The Rise And Fall Of Fine Watchmaking At Cartier: It’s Been Surprisingly Complicated
Over the last 20 years, Cartier has developed and launched an extensive range of high-end men’s watches: these included the Collection Privée Cartier Paris (CPCP) from 1998 until 2008 followed by the Fine Watch Making Collection (FWM) that was in existence from 2008 until 2018.
Both series came silently to an end, leaving many collectors with one burning question: why?
We often receive questions about these series so here I’ll explain the differences in these two lines, why they were ended, and what could be next.
While the Collection Privée Cartier Paris was the definitive illustration of a time of forgotten elegance, the Fine Watch Making Collection, despite its extremely high quality and finishing, became one of the best examples of a disaster in the trend of pretentious haute horlogerie of the last decade.
Collection Privée Cartier Paris (CPCP): 1998-2008
Launched at the SIHH in 1998, the Collection Privée Cartier Paris (CPCP) was targeted mainly at men at a time when men were becoming decidedly more aware of their watches, leading them to demand timepieces with very good mechanical calibers.
In answer to that, Cartier created this special series in which most of Louis Cartier’s greatest designs found a place: these included Santos Dumont, Tortue, Tonneau, Tank Louis Cartier, Tank Basculante, Tank Asymétrique, the Cloche, and others.
Later, the Pasha and the Rotonde models with slightly more complicated calibers were added to the collection.
Cartier worked with Jaeger-LeCoultre, Frédéric Piguet, Piaget, Girard-Perregaux, APRP Renaud et Papi, and others to get – or create – the best movements available for these watches. The majority of the CPCP timepieces were released in slightly bigger cases than Cartier was known for to make them more masculine and wearable in the modern age, which at that time was dominated by larger case sizes.
Beautiful details from the late 1920s came back to highlight the feel of the collection: the rosette in the middle of the dial, the word “Paris” underneath the brand name, and subtle engravings on the back all played their parts. These details were highly appreciated by collectors.
Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention features like faceted crystal and the reissue of a vintage-style buckle, which was developed originally by Louis Cartier and Edmond Jaeger for the Santos Dumont in 1913.
Some of the models were released in limited editions of just 100 pieces, while other non-limited watches in runs of no more than 200 to 250 pieces. This is also one of the reasons why so few of these Collection Privée Cartier Paris models are seen today at auctions.
While the Collection Privée Cartier Paris line was much appreciated and even hard to find when the models were freshly released, two factors made Cartier change its vision and plan for the series.
First, demand for “in-house” calibers became stronger and, second, the difficulty of having the watches delivered in time became a serious problem.
Movements came from various third-party suppliers; cases were provided by different case makers; and other components of the so-called habillage such as the hands and crystal were also delivered by various suppliers. As you can imagine, not everything was always delivered on time, causing bottlenecks.
Since a number of different suppliers were involved in the production of the Collection Privée Cartier Paris models, and the assembly also took place at workshops in various locations, the whole process was pretty complex.
In order to have full control over the production process, there was only one solution: to produce everything in house under one roof. But Cartier did not have a genuine manufacture . . . yet.
During the lifespan of Collection Privée Cartier Paris, the brand was working hard on realizing a 30,000-square-meter manufacture located in La Chaux-de-Fonds as well as building out its workshop in Geneva. The latter was much smaller, yet equally important as it would allow Cartier to create movements made according to the Geneva Seal.
Cartier’s Fine Watch Making Collection (FWM): 2008-2018
When the first pieces of the Fine Watchmaking Collection were presented with great ceremony at the 2008 SIHH, Collection Privée Cartier Paris slipped silently into oblivion.
The Fine Watch Making collection had landed, and that didn’t go unnoticed among those passionate about the brand. The first watch from this new collection shown to the international press was a Ballon Bleu Flying Tourbillon with the brand new in-house 9452 MC hand-wound movement bearing the Geneva Seal, followed by a series of very bold masculine tourbillon watches.
All these watches featured the same 9452 MC flying tourbillon caliber built in Cartier’s new Geneva workshops. The trouble, however, was that Caliber 9452MC has a relatively small diameter, one that could easily have fit a classic 38 mm watch.
But Cartier took the hyped trend for large watches – burning hotly in 2008 – a bit too literally and presented the new caliber in the largest cases the brand ever created.
The Ballon Bleu Flying Tourbillon came in a 47 mm case, the Santos 100 Tourbillon in a 46.5 x 54.9 mm case, the Calibre de Cartier Tourbillon in a round 45 mm case, and the Tank Americaine in a 35.8 x 52 mm case. To make matters even worse, the back of these watches featured a round inspection window to view the beautiful, but small, caliber that was surrounded by a lot of empty space.
