Six Things To Know Before You Start Collecting The Cartier Tank Basculante

Six Things To Know Before You Start Collecting The Cartier Tank Basculante

It’s just so flipping fun.

Of the Tank and its many forms, the model we now call the Tank Basculante is probably the most fun. Pull the face out, and a complicated “cabriolet” system is revealed, allowing you to flip the face upside down to reveal the caseback. Commercial production of the Basculante began in 1932, shortly after the introduction of the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso (you can find Tank “Reversos” too). It’s a different way of reversing a watch face – and Cartier fans would certainly insist it’s more “elegant.”

cartier tank basculante 2390 steel

The Basculante had a case produced by the same company that made the Reverso. However, unlike the Reverso, the Tank Basculante is hardly the foundation of an entire brand, with hundreds (thousands?) of variants. Today, the Basculante isn’t even in Cartier’s current collection – much as we’ve tried – but Cartier produced it in a bunch of varieties in the ’90s and early 2000s. This included quartz and mechanical variations, meaning it’s relatively gettable if you’re looking for something different.

It’s not the most important or consequential Tank ever made, but it’s fun and different, with an intermittent history worth knowing about. Here are six things to know to get started with collecting the Tank Basculante.

(1) Cartier Introduced Its Cabriolet System In 1932
cartier tank basculante steel  cartier tank basculante caseback

According to Franco Cologni in The Cartier Tank Watch, commercial production of the Basculante began in 1932, one year after the Reverso. The Basculante used a unique cabriolet system (French for convertiblelike a Ferrari 355 Cabriolet, what’s up?) to flip the dial upside down. Pull on the tab at 12 o’clock – contemporary versions have a blue cabochon here – and arms extend, allowing you to rotate the caseback right side up.

Keep the arms extended, and the Basculante even makes a decent desk clock (like in the header image above).

You might also see early models referred to as the “Tank Cabriolet,” “Reversible Basculante,” or some combination thereof, especially in older auction catalogs. When Cartier started producing the model again in higher quantities in 1999, it standardized around the name Tank Basculante.

Meanwhile, you’ll also find vintage Cabriolet models that use a similar flipping system but with a different case design than the Tank Basculante.

cartier cabriolet

A reversible Cartier “Cabriolet” from the 1970s with a similar reversible dial but in a different case design than the Tank Basculante. Image: Courtesy of Monaco Legend

This flipping mechanism was developed by Spécialités Horlogères, which also developed the Reverso’s horizontal sliding case and was effectively integrated into JLC soon after (the company also developed another favorite of mine, the Movado Ermeto purse watch).

(2) The Tank Basculante Illustrates ‘Form Follows Form’
cartier tank basculante 1960s

A Cartier Tank Basculante from the 1960s that sold at Christie’s in 2021 for $27,500. (Interestingly, it previously sold for CHF 37,500 at Phillips in 2015.)

Usually, Cartier watches are all about design. While the Tank Basculante was developed with function in mind – that is, protecting those fragile plastic crystals of old – nowadays, that’s mostly a theoretical idea, though it still makes for a great story. And as we’ll see, it also provides a second canvas for a little bit of creativity.

1920s Cartier Tank Basculante Cabriolet

Cartier Tank “Reversible” Basculante, c. 1935. Image: courtesy of Antiquorum

When early watch writer Walt Odets reviewed the Tank Basculante in 2002, he called the watch an example of “form follows form,” writing that “the Tank Basculante offers a piece of tradition, considerable charm, and surprising quality throughout (Part 1 and Part 2 of his review). The design integrity of this watch is woefully lacking in the majority of contemporary Swiss watches.” He came away impressed with the case and F. Piguet-based caliber paired with all the typical design details that make a Cartier.

While most of Cartier’s designs are all about playing with shapes – to be clear, the Basculante is too, maintaining the traditional brancards of the Tank – this is form with function, even if said function is an anachronism now. But hey, that’s all of mechanical watches, right?

