British collector and expert Harry Fane talks about what it takes to be the world’s foremost authority on vintage Cartier creations and how to spot a good investment buy at his Vintage Cartier Tank watch exhibition at Dover Street Market Singapore

(May 20): Harry Fane’s love affair with Cartier began at the tender age of 17. It was the 1970s and his best friend showed up one day, decked out in two must-have items of the era: a pair of Gucci shoes with a gold buckle — “the height of fashion at the time” — and a Cartier watch.

“I remember going, ‘Gosh, I really want both of those,’” Fane recounts over FaceTime from his London office.

Twenty years went by before Fane even looked at another Cartier watch. He became a jewellery dealer in this time and established a private London gallery,
Obsidian, in 1978, curating a wide range of jewellery and objets d’art, both vintage and modern.

Eventually, Fane’s teenaged object of desire circled back into his life and he began casually collecting vintage Cartier watches until eight years ago, when a wealthy gentleman client approached him to source 12 vintage Cartier watches as an alternative investment vehicle. It took Fane up to five years to locate and secure the desired dozen timepieces of “exceptional” quality and provenance for the client. 

In the process, he immersed himself in the world of Cartier, studying every intricacy of the timepieces and soaking up the rich heritage accompanied by legendary tales surrounding the brand’s liaisons with old-world Hollywood luminaries.

“Former First Lady Jackie Kennedy owned a miniature Tank. It was inscribed and, with her provenance, it was recently sold to reality TV superstar Kim Kardashian for hundreds of thousands of dollars,” says Fane.

Then, there was an amusing story of Rudolph Valentino, a famous movie star during the silent film era of the 1920s, who was cast to play a 10th century Arab sheikh dressed in traditional garb.

“He was the greatest movie icon and romantic lead of his day and he loved his Cartier Tank so much that he refused to take it off during filming. And so there’s this Cartier watch flashing around in this historical setting of an epic film,” says Fane.

Two more classic Hollywood leading men, Cary Grant and Stewart Granger, were also known to be Cartier fans. In more recent times, there were boxing legend Muhammad Ali and pop art virtuoso Andy Warhol, and, today, current “it” girl, Cara Delevingne.

Summing up his journey to becoming the leading expert in this field, Fane says: “I was the first person to show an interest in what Cartier was doing historically. With knowledge came increased interest and I’ve become sort of interested in — not obsessive about — the weird differences from watch to watch, which I find fascinating.”

Also required to become the world authority on vintage Cartier timepieces: a keen sense of observation honed over a lifetime, which Fane developed.

“It’s purely by looking; I look and look and look. Whether they be famous mystery clocks worth millions of dollars or tiny wristwatches, they’re all identified in certain ways: by the way they’re signed — or not signed,” Fane observes.

Twentieth-century icon

Beauty, elegance and simplicity were the three temptresses that stoked Fane’s infatuation with the Cartier Tank, in particular. Designed by Louis Cartier in 1917, the Tank was inspired by the Renault FT-17 tanks deployed during World War I. 

“The Tank was what really defined Cartier as a watchmaker,” he says. “No other watch in the world — except for Rolex — is as recognisable as the Cartier Tank.”

Its elegance, defined by the slimness of design, was indeed remarkable for its time.

“Louis Cartier was obsessed with elegance, and one of his great aims was to produce a super-thin watch, almost like a wafer, and it was a real challenge,” Fane explains. “So, he charged his watchmaker, Edmond Jaeger, to make ever thinner movements for ever-thinner cases. Together with his partner LeCoultre, they made these movements for the original Tank watches.”

This was in the early 1900s, when the French jeweller signed a contract with the watchmakers under which all Jaeger movements would be exclusive to Cartier for a period of 15 years. This collaboration between Parisian watchmaker Jaeger and Swiss manufacturer LeCoultre then gave rise to a new company in 1937: Jaeger-LeCoultre, as we know it today.  

According to Fane, Cartier Paris produced only 1,804 Tank watches between 1919 and 1960, when mechanisation of the production was partly introduced. It is also believed that London and New York each produced another 200 pieces of the Tank.

“The watches made by Cartier London during that era all had unique features that set them apart from the Paris production, thereby enhancing their rarity,” says Fane. 

Over the years, however, many of these watches have been lost: broken, stolen, damaged in fires, melted down for their gold weight (before the renaissance of the mechanical watch industry following the quartz revolution of the 1970s and 1980s) or simply forgotten about in the back of a drawer. Throw in a second catastrophic world war, and Fane’s conservative estimate puts the number of surviving original Tank models at no more than 1,500 today. 

“So, to have even 50 vintage Tank watches in my personal collection is remarkable,” notes Fane. “You could go around the world three times and you could not accumulate as many watches as I am bringing to Singapore for my exhibition.”

Exhibition in Singapore

Running until May 30, the Vintage Cartier Tank watch exhibition at Dover Street Market Singapore (DSMS) marks Fane’s second stop in Asia, following a similar successful event he did with Comme des Garçons Aoyama in Japan last year, where he has already sold a number of vintage Cartier Tank models from his collection.

