Review: The 2023 Cartier Tank Française
It’s hard to take a watch that’s so iconic and update it. It’s the worst job in the world, because there’s a 1% chance of getting it right and a 99% chance of completely mucking it up. Which has Cartier done with its 2023 update of the hugely popular Tank Française?
Have you ever noticed how Porsche manages to make every new iteration of the 911 look absolutely stunning and subsequently the outgoing one look like a complete mess? I don’t know how they do it, but whatever tactics they employ, the bods at Cartier must be doing the same thing.
This is a true story: my wife wanted a watch and she was hooked on the idea of a Chanel J12, an idea I rather enthusiastically wanted to kill with fire. I suggested a number of different watch brands, including Cartier, and Cartier got a dismissive wave almost immediately. I was surprised by this since Cartier is so ubiquitous between the genders, and so I asked her why.
“It’s an old ladies’ watch,” she told me. In a way, she was right. Small, delicate watches in polished gold are very of their time. Her feelings were confirmed when Cartier, as if by magic, promptly updated its line-up in a way that, at first glance, looked completely, exactly the same—but somehow turned my wife’s attention back into favour. She now owns a Cartier.
In 2023, it’s the turn of the legendary Tank Française to receive a little Botox and a cheeky tuck. It seems like a minor thing, but when you’re as big as Cartier is—second in watch sales only to Rolex—and you lay claim to such high style stakes as Cartier does, one false move and it’s game over. Take a beloved watch like the Tank Française and play silly billies with it and it’s bad with a capital B. It’s like holding someone else’s baby and telling them why it’s ugly.
The Tank line itself dates all the way back to 1917, to Louis Cartier’s time on the front line. Where everyone else saw death and misery, Cartier saw the potential for a watch design, and so it was from the Renault FT-17 that he developed the tank watch. For the avoidance of doubt, the FT-17 is a tracked, armoured vehicle with a mounted gun, also known as a tank.
Side note: did you know the name “tank” came from the secret British project to develop the war machines under the guise of building similarly constructed water tanks. Did you also know that the idea of eating carrots to see in the dark was a myth perpetuated by double agents of the British armed forces during World War 2 to cover up the secret that it had just developed radar?
Anyway, Louis Cartier saw a tank and now we have the Cartier Tank collection. The Française most specifically looks like its namesake, the top-down profile revealing the chunky body of the vehicle flanked by the outrigger tracks left and right. Where most people see despair, Cartier sees the hidden elegance. I wonder what they’d make of Milton Keynes.
The first Tank Française was introduced in 1996 and has become known as the one watch collection for people who like watches just enough. It manages the uncanny feat of appealing to fashionistas—I can’t believe I said fashionistas—and watch people equally, an incredibly rare trick few have accomplished. Woe betide anyone who messes with the formula. For that reason, it has remained untouched since it’s 1996 launch. That is, until now. Did they muck it up?
Of course they didn’t. I could try and string you along for the japes, but the fact of the matter is that Cartier is really, really, annoyingly good at designing things. And just like Porsche, they’ve avoided the new adopter syndrome. Instead of the fresh watch looking weird and scary, leaving owners clinging desperately on to their existing model, they’ve made the new one look like what we all thought the old one looked like, and now the old one looks, well, old.
If you have the knack for that, you’re sitting on a fortune. You see, the changes are minor enough to leave you guessing in isolation, but prominent enough to understand completely when seen in context. I’ll go through those changes now and you see if you can spot them before I tell you.
Let’s start with the crown. It still has the famous blue sapphire cabochon, but now it’s flatter and slightly inset for a sleeker profile that looks less like a miniature St Paul’s Cathedral. The end links where the bracelet meets the case are one piece instead of multiple, a simpler, less fussy look. On the largest model, the outer links are brushed instead of polished so it feels a bit less like jewellery, and the dial gets an inset minute track and polished applied markers.
Told you it’s not much; together it makes all the difference in the world. Ever added a little kick of salt or sugar to a dish that just fills out the flavour in a way that makes what you thought tasted fine before taste like watery shoe leather? Now you get it. It’s all in the tiniest of decisions. The bracelet, for example, has tiny cams in the links so it lays at rest like the tracks of a—you guessed it—tank. I think Louis Cartier might have had PTSD.
In Cartier’s very prudent manner, there are three sizes of watch and, for now at least, two metals. The biggest, at 36.7 x 30.5mm, gets a Sellita-based movement with 38 hours of power reserve; the rest get quartz. Really interesting is that, alongside steel, the only other choice is yellow gold. If Cartier say yellow gold is back, then yellow gold is back.
At $5,500, the largest steel Tank Française isn’t what you’d call a bargain, especially with the Sellita, but for a watch with a name that carries as much weight as Cartier’s does, I’m pretty surprised it’s not a lot more expensive. It’s strange to think of a luxury brand providing good value, but Cartier really does manage to find a sweet spot for all those people who like watches just enough to get something that’s pretty well rounded.
So that’s the ultimate question, really. For the customer who buys a Tank Française to be their only watch, the one they wear out to dinner after a day with it in the garden, does it still offer the same chameleon-like all-round charm and poise? You’d better believe it. It’s only just arrived but it feels like we’ve known it for years.
What do you think of the new Cartier Tank Française?