14 October 2021

An Introduction to the Collection Privée Cartier Paris

by Tony Traina

The 1980s were a mess: MTV, neon, “greed is good.”

Cartier, for its part, was no passive observer. A decade on after the quartz crisis, it had resigned itself to producing fashion watches, often quartz-powered, for the Wall Street and fashionista types. There was the bold, round Cartier Pasha that became something of an “it watch,” seen on magazine covers, fashion runways, and anywhere else the generally fashionable might be found. Of course, there was the two-tone Santos, made most famous by the wrist of Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko. There was also the Panthere, which, while based on the form of the original Cartier Santos-Dumont, was still a quartz watch aimed at the fashion set.

Sammy Davis Jr.’s Cartier Pasha, including a People cover featuring him prominently wearing the watch. | Antiquorum.

The 1990s represented a shift in spirit in watchmaking, not only at Cartier, but across the industry. While the world moved into the modern, technology-driven age — moving from brick-like car phones to sleek (for the time, okay?) cellular phones — the neo-vitnage era of watches also came into full swing. Independents like F.P. Journe, Philippe Dufour, Roger Dubuis, and others captured the essence of traditional watchmaking in a modern form, but traditional houses like Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet, and Cartier refused to be left behind.

For Cartier, this meant the introduction of the Collection Privée Cartier Paris (CPCP) collection.

Cartier CPCP: What Is It?

A CPCP Monopusher beside a vintage example | Phillips

When Cartier first started making watches in the early 20th century, it was a prolific manufacturer. Not only were its watch shapes completely innovative, but its mechanical movements were often sourced from recognized manufacturers of the day, companies like Jaeger LeCoultre and European Watch Co. It was a true golden age for Cartier, with iconic designs like the Tank Louis, Santos-Dumont, Tank Cintree, Asymetrique, and others tracing their roots to this time period. Further, these watches were truly handmade. Until the 1960s, the number of Tanks made per year by Cartier Paris was literally in the tens of watches. And this wasn’t some conspiratorial “artificial shortage”; production was limited by Cartier’s ability to produce or source the quality handmade components for these watches.

From 1998 through 2008, Cartier re-invested in Cartier. The Maison recreated many of its most classic shapes and watches from the original, early 20th-century era of Cartier watchmaking.

The result was the Collection Privée.

The CPCP is Cartier returning to its roots, without being overly burdened by tradition. While it brought back many of its classic shapes that had laid dormant for years, it sometimes (but not always) made case sizes slightly larger or introduced other aesthetic flourishes. Additionally, much like its golden age of watchmaking, Cartier relied on other movement manufacturers to provide high-quality calibers. This meant ultra-thin movements from Frederic Piguet, chronographs co-developed by a younger Journe, Halter, and Flageollet, and so on. But, these movements would be finished in-house by Cartier, often being put on display in a sapphire case back, another common staple of the Collection Privée. Many CPCP models were numbered limited editions, others were simply numbered sequentially. In either case, production numbers remained low. Given that this was Cartier’s return to classical, luxurious watchmaking, Collection Privée watches were only cased in precious metals -- it’s a stark contrast to the steel, two-tone, and even gold-plated (!) watches that had come to define Cartier’s collection in the 1980s and 1990s.

The Tortue 2688G showing the "Paris" text on the sign.

On the dial side, the Collection Privée also has a few defining characteristics. Most notably, the dials feature a beautiful guilloche pattern; in many models, this converges into a rose motif at the center of the dial. You’ll also typically see “Paris” printed on the dial underneath Cartier, an homage to Louis Cartier’s hometown.

Notable CPCP models are too numerous to list, but this article focuses on a few of our favorites. Over the past few years, collectors have taken a serious interest in the Collection Privée, perhaps in part for their rarity, but also for their beauty or their ties to historic Cartier watchmaking. 
Ironically, the market for the Collection Privée when they were being produced would’ve been inherently small. Only so many collectors were looking for mechanical, precious metal dress watches at the turn of the century, especially at a time when brands like Panerai, Hublot, and others were the talk of the industry. While some trends come and go, no doubt appreciation for the Collection Privée will remain strong for years to come. 

Important Models

A Tank a Guichet in platinum, one of a limited edition run of 150 pieces | Phillips

Tank a Guichet

The Tank a Guichet is, quite literally, a tank. If the inspiration for the original Tank design was a Renault FT-17 tank, the Guichet feels like the most fully realized version of this idea. It is, quite literally, a hunk of metal. But, in true Cartier form, it’s a hunk of precious metal, elegantly formed to display the time via apertures that expose a jumping hour and wandering minutes.

