The term “tank” watch is similar to Xerox—a brand name that has come to signify an entire market segment. Technically there’s only one tank watch—it’s made by Cartier, and represents the first of a long line of square, rectangular or anything but circular watches.
This category does not include some established niche variations like the paunchy tonneau or the round/square hybrid popularized by brands like Rolex and known as the cushion.
While the squares once dominated the market, in recent years many of these can be found among the fashion or dress watch category, with the notable exception of the sporty TAG Heuer Monaco and a few others. Ironic, for a style that was literally the first sports watch!
Let’s open the door to this horological crypt and take a walk through the history of what was once the hippest watch on the market.
The one and only Cartier Santos watch was many things: it was the first man’s wristwatch, it was square, it was the first aviation watch and it was a sports watch. The Santos was developed in 1904 as the result of a relationship between Brazilian celebrity aviator and scientist Alberto Santos-Dumont and watchmaker Louis Cartier. Santos-Dumont had become frustrated with the distracting act of taking his hands off the controls to check the time on his pocket watch, so his friend Cartier came up with a solution: mount the watch on a wrist strap. Thus was born the Cartier Santos, a watch that Santos-Dumont was said to have worn on every subsequent flight. The iconic design is still in production and remains one of Cartier’s bestselling watches.
Louis Cartier followed his success with the Santos when he designed and released the Tank in 1917, inspired, appropriately, by the design of the Renault tanks used in the First World War. Cartier presented the prototype to General John Pershing of the American Expeditionary Force. Cartier expanded on the simple square of the Santos; the Tank features a square watch in a rectangular case with its straps hidden under vertical sidepieces. The watch features blued, sword shaped hands with a winding crown that is topped with a sapphire.
Cartier has continuously manufactured the Tank in many variants for more than ninety years, with a new version just released at this year’s SIHH show.
As our world’s primary industrial nations and designs centers left the gloom of the First World War behind, new square watches reflecting the style of the jazz age entered the market to kick off the Art Deco era. Art Deco reflects an ornate sensibility and is built on a reverence for stepped forms and geometric curves. Watchmakers drew from this and developed a wide variety of products to capture the breezy, dynamic appeal of Deco.
Square Deco watches were exemplified by pillared cases, flowing log covers, faces featuring everything from Roman to Futura hour markers. Watches of the early to mid-1920s were found in the usual range of materials (gold, platinum, silver and steel) and primarily hand wound. Men’s watches were characteristically far smaller than (28-32mm) than today’s standard (38-44mm).
The soaring imaginations of this era’s designers came to full realization, however, in women’s watches, found bedecked in jewels with ornate dials and bracelets. Vacheron Constantin, Patek Philippe, Nicolet, Gubelin and Breguet are just a few of the manufacturers that turned out works of art for women’s wrists.
A bevy of celebratory designs became available from high-end manufacturers that captured the exuberance of the day.
“The art deco design was perfectly suited for wrist watches,” says Steve Bogoff a noted horologist has been dealing in antique wristwatches from Mill Valley, California, since 1970. “In addition to tonneau there were many square and rectangular designs, the larger ones in curved cases. The deco design for watches was so compelling it continues to this day, as evidenced by the uber deco Hamilton Ventura, manufactured since the 1950’s,” he adds.
Some of the more notable watches of this period are from Benrus, which made a simple square watch in several varieties. Also popular were Audemars Piguet’s version of Cartier and Omega models. The Omegas featured a variety of compelling styles like silvered dials and exploding numerals. While many of the Omegas were typical in size for the period, the company also released many oversized models, featuring a 17-jewel round movement housed in an incredible square 42mm case.
“In terms of men’s watches the Omega represents one of the most desirable and recognizable models of the 1920’s. Base metal examples can today be found for a few hundred dollars. Watches from makers like Patek and Cartier can run into the tens of thousands,” says Paul Hoyt, President, Connoisseur of Time, in Suwanee, GA.
From 1930 to 1942 marked the heyday for square watches as Deco morphed into the streamlined Moderne style, which would come to represent what most people think of when the term “tank,” ahem, “square,” is used to describe a watch. Major manufacturers released a rich bounty of products that would serve to define this genre for history. Many of the hallmark styles appeared during this period, including the Top Hat, with varieties produced by Patek Philippe, IWC and Tiffany. Rolex released the Prince, with a fantastic movement, which was designed to emulate the success of the Cartier models. Also, Jaeger-LeCoultre attempted the reinvent the category with the famous Reverso. Today, all command significant prices on the collector markets. IWC, Raymond Weil, Bulova, Wittnauer, Benrus, Elgin Hamilton and Longines also had strong product representation during this period.
