In-Depth: A Long-Term Look At Living With The Drive De Cartier, In Steel
A thin watch with surprising depth.
The Cartier Drive de Cartier debuted at the 2016 edition of the SIHH, and it was a watch that impressed a lot of us immediately. As a new design from Cartier, it seemed to achieve something very difficult: immediately seeming very characteristically Cartier, without borrowing too directly from the design language of Cartier’s past. Completely new case designs from Cartier are relatively rare (understandably, as from a design standpoint Cartier has a very diverse palette of extremely iconic designs, with almost endless possibilities for variations) and this one seemed like a home run. Ben Clymer, in his Introducing post, wrote, ” … the Drive is exactly what Cartier is to me. It’s beautiful, it’s refined, it’s masculine, and its movement is made in-house! And the price? You’re gonna like it.”
Certainly, the price was extremely attractive for a steel watch with an in-house movement from Cartier: $6250, and it was fresh, interesting, and original. The design in general seems to have been a successful one for Cartier as well. The watch is currently offered in nine variations, from the steel model with date, all the way up to a 40mm flying tourbillon priced at $89,500.
The Drive Extra-Flat was launched this year as well, in a slightly smaller, 39mm case (the original Drive is 41mm) and so the family appears to have an established place in Cartier’s lineup of watches, along with the venerable Tank, and more modern designs such as the Ballon Bleu. When Drive de Cartier first launched there was some discussion from Cartier about the watch having an automotive inspiration, but that’s not something that you feel in any particular way when you wear the Drive, any more than you’re aware of military tanks when you wear a Tank. Mine is now nearly two years old, and while my own watches must sometimes feel neglected (they’re often left in the watch box thanks to my wearing one of the many watches we have in for review) the Drive de Cartier has seen, relatively speaking, quite a lot of wrist time.
The Drive has proven to be an extremely reliable daily companion, on a lot of levels. The design stands up very well to daily exposure – 41mm sounds like it might be a bit outside the Goldilocks zone for a lot of watch enthusiasts, but I’ve found over the years that there are a lot fewer absolutes than one might think when it comes to watch size. (Wearing watches for review with any kind of frequency forces you to challenge assumptions you might not otherwise examine.)
A Matter Of Proportion
Certain dimensions seem to suit certain watches in a way that’s difficult to quantify. I think it’s a matter of proportion rather than size per se, and in the case of the Drive, the slimness of the case is emphasized by the slight increase in diameter over the classic absolutist’s 36mm to 38mm. At about 12mm thick this is certainly not an extra-flat or ultra-thin watch, strictly speaking, but some of that height is thanks to the domed crystal, so the impression you get is definitely one of slimness. You get the same feeling of careful control of form that you can get from really great haute couture, where a seemingly effortless silhouette is achieved only with great care and attention to detail (and often, with a lot of painstaking refinement to an original inspiration).
One of the things you really want out of a thin, dressier watch (this is leaving aside, for the moment, the somewhat fraught question of what it is that actually constitutes a dress watch) is a sense of attention to detail, and you definitely get that from living with the Drive. The arrangement of dial elements, the way the hands change color depending on the light, the guilloché pattern on the dial and radial pattern in the sub-seconds dial, and the echoing of the case curvature in the shape of the domed crystal, all give a pleasant sense of intentionally achieved harmony. I should say, by the way, that the complex curves of the crystal have a lot to do with the effectiveness of the Drive aesthetically. This is not a simple round domed crystal, but rather, a cushion shape with edges that follow the form of the case all around – I wouldn’t be surprised if the crystal of the Drive represented a significant part of the manufacturing cost of the entire watch.
The case shape is also more complex than it appears at first glance – brushed and polished surfaces emphasize its unusual geometry, including the gentle inward slope of the bezel and case middle, as the area between the lugs transitions from a curve to a straight line. This minimizes the gap between the curved case, and the straight inner ends of the strap.
Cartier: What’s In A Name?
It’s not something that we talk about a very great deal – by we, I mean those of us who consider ourselves serious watch enthusiasts and serious watch writers (to the extent that such a thing is possible) – but there is undoubtedly something compelling about wearing a watch that comes from a company with a real story behind it. It’s not so much a matter of brand worship, I think, although the phenomenon does exist and it’s no more right or wrong than any other form of kinship with a company or its products. It’s also not necessarily – although it can be – a matter of social display, or at least not exclusively. I will say too that sheer display can offer some pretty rich pleasures of its own, as I discovered from a week of wearing a yellow gold Day-Date, which is as unapologetically a joy-of-conspicuous-consumption watch as ever came out of Switzerland.
Rather, I think, it’s about a sense of connection with a bigger story. Cartier is deeply woven into the history of 20th and 21st century watch design, and has been a byword for a certain kind of frankly aristocratic excellence for over a hundred years (except maybe for some of the Must de Cartier stuff from the 70s and 80s, and even that’s got a kind of pop-culture appeal, at least nowadays). Seeing that little secret signature is – I can’t help it – for lack of a better word, fun.
One of the things that I did not expect, by the way, is chronometer level performance but that seems to be what I got. The Drive de Cartier is not one of those watches that seems to hold out an enticing promise of split-second accuracy, however that is what I am getting from my own Drive (your mileage may vary). On the wrist during the day and left dial up on the nightstand, the Drive gains about five seconds per week, which is quite astonishingly nice given that there is nothing about it that overtly radiates an ambition to achieve precision chronometry. It is always pleasant to know that the basic social contract between a watch and its owner – telling the time accurately and keeping a rate precisely – is respected, and it rather burnishes the reputation of the caliber 1904-PS MC as well.
If every cloud has a silver lining then every silver lining has a cloud, and I do have – or had, I should say – one issue with the Drive, which is the strap and boucle déployant (folding clasp) with which it is supplied, and it pains me very greatly to say it because Cartier invented the darned thing. There are lots of advantages to them, there’s no doubt; the make a watch easier to don and doff and they also provide a measure of safety should the clasp open accidentally. However I struggle to like them in practice, even from Cartier. Especially with extra-thin watches, I find they add an unpleasant feeling of awkward bulk to the wearing experience, and the version Cartier uses has a tendency to lose its grip on the leather of the strap over time, so the watch doesn’t fit quite properly. My Drive lives on an alligator strap with a good old pin buckle and I never look back (well, mostly never).
For various reasons, the Drive didn’t get a tremendous amount of wrist time in the first few months that we spent together, but lately it’s been, you might say, a daily driver. It’s got a great balance of visual impact and elegance and very much delivers on what the Cartier name promises. Cartier has been increasingly offering watches in steel at very approachable prices as part of a deliberate strategy to welcome folks into its environment and to enjoy being a part of the larger Cartier social narrative, and I’m all for it (this year’s new Santos in stainless steel, on a steel bracelet with a new quick-change system for bracelets and straps, is also just $6250). The Drive de Cartier is as much fun as I’ve ever had wearing a watch – a particular kind of fun, sure, but that’s part of the pleasure of wearing Cartier.
See the entire Drive de Cartier collection at Cartier.com.