In this post I aim to share what I’ve experienced thus far in collecting and trading Cartier vintage timepieces. I am still learning, even though I believe to be a very fast learner, I don’t claim to be a scholar or an authority I am simply wanting to grow and enhance the Cartier collectible experience together with you, my reader. Whatever I forgot to mention in the post and whatever I’ll learn on the way I will share in the future.
Geneva November 2017(All great watch things happen here for some reason)
On a gloomy Geneva brisk Sunday morning I make my way to the Sotheby’s previews. The viewing room is still quite empty, I make my seat choice and proceed picking from the catalog the watches I’d like to see in person up close.
In comes this middle aged gentleman with a British accent, he’s wearing a navy blazer with gold buttons and a cuff linked striped shirt, basically he could be anybody’s dad. He’s also wearing a yarmulke (and me too) so now we’re sorta family and he joins me at the table. We make acquaintance and we hit it off immediately. He knows the staff and seems to be an habitual client of the house. What strikes me immediately is his unassuming gold Cartier tank watch and the fact that he’s picking from the catalog only Cartier vintage watches. I’m shocked cause in quite a few trips here I’ve only seen people being interested and asking for whatever everyone else is interested and asking for: vintage rolex Patek daytona nautilus and whatever the insta influencers are posting. The gentleman is looking at Cartier and boy are these watches weird. Weird, bit elderly and not really that paul Newman / steve McQueen feel I’m accustomed To. At this point I turn into a sponge I WANT TO LEARN I want to absorb why is this guy looking at this stuff. The watches he’s looking at are obviously elegant and sleek but mostly they have some kind of flavor and detail that what I’m used to pursuing just doesn’t have: unaltered elegance. Restrained opulence.
Vintage Cartier, I say. Vintage Cartier, man, that’s a whole new universe a whole new customer a different animal. We are in a different culture to put it starkly. I wish we could be talking about Vacheron Constantin in the same spirit but that day hasn’t come yet.
Fast foreword to 2019, the new company and the new office,——> I can finally take this bull by the horns. Now it’s about taste and good taste is where Cartier’s at.
Vintage Cartier is just magic.
There are no forums, not much online resources nor many opinionistas (thank God). There are couple of books written by OG collectors/scholars and that’s it. It’s done the old school way. I bought them, studied them and still look at them at every chance that’s the only way here. There are few notable names in vintage Cartier collecting and those (obviously italian tastemakers of an older era) whales have bought up most of the gems (now coming back to the market cause these guys are now ready to sell and move on). All the ingredients are here for an explosion to be made and this in my opinion is very different from all the bubbles of years past (cough cough heuer /universal), this isn’t a bubble this is here to stay and I’ll give you the supporting facts: We have a worldwide luxury brand that is aspirational and appealing. We have service support from the manufacturer (the brand is well and alive and ready to take in the watches for service unlike universal or heuer). We have celebrities willingly or unwillingly being ambassadors of the brand (Andy Warhol, Ralph Lauren etc). We have modern production to fuel the demand and some of its current stuff is real cool so we indeed have a Rolex like scenario with the modern mirroring the vintage.
Back to vintage
There aren’t many watches from the 20/30/40/50/60s cause production was :
Allegedly Mr Cartier was the first to design a wristwatch (for Alberto Santos Dumont) and the first to design the deployment buckle which is a Cartier must have to this day.
To my understanding and to make it easy there are four eras of Cartier watch production that are of interest for us:
1)The antique / Vintage class era 1920/30/40:
These are the wristwatches done together with the Edmond Jaeger workshop in Paris and fitted with European Watch Company movements. The uber classic references are from this era: The tank normale, the tank Louis, the basculante, the chinois, the guillotine etc and of course the original Santos Dumont. These watches are mostly artisan made and differ in some way from one another (just like any hand made object should). They are all hand engraved with serial numbers and have to come with certain hallmarks (French eagle heads etc) that give them their required pedigree along with the expected movement from EWC. I believe most of these refined timepieces come from the Paris legendary boutique (yeah captain obvious) but it’s important to know that some of the watches were manufactured in the London workshop / boutique along with the New York shop and this brings us to the second phase. I would say 99% of the watches are in precious metal after all, this is a jewelry house not a tool watch brand.
Dazzling enamel work, stone setting and skilled jewelry craftsmanship has been put to use in the Art Deco era to produce ladies wristwatches and timepieces. Those are incredible along with the clocks but they aren’t pertinent to this post.