One of the most well known watches of the period was the Gruen Curvex, which had an ingenious thin movement housed in a curved case. It was marketed on both a style and engineering level – like many of today’s watches.
“The Curvex is an affordable entry point for a collector interested in becoming involved in models of this period,” says Hoyt. Interestingly both the rectangular Gruen Techi-Quadron and the rectangular Rolex Prince shared a movement, manufactured by Aegler, a third company. Curvexes ranged in size from 34 mm to 40 mm and were available in everything from stainless steel to gold. Today, they can be found for $100 to $1,200, with a premium placed on the unique 41mm Oversized Executive model.
“Watches from this period don’t sell as well as large round watches or round watches in general. While beautiful, they require someone that is in the market for something a little different than the norm,” observes Hoyt. “One of the terrific things about collecting vintage squares is the fact that counterfeits are virtually nonexistent,” he adds.
World War II changed the game for the square watch category, possibly because the world’s militaries specified round watches for their armed forces. Military watches as a rule are utilitarian, no frills timepieces noticeably absent of decoration. “Selecting round watches seems to be a logical choice as they are an efficient use of space, easier to read than tanks, and also tend to be more accurate,” says Hoyt. Production and sales of square watches slowed down during the war, dealing a sales blow to the category.
The round watches that appeared after the war reflected a trend towards sports, utility and specific function – a trend that continues through this day. The somewhat less than robust daily wear square watch of the 1940’s was being slowly eclipsed in favor of watches with an emphasis on water resistance, shock resistance, increasingly complicated functions, automatic movements and larger, thicker cases. Some of the most famous models of this period reflect this evolution: the Rolex Submariner, Breitling Navitimer, and Blancpain 50 Fathoms were derived directly from military influences. By the 1960s the square had been regulated to watch in a new role: elegant timepiece.
In 1960 Grant Stockdale presented John F. Kennedy an 18-karat gold Omega Ultra-Thin model wristwatch, eliciting a public comment from Jackie Kennedy that it was the “thin and elegant.” This famous watch exemplified the new status for the square watch.
Kennedy wore this watch to his January 20, 1961, inauguration; he famously did not wear a hat, making him possibly the only person in history to affect two products categories in one afternoon: hats and square watches.
Kennedy’s original was purchased in 2005 by Omega for $350,000; in 2008 they reissued it in a limited run of 261, for $8,250. Vintage examples of the originals can be found today for less than $1,000.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s several interesting sports themed square watches appeared which, by virtue of their oddity, became instant collector’s items. These famous models include the (now iconic) Steve McQueen Heuer Monaco and the Omega Constellation series, some of the earliest quartz watches on the market.
But speaking of quartz, no square watch review would be complete without a reference to the style of square watch that developed its own life in the 1980s: the calculator watch or digital watch. The square case form factor proved an ideal home for a myriad of quartz and calculator products developed by Japanese watch companies. These found a ready market on the wrists of nerds, wannabe nerds and scientists across the world. Digitals proved a fertile ground in the race to cram as much technology into the smallest space possible, offering features such as advanced calculators, temperature sensors, alarms and radios.
Two of the most interesting examples from this period were also the simplest: the Omega Marine Chronometer, billed in 1980 as the most accurate watch in the world, and the Seiko digital camera watch that Roger Moore wore as James Bond in “The Spy Who Loved Me.” The truly curious can find an online homage to this style watch online at the Nerd Watch Museum.
For those seeking modern tank-style watches, many of the original classics are still available. The rectangular Rolex Cellini Prince is still a Deco-cased beauty with a COSC-certified movement available in a variety of dials and metals. It measures 28 mm by 47 mm, is water resistant to 100 ft. and manual wind. Another high-end option is the sleek, 32 mm by 32mm square Girard-Perregaux Vintage 1945.
For quartz lovers there are many options on the market. Tissot offers a quartz alternative with its Helvetia Champagne Quartz Classic Dress Watch. The Tissot is water resistant to 100 ft, has a sapphire crystal and a large 49 mm 18-karat gold case. Another quartz alternative is the Hamilton Boulton, a square watch for daily wear. It straddles the Tonneau style but remains a square in its own right. Longines embraces the elegant with its DolceVita, available in a variety of stainless steel, gold and diamond treatments, all quartz powered.
With a steady demand for traditional classics, you can count on square watches being accompanying bespoke suits, tuxedos and evening gowns for decades to come. In other words, timeless never goes out of style.