same model watch that the Princess of Wales wore”

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A gold watch with an irregularly shaped face

2019: Kanye West’s Cartier Crash

The ‘60s were a difficult time for Cartier. The era of what Fane describes as “the hippie generation, flower-power, and free love” was completely out of step with Cartier’s old-world values. Or, almost all of them…

“The one company that really flourished was Cartier London,” says Fane. “London was the heart of the Swinging Sixties movement and Cartier London managed to embrace that moment. They developed this whole series of watches that were unique to London and that were a celebration of the Swinging Sixties.” That willingness and desire to get creative with the house’s steeped-in-tradition models culminated with the Cartier Crash.

Until the Crash, nothing incredibly radical came out of the Cartier London shop: it would enlarge certain models or switch out square dials for triangular ones. “One day, Jean-Jacques was walking to work and he saw a car crash between a London bus and a London taxi and both vehicles were completely mangled,” says Fane. “He walked into his workshop and said to his chief designer, ‘What would one of our Tank watches look like if it had been in a car crash?’ And the designers came up with this radical design of this crashed Tank. They only made 12 of this watch in the ‘60s. It became an icon of London in the same way and at the same time as the E-type Jaguar, the Mini Cooper, and the Beatles.”

The first runs of the Cartier Crash were made in such limited numbers—there were up to 24 made between the late ‘60s and ‘80s—that they are nearly impossible to find. Kanye owns a version from the first “mass” production of the Crash done in Paris in 1991. Mass, in this case, means 400 pieces were made.

And although the Crash is a watch hardly spotted on celebrities—or anyone, for that matter—Fane says he wasn’t surprised to see one on Kanye’s wrist. “I can’t tell you why I wasn’t surprised, but I wasn’t surprised,” says Fane. “What I find very pleasing is that here is a man, who is very tapped into modern culture, and for him to choose to wear this cultural icon is great.”

Part of the reason Fane wasn’t shocked to see Kanye wearing this watch is that the Tank—or melted, crashed versions of it—have always been worn by the most famous folks in the world. In that way, it only makes cosmic sense that Kanye would wear one, too.

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