Cartier watches. The good, the bad and the ugly.
What is the quality of Cartier watches from a horological perspective? Are they just watches with a fancy name or are they really high quality in terms of the construction of the movement and watch?.
The real problem with Cartier watches is that Cartier is the Cartier name. That is, possibly the most famous jeweller there is.
And when you have such an image, everything you do in other fields will always be seen as a brand extension — even if you do it masterfully (as they did with their watches, and I use the past tense for a good reason that will be obvious if you read on).
A Cartier, for the good or the bad, is and probably, will always be felt more like jewelry than a watch, despite the fact that Cartier was the Maison that almost invented commercial wristwatches.
Yes, I am perfectly aware that the first wristwatches appeared around 1880 from the adaptation of pocket watches. It was Girard Perregaux which produced the first commercial batch of wristwatches — 2,000 of them — for the German Empire’s armed forces. Wristwatches were already adopted by military personnel, as they found much more practical to strap a watch to their wrists than having to fumble in their pockets to recover one, especially during military activities.
But Cartier was the Maison which rendered these “tool” watches fashionable.
And did it with one of their most iconic timepieces, the Santos. You can see one of the first on top.
In brief, the name of this watch is linked to its wearer, Alberto de Santos Dumont, who was a very rich gentleman of Brazilian origin, and happened to be one of the first “aviators” in the world. Alberto — who lived in Paris — belonged to the high society of the era, and his daring experiments with fyling machines were well known, rendering him a celebrity and a sort of “influencer” ante-litteram.
So, when Alberto asked his friend Louis Cartier for a watch that he could wear during his flights , Cartier presented him the Santos you can see on top. This happened in 1904.
The aviator liked so much the watch that he always wore it everywhere he went, and this helped immensely to spread the appeal of these “wristwatches” between the dandies of the era.
So, as you can see, Cartier has many more merits in the horology field than people are aware of, not only in the jewelry one. To come back to strict “horology”, as it was pretty customary during the time, Cartier was an “etablisseur”.
The so called Etablissage is a method of watch manufacturing where existing watch components are assembled rather than manufactured from raw materials — and it was possibly the most established business model in the Swiss watch productiobefore the 1970s.
In Switzerland, the mountains of the Swiss Jura were a poor region which did not have raw materials. The textile industry there went bust due to the introduction of machinery, so a lot of people lost their job, and to recycle themselves, they approached the watch field. These workers assembled components of watches and movements at home for delivery to workshops to then be combined into finished products. This assembly of watches from purchased components is called “établissage” in French, and is the contrary of “manufacture”.
In 1907, Louis Cartier signed a contract with Edmond Jaeger, who agreed to supply the movements for Cartier watches. Cartier already sold everywhere in Europe, as the Maison had shops in London, New York and St. Petersburg and was quickly becoming one of the most successful luxury watch companies in the world.
The Baignoire and Tortue models (both of which are still in production today were introduced in 1912, followed by another iconic watch, the Tank model which debuted in 1917.
Designed by Louis Cartier, the Tank was inspired by the tracks of the newly introduced tanks on the Western Front. The Cartier Tank watch — in particular — has become through the years a real icon of style, being worn by Jackie Kennedy, Clark Gable, Princess Diana, Andy Warhol, and dozens of other style icons worldwide.
Returning back to Cartier, the maison continued to use movements from other makers in its watches, apart from Jaeger — like Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet, Movado and LeCoultre (that is, the best among the best of the world), but did not embark in the adventure of creating them by itself.
So, where does this long premise take us?
To the point where it is rather evident that while not manufacturing movements for all of its life, Cartier is an amazing watch company all the same — only it was not a manufacturer, because its business model was different.
I would not doubt about finding exceptional quality and finishings in Cartier watches, precisely because the company has a tradition of excellence and workmanship stemming from its 150 year old history. You won’t find any faults in a Cartier, because the reputation is there, and rest assured that it does not come cheap.
If you instead are more technically-oriented, though, there is a surprise for you. The present-day Cartier is not anymore an etablisseur.
Anticipating the trends of the industry, Cartier has created a big manufacturing plant in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland of over 30,000 square meters — and under the guidance of Carole Forestier-Kasapi, the genius watchmaker that was hired in 2005 and had worked at Audemars Piguet (Renaud & Papi) and Van Cleef & Arpels, it prepared some amazing movements, which have debuted in November 2007 with a high-end Flying Tourbillon movement (caliber 9452MC) in 2007.
This caliber has received a Geneva Seal of Excellence, the first for Cartier ever. Unfortunately, the movement was presented in a too big 47mm Ballon Bleu case. But in the meantime, much more wearable 40mm Rotonde and gorgeous Ballon Bleu Flying Tourbillon models have been launched, as well as other lovely watches.
And it it is undoubtably Cartier as well.
Since then, Cartier has unveiled an impressive collection of about 40 different calibers, from the basic 1904MC to the very high-end complicated 9406MC. All watches in the top line nowadays have in-house calibers by the maison, and within a few years, the whole Cartier collection of watches will do too.
So, my friends, I guess that now you can understand that Cartier is not just a fancy name over a respectable but stock movement.
Not anymore. And it deserves a lot of respect.