In fact, the history of the Tank a Guichet actually helps to explore the evolutionary development of the Collection Privée. In 1996, Cartier, along with Antiquorum, held an auction called “The Magical Art of Cartier” to celebrate Cartier’s 150th anniversary. In that auction, a unique series of 3 Tank a Guichets were sold, one even selling for CHF 108,000. Perhaps off the success of that sale, Cartier brought back the Guichet a year later in platinum, selling a limited series of 150 pieces. Notably, the crown on this piece is not Cartier’s typical blue cabochon but a deep red, a color typically reserved for anniversary or special models such as this. While neither of these series was technically a part of the CPCP (which wasn’t formed until the year after this), it does illustrate Cartier’s experimentation with its classic designs in advance of its full-on investment in the CPCP program.

A unique Tank a Guichet in 1996 | Antiquorum

In 2004, Cartier finally released a Tank a Guichet as part of the Collection Privée, this time in pink gold and limited to 100 pieces.

Perhaps most famously gracing the wrist of Duke Ellington, still no more than a handful of vintage Tank a Guichets have been discovered. This, in addition to the extremely limited editions produced in more recent years means that, to this day, the Guichet remains one of the more rarely seen designs from Cartier’s workshops. It’s simultaneously Art Deco and futuristic, a cohesive expression of everything Cartier was and is.

Vintage waterproof Tank EtanchePhillips

Tank a Vis

Cliches are heaped on turn-of-the-century Cartier: innovative, revolutionary, cutting edge. The turn of the 20th century, that is. In a bid to recapture some of this innovator’s spirit at the turn of the next century, Cartier brought back the Tank Etanche, reincarnated as the Tank a Vis, as part of the Collection Privée. The Etanche was one of Cartier’s early efforts to produce a waterproof wristwatch, with a wide bezel tightly screwed into the mid-case to keep it watertight.

The Tank a Vis ref. 2608 with the signature exposed screws.

The Tank a Vis took this design a step further, making the screws exposed on the wide bezel to create an even bolder effect.

As a complement to this audacious design, Cartier also used the Tank a Vis as a vehicle for displaying more than just time. You’ll find wandering hour, dual time, and other editions of the Tank a Vis as well. In fact, complications were another hallmark of the Collection Privée, Cartier working with some of the best movement manufacturers in the world to craft calibers fit for its beautiful designs.

Sure, other Tank designs were revisited in the CPCP: The Chinoise, Asymétrique, and of course, the Cintree, among others. But the Tank a Vis perhaps best captures the original spirit of Cartier’s golden age. Not only were designs daring, but the watches themselves were actual technical feats, tools to solve problems encountered by those wearing them.

The Tortue Monopusher ref. 2396

The Tortue Monopusher

No other complicated movement in the Collection Privée is as celebrated as the monopusher chronograph, the caliber 045MC, most famously (but not exclusively) found in the Tortue Monopusher. As with all things watches, provenance matters. The caliber was developed by Techniques Horlogères Appliquées (THA), the joint watchmaking effort of F.P. Journe and Denis Flageollet (and soon after joined by Vianney Halter). In addition to this royal provenance, the caliber 045MC is technically notable for featuring a special clutch system designed to remove the jump that often occurs when engaging a chronograph with a lateral clutch system.

In an interview with Phillips, Denis Flageollet said that “at the time the heads of product [at Cartier] did not have extensive knowledge of their heritage. We gave them the idea to remake the chrono-monopoussoir Tortue.” It is another illustrative anecdote showing how the CPCP helped Cartier rediscover its own heritage.

While the monopusher movement was released in a number of case sizes and styles, the most cutting edge (and, for that matter, the most popular), is the Tortue Monopoussoir reference 2396 in white gold. The typical CPCP characteristics — guilloche dial, “Paris” printed underneath Cartier, display case back — are all taken to another dimension in this model. The Cartier Paris is printed in an unusual position at 6 o’clock to make way for a larger Roman numeral 12 o’clock marker, a modern take on Cartier’s signature use of Roman numerals. The soft blue print used on the dial accents the white gold particularly well, creating a softer, modern feel.

The monopusher movement was later used in an XL case, the Tortue shape beefed up to 38mm across (compared to the ref. 2396’s 34mm). This watch features a more traditional design, with black Roman numerals on the entire dial, a bigger, bolder choice for a bigger, bolder watch.

The Tortue Monopusher XL ref. 2762.

Conclusions on the Collection Privée

For modern collectors, CPCP has proved a true “best of both worlds” proposition. The neo-vintage era production means the watches have some of the more luxurious trappings that collectors expect from their mechanical watches; however, the pure vintage inspiration shines through, giving the indescribable vintage charm that so many crave.

This charm is felt in the aesthetics, to be sure. But more than that, it’s infused in the CPCP lineage itself and the story it tells. The story of a historic manufacturer of watches losing touch with its history only to re-discover that own history, reimagining it for a new generation of collectors to understand and appreciate.

Tony is the editor of Rescapement. Sign up to his newsletter about important watches.