Hands-On: The Oddball Charm Of The Privé Collection Cloche De Cartier
Making sense of a watch that makes no sense.
The Cloche de Cartier is, objectively, a strange bird. The name means “bell” and the watch gets its name from the fact that it looks like a bell resting on its side. Straightforward enough. However, the Roman numerals on the dial are rotated 90º from their usual position, with the XII adjacent to the crown. Of course, that’s where you’d usually find the three, and if you’ve spent a lifetime reading the time off conventional analogue wristwatches, this can take some getting used to.
One rationale for having the numbers in this position is that it lets you use the watch as a table clock – set it on its side and the numbers are oriented in the usual way. The idea that the watch was originally intended to double as a table clock, however, ignores a couple of facts, which are that first off, you can make any wristwatch on a strap double as a clock by just running the strap through the keeper and setting it upright on the bottom lugs. Second, optimizing the watch for use as a clock, while diminishing its utility as a wristwatch, means that it’s less able to fulfill its primary purpose than it is its secondary purpose. Considering this, it might have been deliberately designed to provoke an anxiety attack in anyone with a horologically inclined obsessive-compulsive disorder.
According to Cartier, part of the reason for the unusual design of the Cloche – both in terms of its shape and the position of the numbers – is that the design was originally intended not for a wristwatch, but for a brooch watch. Usually these were worn pinned to a garment, with the 12 at the bottom, so that if you lifted the watch to read the time, the numbers would be in the correct position. This of course leaves unanswered the question why, when the design was first introduced as a wristwatch in 1921, Cartier chose to leave the numbers where they were – and why it’s left the numbers in that position ever since.
Perhaps because of its quirks, the Cloche has appeared more sporadically than other classic Cartier wristwatch designs from the 1920s. The variations of the Tank are legion, and many of them are with us today or have been seen frequently in the recent past (the Tank Louis Cartier and the Tank Cintree, for instance). This year’s debut of the Cloche as a limited edition in the Prive Collection is a follow-up to two previous Prive watches, which are also not exactly poster children for conventionality – the Asymetrique and the Crash.
However, despite the fact that the Cloche on paper, to a modern watch audience, seems undeniably weird, it was greeted with enormous enthusiasm by Cartier fans. Why is a watch that seems to be an act of defiance of the most basic horological common sense (a classy act of defiance, but a raised middle finger in a peccary leather driving glove is still a middle finger) so popular with a fan base characterized by its reverence for classic watch design?
In the case of the Cloche, I think its oddity is a feature, not a bug. Horological fandom is nothing if not slightly perverse, at least certain aspects of it. Take the remontoire, for instance, or the tourbillon. Both are highly specialized regulating mechanisms meant to address very specific problems in precision timekeeping, and in both cases, those problems have long-since been solved by advances in manufacturing and materials science. Both are obsolete. But as George Daniels wrote of the remontoire (a constant-force mechanism, originally invented for marine chronometers), “The fact that the mechanism is quite unnecessary merely adds to its charm.”
That the Cloche is on the one hand, irrational practically, but on the other hand, so pleasingly harmonious visually, is exactly what makes it interesting. After all, the watch was not exactly designed by people who didn’t have the first clue how to design a legible watch dial. If you admit that Louis Cartier let it go out into the world in the form we saw in 1921, and the form we see it today, on purpose, then the whole thing starts to land very differently. It becomes a deliberate act of (classy) subversion. You see it in a fresh way, and it makes you see watches in general in a fresh way, as well. The only thing I regret about the design working so well is that it means I can’t write, “Cloche but no cigar,” but my loss is Cartier’s gain.
Now this is not to say that one should always find the irrational attractive (do that in your personal relationships and you’re going to have a very long acquaintance with a psychotherapist). But the combination of formal harmony and cognitive subversion you get with the Cloche make it a more or less unique value proposition. I personally wouldn’t have it any other way.
For full specs and pricing, see our Introducing post from Watches & Wonders, 2021. All photos, the tireless Tiffany Wade.