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King of Elegance – 24 Hours in Milan with Cartier

King of Elegance – 24 Hours in Milan with Cartier

3. October 2023

On a balmy summer evening at the end of September, the first guests are arriving at Milan’s Cartier boutique on Via Monte Napoleone in the city’s luxury district. We take the glass elevator with its own doorman to the fourth floor, past the spacious and wonderfully decorated sales areas where jewellery and watches are brought to the clientele. On this evening, however, no business is being done at the presentation counters – only a small group of journalists and watch enthusiasts are gathered on the top floor.

Cartier has set up a small refuge in the four-storey boutique, consisting of a lounge area for intimate conversations, and a small inner garden from which the sound of the pulsating metropolis hums in the background. They have travelled from Spain, the Netherlands, and Sweden to see some extremely rare Cartier watches, which will be on display at the Milan boutique until 05 October as part of a special exhibition celebrating the 40th anniversary of ‘The Cartier Collection’, by appointment only. But it is not the only anniversary. Cartier is celebrating the 170th anniversary of the Maison’s first watch this year, then still a pocket watch. To mark this anniversary, the new Tank Louis Cartier Platinum, limited to 170 pieces and intended exclusively for the European market, will be presented for the first time this evening.

Cartier Boutique in Milan

King of elegance

Among the 20 or so guests, we discover Auro Montanari, known under the pseudonym John Goldberger as one of the most famous watch collectors in the world, who stands out not only for his size but also for his excellent fashion style. Auro is the owner of a considerable Cartier collection, and will therefore be sharing a few of his secrets this evening. Wei Koh, Revolution founder and watch collector, leads the conversation and makes a statement right at the start: “If Rolex is the king of sports watches and Patek Philippe is the king of complications, then Cartier must be the king of elegance”. So it is not without reason that we are in Milan, probably the most important fashion metropolis in the world, and home to Luchino Visconti, Ettore Bugatti, Walter Albini or Luisa Casati. So, if Cartier is the king of elegance, Milan is definitely the king of style.

Wei Koh (left) and Auro Montanari (right)

And it’s true: since the presentation of the first wristwatch in 1904, the Santos, Cartier has managed to establish a watch design that, while remaining almost unchanged, still inspires people today. The same applies to the Tank, which was first launched in 1917 and has also, despite having barely changed, become an icon of watchmaking today. The rectangular case design, with its so-called ‘brancards’ and vertical side bars that connect the bracelet and case, was still considered disruptive at the time, but developed over the decades into an expression of good style.

Not least because Louis Cartier, grandson of the founder Louis-François Cartier, moved in the best social circles and wealthy elite of Paris. Later, famous personalities such as Ingrid Bergman, Clark Gable, Andy Warhol or even Muhammad Ali wore Cartier watches. The Tank Normale from 1917, the Tank Cintrée from 1921 and the Tank Louis Cartier from 1922 formed the foundation of all subsequent Tank variations such as Tank Étanche, Tank Chinoise, Tank Asymetrie, Tank Americaine, Tank Francaise or Tank Must de Cartier, to name the most important.

Cartier Collection

Now, a few rare pieces from this era are on display in Milan, which Cartier has been reacquiring since the 1970s. The ‘Cartier Collection’ was founded in 1983, and now comprises around 3,500 historic watches and jewellery pieces from the last 170 years. It now falls under the responsibility of Pierre Rainero, Cartier’s Image, Style and Heritage Director. Among the highlights on display, which make even the biggest collectors weak at the knees, are a Tank Cintrée from 1924, a Tank Louis Cartier from 1925, the Tank À Guichets from 1928 and a full gold Tank Étanche from 1931.

The 10 historic models of ‘The Cartier Collection’, Milan

These are just a few special creations from the in-house ‘Cartier Collection’, which have been regularly exhibited to the public in the world’s most renowned museums since 1989. For there is no separate Cartier museum for historical watches. Rather, these exhibitions began in 1989 at the Petit Palais in Paris, before moving onto the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1997, the British Museum in London in 1998, Palace Museum in Beijing in 2009 and 2019, and the Hong Kong Palace Museum this year. The oldest Tank owned by Cartier dates back to 1920, as Pierre Rainero tells us. Since the number of pieces produced at that time was extremely low, with just six models in 1919, this 1920 Tank is probably one of the first 10 Tank models ever made.

Cartier Tank Louis from the 1920s
Fotocredit © Analog:Shift

Just how great the enthusiasm for Cartier watches from across the eras still is today is not only shown by its success as the second largest watch brand in the world in terms of turnover, but also by the watches on the wrists of the guests. Among the finest creations, we discover a Cartier Tank Louis Cartier from the late 1960s, a Cartier Tank Cintrée Unique Piece, a full gold Cartier Santos Carrée from the early 1980s with a diamond-studded dial and bezel, and a rare and beautiful Cartier Tank Basculante produced exclusively for the French market. Today, John Goldberger wore a Cartier Cintrée Platinum Unique Piece from 2009 – the collector has a particular soft spot for this model series, which was first introduced in 1921.

Tank Louis Cartier Platinum Limited Edition EU

Amidst the historical pieces, a contemporary Tank model is also on display in a showcase this evening, and yet, if one did not know any better, it could easily be from the Louis Cartier era. The dial design, too, is reminiscent of Art Deco’s heyday, not to mention the distinctive case design, which has remained unchanged for over 100 years.

We learn from Pierre Rainero that the new Tank Louis Cartier Platinum pays homage to the creative dials of the 1990s, which in turn were inspired by the watches from the Art Deco period of the 1910s and 1920s. So, here we come full circle. Pierre Rainero, by the way, is instrumental in the design of all new Cartier watches – no watch is launched before the Image, Style and Heritage Director has personally signed it off on. After all, Rainero is considered the guardian of Cartier’s heritage today.

The dial of this Tank, limited to 170 pieces and intended exclusively for the European market, shimmers in various shades of blue. But the effect only really comes into its own in sunlight. State-of-the-art laser engraving and PVD (physical vapour deposition) treatment create an almost graphic pattern that shimmers in different shades of blue.

Aside from this, the dial design is kept simple, with four large Roman numerals and two sword hands (hours and minutes) made of rhodium-plated steel. The platinum case (950/1000) has a diameter of 33.7 mm x 25.5 mm with a height of 6.6 mm. The crown features the typical Cartier ruby cabochon – in red to indicate that the case material is platinum. The price is therefore 13,800 euros.

Inside the watch runs the proven in-house manufacture movement 1917MC, first presented at the end of 2018. The words “Limited Edition 170 Pieces” are engraved on the back of the case, as a tribute to the 170th birthday of the first Cartier watch from 1853. 

Filled with fond memories, the lift and its accompanying Cartier porter bring us back down to the entrance area of the boutique, from where we plunge into the culinary nightlife. Over steak Milanese, we reflect on the elegance that this Italian city exudes, and then it’s Arrivederci Milano for now.