The Singapore edition showcases “a moveable feast” of another 31 such watches, the majority of which will be various iterations of the well-loved Tank produced between 1920 and 1975.

The curated selection, priced between $14,000 and $85,000, includes several “impossible finds” such as two extremely rare Tank Normale — the very first Tank design — from 1952 and 1965.

There is also a Tank Cintrée from 1926 and another from 1965, as well as a 1945 Tank Chinoise, with its case inspired by Chinese-style furniture created in the 18th century by English furniture maker Thomas Chippendale.

Among the handful of ladies’ timepieces in the exhibition is an exceptionally rare “Reverso” model, a unique and protective dial-flip design that has since become a brand signature for Jaeger-LeCoultre.

There will also be at least one London-made Tank watch, which is highly sought after, “as so few were made”, and a model that looks “exactly like the model Jackie Kennedy owned” in the exhibit.

Glamour of bygone era

Indeed, the allure of vintage is often more in the charming story that transports the wearer to the glamour of a bygone era.

“Owning a Cartier Tank connects one to an earlier day, when glamour and elegance ruled. It was ‘a rite of passage’ for young French aristocrats to be taken to Cartier upon reaching 18 to choose their first Cartier wristwatch, and Cartier watches have been worn by the rich and famous ever since,” says Fane.

“When you put on a Cartier watch and you know it was made in 1931, your brain goes on to say, ‘I wonder who owned it, where they wore it, and who saw it on their wrist.’”

Fane himself once owned a cigarette case belonging to Marlene Dietrich, one of the most famous classic Hollywood actresses of all time. “I always wondered who she may have given a cigarette to,” he muses.

Discretion is important in Fane’s business, however, and he prefers to remain tight-lipped about some of his famous clients.

He says, “Provenance and previous ownership is very hard to establish, as Cartier is very guarded, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these watches [in the exhibition] have been owned by famous people.”

He offers a delightful anecdote, however, about an “impossible mission” he embarked on to source for a pair of original Cartier Crash watches for a celebrity couple “more famous than Prince Harry and Meghan Markle”.

“Many people think the Crash watch was influenced by Salvador Dali, but it’s actually inspired by an accident between a red bus and black taxi that Jean-Jacques Cartier saw on his way to work one day in the 1960s,” shares Fane.

By an “incredible quirk of luck”, Fane managed to find a second Crash and delivered the pair of watches to the couple. “All I can tell you is that they are extremely famous. If you look on the internet, you can find this couple wearing this pair of Crash watches,” he hints.

As a collector himself, is Fane ever reluctant to part with his precious pieces?

“I do get sentimental, but I’ve been doing this for years. So, if I were sentimental about everything, I’d be buried under Cartier jewels, watches and clocks,” he jokes.

Vintage investments

For all the fascinating narrative, are these vintage Cartier timepieces a good investment?

“No one comes to me and says they want to buy a historical piece as an investment,” Fane acknowledges. “The people who buy from me are just taken by the beauty of it and then they hope it goes up in value — and there’s no doubt they are going up in value. Prices are going up all the time,” he observes.

As for advice on how to spot a good buy in the vintage watch market, Fane says: “Cartier had a very distinctive style. So, if you’re going to buy a vintage Cartier, stick with the very stylistic pieces, which are very easily recognisable. This applies to both jewellery and watches. There’s not much point spending a million dollars on a piece that could look like it’s made by anybody else.

“While I don’t have a crystal ball, there has been a steady rise in value. And the beauty and rarity of these pieces are never going to be diminished. So, it’s a good thing to put your money in — and fun to own.”

Ultimately, wearing a Cartier Tank is, to Fane, one of life’s simple pleasures. “It pleases and delights the eye; of all the millions of wristwatches in the world, none are as elegant and simple as the Cartier Tank. Louis Cartier designed a classic that transcends time.”

Indeed, there is nothing like owning a true icon of the 20th century.

Jamie Nonis is a business and lifestyle journalist with an appreciation for all things beautiful

Icons from the past

The Vintage Cartier Tank watch exhibition at Dover Street Market Singapore will feature these specially curated pieces

1933, Tank Rectangular (Petite)

Early representation of a Lady’s petite tank. A rectangular case with a cornice setting for the watch-crystal and extended lugs. With a silvered dial signed Cartier France with radial black Roman numerals and blued ‘spade’ hands.  Flat notched back winder in 18kt yellow gold.

1952, Tank Normale

A collector’s edition and extremely rare model, it was the first Tank design. Silvered dial signed Cartier with radial black Roman numerals and blued ‘épée’ hands and inner minute track Chemin de fer. Faceted winder with faceted sapphire in 18kt yellow gold.

1960, Cartier Watch

While Cartier is particularly famous for the Tank watch, it made many elegant round wristwatches as well. Silvered dial signed Cartier with applied gold Arabic and baton chapters, with a subsidiary seconds dial and beaded domed winder in 18kt yellow gold.