These qualities mean that Cartier’s watches don’t look like everyone else’s. As watch collecting exploded as a business and hobby over the past decade, this might have been seen as a disadvantage: many fledgling obsessives focus inordinately on details like chronometer certification or minuscule gains in obscure parts. (Do you know if your watch has a new-and-improved escapement?) “You are indoctrinated with terminology that people write about on Hodinkee and you read on the forums, and you don’t even know what the hell it means,” says Eric Ku, a Cartier collector and watch dealer. “People are always saying something like, ‘Hey, this doesn’t have an in-house movement!’ My retort to that is like, ‘Why is an in-house movement better?’ And nobody can answer that question.”
Ku’s point is that a whole generation of collectors were taught to prize nerdy features. Now, they’re getting into true-blue design. For a point of comparison, think of what’s happened in menswear over the past decade. That field used to be dominated by a strictly enforced esotericism—guys who put their jeans in the freezer, or insisted on surgeon’s cuffs on their suit sleeves. Style was more a stencil than a means of individual expression. Today, men’s style is a no-holds-barred affair. The watch world seems to be following along.
Cartier’s turn is a sign that collectors are starting to turn the corner from that sensibility. “The reason why Cartier is so hot right now is people are realizing—finally realizing— that design is just as important as complications or other attributes people usually talk about what they talk about watches,” Ku says. And that is exactly where the brand’s strength lies: “Cartier has a foundation of 100-plus years of rock-solid design for wristwatches.”
Over the past few years, Cartier has made a point of capitalizing on that history. In 2017, the brand restarted what it calls the Privé collection, fishing watches out of the archives and remaking them for today. The program is responsible for some of the brand’s most interesting recent releases, like the Asymetrique, which tilts on its axis, and the bell-shaped Cloche. “It shows the consistency of Cartier’s approach to watchmaking,” says Pierre Rainero, Cartier’s international director of image, style, and heritage. A Cartier Vintage program spreading through the brand’s boutiques similarly showcases the oddities that have come out of the house over its history. If a brand like Rolex boasts about its connection to adventurers, Cartier is essentially laying claim to design.