(3) Until 1999, Basculantes Were Hard To Find
cartier tank basculante

A collection of 6 Tank Basculantes from Cartier Paris, dating from the 1930s through the 1960s, as seen in the 1996 “Magical Art of Cartier” auction at Antiquorum.

cartier tank basculante

After introducing the Basculante Cabriolet in the ’30s, Cartier continued to make it throughout the 20th century, but there aren’t a ton around. As I wrote a few weeks ago, from 1920 through 1960, Cartier made less than 2,000 Tanks. I can’t imagine a Basculante case, with its intricate cabriolet system, was super easy to produce.

In the 1996 “The Magical Art of Cartier” sale at Antiquorum, there were just six gold Tank Basculantes from Cartier Paris, dating from the 1930s through the 1960s, all with movements from European Watch & Clock Co., Cartier’s long-time movement supplier. According to the price list I have, a few of these even passed on the auction block. The Basculante just didn’t jump out of the catalog when it was placed among perhaps the most important collection of Cartier watches ever assembled. There’s a thin line between rarity and obscurity, and through the ’90s, the Basculante probably sat on the latter half of that line.

cartier tank basculante

Two 1-of-1 Tank Basculantes that sold at The Magical Art of Cartier in 1996 for CHF 35,000 and 38,000, respectively.

Then, in the 1990s, Cartier started to produce the Tank Basculante more regularly. That 1996 Magical Art of Cartier auction also featured two 1-of-1 Tank Basculantes with unique dials, and those did sell for big numbers.

The next year, Cartier released the gold Tank Basculante 150th Anniversary Limited Edition, produced to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Cartier’s founding. It stands out thanks to its ruby cabochon and guilloche pattern in the center of the dial, which is different from Cartier’s standard guilloche dials.

cartier tank basculante 150th anniversary limited edition

Cartier Tank Basculante 150th Anniversary Limited Edition. Image: courtesy of Watches of Switzerland

After that, Cartier made a couple of Tank Basculantes for its CPCP (Collection Privée Cartier Paris), the brand’s effort to bring back iconic designs in traditional sizes:

  • Ref. 2391: Yellow gold launched in 1999 in a limited edition of 365 pieces
  • Ref. 2499C: Yellow gold produced through the early 2000s with a display caseback, also distinguishable by a guilloche rosette motif on the dial. It’s not a limited numbered edition, but every caseback is numbered individually.
cartier tank basculante cpcp

Two Tank Basculantes from the CPCP: (L) ref. 2391, limited to 365 pieces, and ref. 2499C, with its display caseback. Images: courtesy of Monaco Legend and Christie’s.

These modern Basculante models have a few things in common: similar dimensions (38mm x 25mm x 5.8mm thick), powered by a modified ultra-thin F. Piguet caliber 610 (re-branded the Cartier MC 060), and a caseback with Cartier’s repeating “C” motif.

Meanwhile, Cartier also brought the Basculante to general production with similar traits.

(4) The Basculante Was The First All-Steel Tank
cartier tank basculante 2390 steel

When Cartier brought the Tank Basculante back to its standard production line in 1999, it was also the first time it produced a Tank model in all steel (the Tank Française wasn’t yet offered in steel-only at this point).

While it might get hate in some stuffier corners, I love the democratization of the Tank design and don’t think it devalues the model at all. It started with the Tank Must in the 1980s and continues today with the Tank Solo and the recently-revived Tank Must. From about $2,000 to nearly $500,000, there’s a Tank for everyone. Besides, for big-time Basculante lovers, those harder-to-find CPCP models were being made.

