Tank Normale

Photo: Cartier

Many pop-culture trends come and go on TikTok, but one in particular caught my attention recently with its utter randomness. It was first brought to my attention by a New York Times story with the bewildering headline, “Are men obsessed with the Roman Empire? Yes, say men”.

Apparently, it all started after a Roman reenactor, who goes by the name Gaius Flavius online, wrote on Instagram, “Ladies, many of you do not realise how often men think about the Roman Empire… You will be surprised by their answers!” Many TikTokers went ahead to ask their partners this very question — and were baffled to discover that Ancient Rome did indeed cross male minds with inordinate frequency.

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I was amused, not because of the findings per se, but because I had until then thought my husband — a history major — was unusual in knowing too much about too many Roman emperors. Pondering this widespread interest in ancient history led me to consider the outsize role that heritage plays in fine watchmaking.

Over the years, countless watch collectors I have spoken to have cited the long heritage of brands such as Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, and Jaeger-LeCoultre as a key reason for favouring them. Gavin Heng, a collector who was recently featured in The Peak, says, “I feel that a watch brand’s history is testament to its quality, spirit of evolution, and competitiveness over its many years of production.”

In other words, to have been around for more than one — or in some cases, two — centuries, a company must have been doing something right. Further to that, I imagine that these brands’ lengthy histories would be somehow reassuring to those buying a pricey heirloom timepiece that they hope to pass down to their children and beyond.

That said, history can be a double-edged sword. For many renowned luxury brands whose roots do not lie in watchmaking, ascending the high-horology ladder to make more technically complex timepieces can be less of a challenge than convincing the public that they are doing so.

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Even with its own state-of-the-art Swiss manufacture and respected watchmaker Carole Forestier-Kasapi at its helm, Cartier did not quite find the commercial success to match the genius of its complex Fine Watchmaking timepieces produced between 2008 and 2018. What really hit a sales bullseye for the French luxury brand: Pivoting back to the house’s strength in design and focusing its energies on reconceptualising classic forms such as the rectangular Tank and the square Santos.

During our interview at Watches and Wonders in Geneva in January, I asked Cartier image, style and heritage director Pierre Rainero which was more challenging — designing a watch from scratch or reimagining a classic form. Both had their unique challenges, he said. “Working on an existing shape, it’s a question of respect, because you don’t want to betray the original philosophy behind that design.”

pierre rainero
Cartier image, style and heritage director Pierre Rainero. (Photo: Cartier)

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Dreaming up something original is just as tough, Rainero noted. “When you create a totally new shape, it has to be distinctive and bring something that doesn’t already exist, in the right balance and the right proportions.” While reworking classics is a great modus operandi for brands with bursting archives, the ability to create something truly new has propelled a handful of modern independent names into the watchmaking stratosphere in a relatively short time (we’re talking about 20 years).

Think trailblazing watch-brand founders like Richard Mille, with his ultra-premium sports watches replete with technical advancements, and Max Busser of MB&F, with his spaceship-like Horological Machines. However, even someone as indubitably original as Busser looks to the past for ideas: He has cited vintage planes and cars, and even his childhood toys as inspiration for his designs. To cite one of Busser’s favourite quotes from another maverick, Coco Chanel: “Only those with no memory insist on their originality.”