Editor-in-Chief, Scarlett Baker divulges into her deepest horological crush, the Cartier Crash, renowned for its geometrical prowess, uncovering the story behind the enigmatic timepiece.
Six months ago, my recollections on what a watch does and what it means terminated with the casual acknowledgement of my Dad’s latest watch. This would usually culminate in me muttering “nice,” before returning my eyes to my phone. Six months later and firmly along in my pilgrimage into the watch world, I got the bug. As a child, I was somewhat of a Magpie, enchanted by shiny things that manifested in the form of rings. It never stretched so far as to my Mom’s Baume & Mercier watch or my Dad’s Tag Heuer Monaco watch, mostly because I grew frustrated that they wouldn’t stay on my wrist. But a decade later, with the beady-eyed eagerness of a child on Christmas morning, I find myself with an unrelenting hunger longing to have my very own concise internal encyclopedia about the watch world in my head.
I reckon I’m only still turning elementary pages – understanding the tourbillon taking up several – but as I lay my foundations in the world of haute horology, learning that a watch isn’t simply about telling the time, the Cartier Crash has entirely arrested my attention.
A tale not quite as old as time
Everyone loves a story. So much so that perhaps we search deeply into corners of analysis sometimes to no avail. Sometimes, the car is blue because the car is blue, not because it behaves as a symbol of freedom. The fallacy behind the Cartier Crash goes much the same. Rumour has it that the distorted Cartier Crash was aptly titled after the result of a car accident whereby the renowned Cartier Baignoire, an elegant elliptical shape, melted thus forming an idiosyncratic contorted dial.
But don’t believe everything you hear. A descendant of the Cartier family, the great-great-great granddaughter of Louis-François Cartier who founded the design house and jewellers in 1847 penned an exclusive narrative back in 2019, ‘The Cartiers,’ revealing the true tale behind one of the brand’s most uncanny watches to date. Squashing the more macabre fable, the Crash was in fact the work of collaboration; a crash of ideas from two minds.
Time for the truth
A watch so enigmatic doesn’t need a spurious story to validate its ingenuity. Instead, the story recalls the union of Jean-Jacques Cartier, who ran the Cartier London branch from the 1940s for almost three decades. At the time, there were three separate Cartier branches operating separately, one in London, Paris and New York, allowing for independent styles to be created across the globe, all the while under the same name. In 1966, Jean-Jacques partnered with designer Rupert Emmerson, who worked on insignia and medals for General Charles de Gaulle’s victory parade through the streets of Paris in 1944.
More than meets the eye
“What has caught your eye then?” is the question I’m most asked in the early days of my timely crusade. “A Cartier Crash,” I reply, yet to hold the watch in my hands. But time waits for no man, and I had to see it in person.
They say you shouldn’t meet your idols, but the Cartier Crash left me far from despondent. Following on from a recent conversation with watch dealer Tom Bolt, we caught up in person to ignite my ambition of holding in my own hands a watch that to me is the holy grail of timepieces. Slightly beguiled by the moment, “it’s a lot smaller than I thought it was going to be,” was the first sentiment that came out of my mouth. Then when my bewilderment settled and I tried on the geometrical curiosity, discovering that even the buckles and the clasp to fasten the watch at the wrist were created in irregular shapes, each model slightly different, given the artistry of its handmade creation.
What captivates me most about the Cartier Crash isn’t so much its rarity, but the turbulence that occurred in the model’s creation. Conceived in a workshop outside of Cartier’s New Bond Street home, a Cartier-run Wright & Davies workshop, the asymmetry of the Crash required intense experimentation. It didn’t simply work on the first assembly. While the numerals are astonishingly hand-painted – a figment of the past and our imaginations today – once the master watchmaker, Eric Denton, had fitted the movement, it took a long time to get there. Brickell notes in her book that standard cases such as circular and square take up to 35-40 hours to produce. Is there a name for the shape of the Crash? Whatever it is, it’s beyond 40 hours of work. Prior to its public release, it took a long time between Denton and the two collaborators to line-up the Roman numerals so that they actually told the time correctly.
London as the locus of avant-garde Cartier
Prior to my appointment with the Crash, I’d noticed images circulating the internet recalling the different cities scribed on the dial before realising that the OG model to truly get your hands on was the London one, given only 20 crash pieces were made in London in the 1960’s, according to Fane. After that, another series was released in the 1980’s after Jean-Jacques sold the store in the noughties, and the production of the Crash continued in Paris with a smaller iteration in a limited series of 400 pieces. If you get your hands on one, peep the J.C stamp for Jean-Jacques and the London gold hallmarks.
Awe aside, the Cartier Crash used to retail for $1,000. Today? Well, if you can get your hands on one, in a Christie’s online auction last year, a 1991 version, presumably the second release from London was estimated to auction anywhere between $70,000-$90,000. It surpassed that, and then some, going for $225,000.
While I’m still a rookie and the price tag makes me wince some, the niche chronicles of the Cartier Crash is what sets this piece of nonpareil craftsmanship about the rest for me. It’s a watch that wants to go beyond the time of its testimony and tests the boundaries of what is orthodox. It is, in all its 18k glory, it’s an arcane artefact of uncanny human thinking that transcends time. Hopefully the next time I pen a polemic love story to the Cartier Crash, it’ll be fastened to my wrist.