As is the case with so many wardrobe classics from the ‘90s (see: bike shorts-and-sweatshirt combos, oversized blazers), the appeal of Cartier’s Tank Française can be attributed to Princess Diana. Not long after the watch style, with its bracelet-style band and streamlined rectangular shape inspired by WWI battlefield tanks, debuted as part of Cartier’s existing “Tank” family in 1996, Lady Di wore one in solid gold. It quickly became the timepiece of choice for It Girls of the aughts like Gisele Bündchen and Nicky Hilton — and the women who wanted to dress just like them.
“It’s a symbolic piece of Cartier history from the late ‘90s, early ‘00s,” confirms Malaika Crawford, the style editor at watch website HODINKEE, recalling that friends of hers growing up in London coveted the Tank Française to mark special occasions like 18th birthdays and graduations. (Think of it as the Tiffany & Co. heart tag.)
While in 2009, Tank Française cemented its US royalty status when former First Lady Michelle Obama wore a steel version for her official White House portrait, over the last decade, it has become eclipsed by Cartier’s flashier sister style Panthère, with its five-link bracelet —papped on celebrity wrists belonging to the likes of Bella Hadid and Dua Lipa. But there are signs that the style is now experiencing a comeback.
In the last few years, celebrities like Meghan Markle (who reportedly got Princess Diana’s piece), Donald Glover, and Dakota Johnson have all sported the timepiece. Meanwhile, according to Rebag, Tank Française purchases have grown 5x year-over-year, with Cartier becoming the second best-selling watch brand on the luxury resale site after Rolex.
“The Cartier Tank Française was my first-ever luxury watch,” says Brynn Wallner, the mastermind behind the women’s watch site Dimepiece, who got her timepiece in 2021. “Before I started Dimepiece, I didn’t own a nice watch, and it got to a point where I was like, ‘Okay, I need to watch because everybody thinks I’m the watch girl and my wrist is bare.’”
Wallner spent a year muddling over which luxury watch to invest in first before deciding on the Tank Française in steel. “For women especially, we haven’t really developed our taste around watches in the way we have the fashion, where it’s kind of second nature,” she says. “Whereas with watches, it’s this brand-new category and you don’t even know the physicality of it, how it can fit on your wrist.” So what made the Tank Française the winner? Wallner points to the minimal watch style’s classic and streamlined shape: “It’s a beautiful piece of architecture without screaming from the rooftops about how amazing it is.”
“It’s just a super easy-to-wear watch,” echoes Crawford. “It’s not too big, it’s not too small, it’s got a very unisex feel, it doesn’t have a super distinctive style, so it’s super versatile.”
And, of course, there’s the price: While still very much a luxury good, the Tank Française provides a relatively affordable entry point to the market, with the small steel model starting at around $3,500, in comparison to, say, Rolex watches, which start closer to $5,000. (If you want to get a gold Tank, however, the price gets significantly higher, starting around $20k; tack on an extra $4 to $5k if you want one with diamonds along the face.)
That’s because most Tank Française styles feature quartz movements, powered by a battery, versus mechanical movements, fueled by kinetic energy, a small difference to most wearers but one that’s important to collectors and aficionados who see the former as slightly inferior, according to Crawford: “[That said,] I wouldn’t get too caught up in the weeds of the technical aspects — for an entry-level piece, you want something that you’re comfortable wearing.”
The watch is even more affordable on the secondhand market, where, the Tank Française retains 55% to 65% of its retail value, according to Elizabeth Layne, chief marketing officer of Rebag. “We think of the Tank as the watch version of the Love bracelet — the first one you get in your collection, the entry-level collector’s piece,” Layne says, referring to the brand’s popular bangle bracelet which is “locked” onto the wearer by a key. (In case you need a reminder, in perhaps the biggest pop culture moment for the style, Kylie Jenner once posted about being “stuck” in hers.)
According to Layne, the Tank Française is the most popular Cartier timepiece style at the moment, with gold ones selling the fastest. “We can’t keep them in stock,” Layne says. “Part of that is that the value play is that much greater.”
Adding to the Tank Française renaissance is the fact that Cartier reissued the style earlier this year, making slight tweaks — satin finishes instead of brushed metals, squaring off the rectangular face — to reintroduce the style to a new audience while staying true to its origins. “What’s clever about Cartier, and other brands that are very prestigious in the watch space, is they always make very incremental changes to their designs,” Crawford says. “[Yet] the design language that you’re so familiar with stays kind of the same so that it’s always recognizable.”
Another reason for the increase in popularity could be to do with the fact that the Tank Française leans more unisex in style. “It’s [equally] popular among men and women,” says Layne. “I do think the reissue almost leans even more into being more friendly for men, given that they’ve increased the size.”
So could the Tank Française be perfectly positioned to become the next It watch? With its sleek, subtle design and price point, there is no better time.
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