Cartier produced the steel mechanical Tank Basculante reference 2390 from the late ’90s through about 2006. It had the same dimensions as those gold special editions and was powered by the same caliber MC 060. Alongside the mechanical versions, Cartier also introduced the quartz Basculante ref. 2405. There are also a few special edition 2390s worth noting:

Cartier Tank Basculante Australian Federation

Tank Basculante to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Australian Federation, limited to 26 pieces. Image: courtesy of Loupe This

  • Paris Boutique Edition: On the front, this Tank Basculante looks the same as the standard 2390. But flipping it over reveals a slightly open caseback. Collectors believe this special edition was only offered through Cartier’s Paris boutique.
  • Millennium Edition: This limited edition of 365 produced from 1999 through 2001 swaps the typical XII Roman numeral for “MM,” and has the years 1999/2000/2001 engraved on the caseback.
  • Australian Federation LE: Just for fun, I thought it’s worth mentioning this Basculante LE made in just 26 pieces to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Australian Federation. It’s got a cool blue dial with stars arranged in the Southern Cross, also seen on the Australian Flag.
(5) The Basculante Unleashes Your Inner Gary Cooper
cartier tank basculante gary cooper

Gary Cooper wearing a Tank Basculante, as seen in The Cartier Tank Watch, by Franco Cologni

Reason number five is pretty simple: there are some great old photos of actor Gary Cooper wearing a Cartier Tank Basculante in the 1930s. I’m not one for romanticizing the era of classic Hollywood during which Cooper was one of the biggest stars on screen, but damn it, if these images of him wearing a Basculante neatly under his suit don’t make me want to, just a little bit. It’s old and effortless elegance, the type of advertising that brands couldn’t buy with all the marketing dollars in the world today.

(6) The Basculante Has The Function And The Fundamentals
cartier tank basculante diamonds

While I covered the main Basculante references, there are also others. Like this one, with diamonds.

Finally, we get to the matter of “collecting” the Basculante. Cartier discontinued the model in the mid-2000s and hasn’t produced it since, which means it’s only gotten harder to find.

For a while, the Basculante puttered along, and then somewhat suddenly, prices for a standard steel Basculante 2390 jumped from $4,000 or so at the beginning of 2021 to $10,000 at market peak about a year ago. Since then, prices have come back a bit. Meanwhile, many of the limited editions now sell for prices in the low 20s.

Of course, this rise coincided with the general “hype” in Cartier watches, but it’s easy to see why the Basculante also has a certain appeal all its own. Flipping the Basculante upside down and right side up again does make for a nice little social media clip and even some fun photographs (shoutout to Isa, who took some great ones for this article!).

cartier tank basculante parrot lovers

“Parrot Lovers,” cloisonne enamel – a limited edition of 20. Image: courtesy of Antiquorum


cartier tank basculante millenium edition

A Cartier Tank Basculante “Millenium” Edition – note the “MM” at 12 o’clock instead of Roman numerals. It’s such a subtle change I’m not sure people always realize it’s a special edition. This one sold on Loupe This for $7,100 in February.

But beyond that, the Basculante does have some of the fundamentals you look for that make a watch enduring beyond any hype. The cabriolet case is unlike anything else around. It’s also a little larger than the standard Tank size, making it appeal more to modern tastes while maintaining a thin profile.

Meanwhile, Odets’ positive 2002 review of the Basculante Mechanique sits in my mind: the case has about half the parts of a Reverso (benefits: longer lasting and better water resistance), the manual F. Piguet movement is impressive, and its stamped C motif (as opposed to engraving it) is its only real cost-saving measure. Even still, it might feel like a bit of a novelty, not that there’s anything wrong with that. If you’re merely Basculante-curious and just want something to play with, the quartz version is there for about half the price. An expensive fidget spinner, sure, but at least it’s one with classic appeal.

While I personally might be partial to a vintage gold mechanical Tank Louis for the price a standard steel Basculante is going for nowadays, I understand the appeal of the Tank Basculante. And if Cartier were to introduce a modern Basculante (it’s only a matter of time, right?), I have to think it will cost more than the price of a steel 2390. While the Basculante might not represent the value it was a few years ago, it still represents real Cartier craftsmanship.

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