I must mention the collaboration with Audemars Piguet during this phase. Most of the complicated watches (I believe mainly perpetual calendars) and jump hours where manufactured by AP, cases included. Some real fabulous looking watches were born from this glamorous marriage such as King Hassan’s watch auctioned at Sotheby’s in 2019.
2) the vintage era 1950/60s early 70s:
With the Cartier name now a worldwide sensation purveyor of all things precious the household succeeds immensely through its three shops independently managed. Paris, London, New York can it get any better? With clients like the duchess of Windsor and Elizabeth Taylor I don’t believe you can be better in the game. The three stores produce their staple Cartier design wristwatches in their own local workshops while the movements are supplied by JLC, Audemars Piguet, Movado. This era gives us the best from the London boutique with the uber elusive Crash, the maxi oval baignoire, the reverso , the helm, the asymmetric and some other fantastic tank iterations. New York also follows suit with their own productions with some oddities that appeal to the clientele of the time. Watches manufactured by Piaget, Universal, Corum, Movado but bearing the Cartier name on the dial and I must say the New York boutique was also a Henri Stern watch company client and that lead to some fantastic Patek’s to be retailed with double signature. I’ve had the pleasure of selling one. These just mentioned are also the Cartier watches that come with numbers hand etched on the lug.
Again I would say 100% of the watches are in precious metal, this is jewelry first and foremost.
3) the 1970s/1980s:
Cartier came to be an even bigger brand and it was time to become a stronger global luxury name. The three boutiques unified under one umbrella and more shops were opened with the “Must de Cartier” name. Production of the timepieces was now to be made in Switzerland with higher grade movements and more units done. Lighters, purses and more accessories with the Cartier name and design are produced catapulting the brand to global mainstream success.
In 1972, Cartier moved the watches production from France to Switzerland, to La Chaux de Fonds at Ebel. From this cooperation was born the “Louis Cartier” collection, 12 gold models with gold buckle inspired along the lines of the past, but revised in a modern key.
The bright idea of that time is to reproduce some of the winning horses of the past with new proportions along with new designs that breathe Cartier but appeal to the contemporary taste. The Louis Cartier tank automatic (bigger / better), the gondole, the ellipse, the ceinture, the cousin and the vendome are the object of desire of the successful and the tasteful of the 70s. Those watches aren’t produced anymore in the local workshops of Cartier but are contracted by the Ebel factory in Chaux le Fonds in Switzerland. To this day. As we come towards the 80s the decision to sell to an even bigger audience is made and the santos Dumont is produced in steel and two tone creating a worldwide legend. After this to me it becomes a little bit dark with quartz stuff and cheaper watches and fast forward to 1991 a new era starts.
4) Modern Era:
In 1991 Cartier decides to reissue some of its strongest designs to celebrate its centenary. Fantastic move indeed ! Limited editions of the Crash, baignoire, tanks etc are manufactured and exquisitely made. The same was done again with the Collection privee started in the early 2000s with all the iconic designs reissued in different metals and with some new details. Some fantastic watches from this time are out there. They are tasteful and carry a modern robustness to them which makes it a bit easier to wear. These watches are hot and I believe the market will demand them more and more.
Modern production of Cartier is also very interesting: to this day the maison uncovers new iterations of their winners such as for example the skeleton Santos Dumont and the modern tank Cintrees. The limited editions are still hotcakes and there’s always something fresh to expect from the brand.
I have to say that for a Cartier to be of particular interest for you my dear client it has to be in precious metal and with a mechanical movement. Regrettably (Or not) the steel and the quartz movement watches aren’t cutting it here. You’re in even greater luck if the timepiece is in white gold or platinum (out 10 watches 9 are yellow gold).
I have to share and explain that these Cartier of yesteryear may seem simple or even small to the untrained eye. Say a Tank may look like a little thing but fine spirits are treasured in small special crystal bottles. We are not talking about the usual watch here, it’s a really different experience wearing a Cartier especially if it comes with the custom sized strap and C deployment buckle. It’s not like wearing a watch it’s like wearing say a leather jacket (a $5000 one) it’s an accessory, something that blends into you. It’s a time teller and a part of your look. I wish there was some kind of German or Japanese term that would capture the enjoyment of aristocratic unassuming personal luxury self care, a feeling only someone living in certain privilege can take advantage of.
I’ve been very fortunate thank God to sell quite a few vintage and contemporary Cartiers in this past year.