From mod moment to modern classic.
The Cartier Crash came about at an interesting moment in the history of the company. In 1967, Cartier London was the last of the three historic Cartier boutiques which were still being run by a member of the family – the boutiques, although connected historically, were independent businesses (Cartier New York was sold in 1962, and Cartier Paris, in 1966). To say it was a time of upheaval for traditional luxury is to say nothing at all. Cartier was the leading representative, bar none, of traditional European and French notions of luxury and had built its business on catering to the needs of royalty, and (especially in America) those aspiring to be royalty. In the 1960s, however, this white-glove approach to luxury was beginning to seem increasingly untenable and antiquated and as a gesture to the zeitgeist, Cartier London, under Jean-Jacques Cartier’s direction, produced a small handful of watches that were, for Cartier, as dramatic a break with tradition as it had ever known.
That watch was the Cartier Crash. The Crash was designed by Jean-Jacques Cartier in collaboration with designer Rupert Emmerson and for decades, the persistent origin myth for the watch was that it was inspired by a Cartier watch that had been on its owner’s wrist during a fatal car crash – the impact and fire were supposed to have melted the watch into an intriguing shape. The reality is both more mundane and more interesting – the Crash represents the changing tastes of the 1960s, certainly, but it is also a watch in which, in contrast to the origin story, absolutely nothing has been left to chance.
Only a dozen or so original London Crash watches are thought to exist. With so few, and with interest among collectors so high, you can’t really talk about a market price – there just aren’t enough of them and they come up too seldom. The last data point we have is an original London Crash that sold for $1,503,888. If one came up tomorrow, only God and the ghost of Louis Cartier could say how much it would go for.
There are quite a few (relatively speaking) Crash watches which are not part of the original production run at Cartier London, and this includes the series of 400 which were produced by Cartier Paris in the 1990s. The Cartier Crash is now in the current catalog and the list price at the time of writing is $36,500, but it remains a watch which is seldom seen in the wild and the relative rarity of modern production Crash watches seems to only add to the appeal. The version of the Crash we had for A Week On The Wrist uses the Cartier caliber 8971, which is the Jaeger-LeCoultre caliber 846 – historically consistent, as the first London Crash watches also used a JLC caliber.
Sometimes it’s fairly easy to predict how you’ll react to a watch before you wear it – after all, a dive watch is a dive watch is a dive watch, at least up to a point. The Crash, however, turned out to defy expectations, at least for me. Chances are that unless you have had a chance to actually wear a Crash before, you haven’t worn anything even remotely like it. The watch looks in photographs as if it will be a somewhat quirky watch to wear but not necessarily a charismatic one. However, over a period of longer exposure, I found out that there is quite a bit about the Crash that is easy to miss at first (or second, or third) glance.
Maybe it’s the name, or the urban legend of its origin, or both, but the Crash can seem at first like a fairly wacky design. After all, the idea of “crashing” a Cartier watch would seem to imply a distortion that’s both radical and random, relative to other Cartier designs. In fact, the design is extremely refined and every detail has been thoroughly thought out, so that the final effect, while certainly unusual, has all the classicism and dignity of any Tank Louis Cartier.
The case of the Crash is obviously asymmetrical but that’s far from the whole story. If you draw a line down the center of the watch, from the apex of the case and through the pivots of the hour and minute hands, you’ll find that the center line doesn’t pass through the bottom apex of the case. However, the overall visual effect of the watch is symmetrical thanks to the composition of alternating bulges and indentations, especially the one at VIII. The centerline also passes through the top and bottom apexes of the pointed oval containing the words “Cartier” and “Swiss Made” in the center of the dial.
The Roman numerals are also extremely sophisticated in layout and design. Every numeral is unique – the numbers aren’t built up from a standard character set and the elongation, shape, and thickness of each numeral and each element of each numeral differ, sometimes dramatically, from one numeral to the next. The shapes can be very complex – the thin leg of the X at XI has a complex S-curve, as does the thin leg of the solitary V, and the shape of the V echoes the indentation on the lower right side of the case. It’s really remarkable – every Roman numeral has been specifically designed to complement and harmonize with the case and the effect really is as if the case had been stretched and compressed, with the numbers distorted as if they had been printed on some fluid medium.
Every wristwatch – or just about every wristwatch – owes some aspect of its design to its antecedents in the history of watchmaking. I can’t think of another watch that even remotely approaches the Crash. The Crash is a radical re-imaging of the most basic elements of the dress watch.
One of the most interesting things about the Crash, I think, is that it had the potential to seem extremely dated. After all, it debuted at a time when Pop and Op art were flourishing and in one way, it’s as much a product of its time as Andy Warhol’s soup cans. A lot of watch designs from the period rejoice in exuberant color schemes and extroverted case designs but not all of them have aged well and in many cases, while they’re still appealing, they are also irrefutably of their era – not a bad thing, but just another example of how design fads, like Cadillac tail fins, can come and go depending on the vagaries of popular tastes.
But the Crash is more or less the exact opposite of a gimmicky design. It’s too well-thought-out, too carefully executed and it’s imbued with just as much balance – albeit much more dynamically expressed – as any of the many classic Cartier watch designs from the early decades of the 20th century. And it’s inimitable in the most exact sense of the word. You can knock off a Tank or a Submariner (and many brands have – at some point designs, whether their originators want them to or not, begin to become part of the common design language of their class of objects), but I can’t imagine anyone being optimistic enough to try and imitate the design of the Crash and were anyone to try I feel pretty sure they would not meet with either commercial or critical success.
The Crash is 55 years old this year. Normally, the applicable cliché would be, “often imitated, never equaled.” The former isn’t true of the Crash – I don’t think it has ever been imitated – but without a doubt, as a demonstration of just how much sophistication you can wring from a few basic design elements, I struggle to think of a watch that pulls off a piece of high-wire, no-safety-net design so well. It’s one of the best examples I know of what Cartier excels at – making something very difficult look so easy that you don’t even notice the effort. It’s like watching a ballet dancer at the top of their form: You don’t see the technique, just the dance.
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