These tourbillon watches formed a very fashionable lineup instead of a serious entry into the world of haute horlogerie. When you consider that each of these watches carried a “reasonable” price tag of around $95,000, their release was hard to take really seriously.
The finishing of the calibers, and these watches in general, was outstanding, but there was no longer any trace of the gorgeous and discrete details that made Collection Privée Cartier Paris watches so popular.
Instead of a small engraving on the back of the watch with the brand name and the number of the watch that the CPCP watches had, most FWM models were just loud with a large “CARTIER” engraving on the case back followed by a large case and movement number.
Another issue was that Cartier numbered the movements and the cases separately. As the brand used the same movement in different models, the solution presented a problem for collectors: you might be lucky enough to have found that number 8 you desired as a case number, but the movement might have been number 1653 – loudly displayed in large font.
This made no sense to collectors, especially since the movement number was for internal use only and should have been added in a really small, almost invisible spot.
The double numbering was silly and did not help to make the watches sexier and more desirable. Any eye for detail seemed completely lost, and it looked much like “La Maison” was concentrating entirely on trends and related technology – and no longer on details and the rich history that made its watches so desirable in the past.
In that respect, Cartier has not learned a thing from its Collection Privée Cartier Paris series and the clientele that was so passionate about these watches.
Some watches need to be large because of the size of the movement or if the watch is complicated and needs enough room on the dial to showcase its functions, but that was not the case with these first tourbillon models.
By 2014 Cartier proved it could correct when it released a 39 mm Ballon Bleu Flying Tourbillon, a watch that had everything right even though it was powered by the same caliber as its 47 mm sibling.
During the lifespan of the Fine Watch Making series, some exciting watches were released like the mystery watches and the Crash Skeleton that was sold out in a few weeks.
Unfortunately, Cartier launched the stunning skeleton concept not just in a few watches, but in almost every model in the collection, also offering them in various golds and since 2018 even in steel. The number of skeleton models was just overwhelming, thereby diluting the attention that this great-looking complication so greatly deserved.
During the ten years of the Fine Watch Making collection, Cartier released amazing complications in the Rotonde line including the Rotonde de Cartier Astrotourbillon, the Rotonde de Cartier Earth and Moon, and the Rotonde de Cartier Astrorégulateur, proving that La Maison can make any kind of movement no matter how complicated. But this is a learned skill that the manufacture showed off too eagerly and frequently.
Year after year, press and public encountered an avalanche of complicated watches, mainly in Rotonde cases, so that many of these high-end creations did not get the attention they should have had.
The plethora of available complications meant that even though these watches were superbly executed, most left watch collectors cold. Sales were disappointing.
The hoard of complicated new models introduced year after year was just too much to handle. For everyone. There are, for instance, more than 30 different complicated Rotonde models in the large collection of the same name to choose from. And I wonder if that’s what luxury is all about?
There is no doubt that the change in strategy stopping further developments in the Fine Watch Making line is quite a letdown. And it is even more disappointing for the collectors who stuck out their necks and bought one or two of the Fine Watch Making models.
These people were under the impression of having bought a complicated and valuable timepiece from a leading brand now entering the haute horlogerie space. But now they are confronted with a brand retreating from this segment to concentrate (again) on the female market.
It did not take long before the Fine Watch Making models began ending up with grey market dealers for half price and collectors who did put their trust in Cartier and took the plunge often sold their timepieces, which made the situation even worse.
The 47 mm Ballon Bleu suffered tremendously and was often seen on offer for a third of the retail price. Cartier realized how bad the situation was and started to buy back the hard-to-sell watches from its dealers to reduce the number of watches that could end up in the grey market (see this Guardian article for details).
It is no secret that Cartier is one of the cash cows of the Richemont Group. While there is nothing wrong with that – both Richemont and Cartier are in the business of making a profit after all – and it is still up to the customer to buy or not, I feel it would be nice if Cartier would make it less obvious. It is now time for this historical brand to gain the long-term confidence of watch collectors once again instead of only looking at short-term profit and turnover.
Both of these fine watchmaking/haute horlogerie lines no longer exist, and very certainly CPCP as it was will not return. But that’s not too much of a disaster since Cartier already presented the beginning of a new era in 2018: three really good Tank Cintrée models very much in line with the former CPCP Tank Cintrée.
I predict that in the near future we will see some of the complicated calibers that have been developed over the last decade fitted in classic models like the Tortue or the Pasha that Cartier is famous for.
New CEO Cyrille Vigneron – a man who understands like no other what Cartier is, what it should be, and what it could do – is now in charge. Using the rich history of La Maison combined with the staff’s incredible knowledge and experience built up over the last ten years, Vigneron has all the tools at hand to make the brand better and stronger than ever in the coming years. Let’s hope he remembers the consumer.
For more information, please visit Cartier.com.
Quick Facts Cartier Ballon Bleu Flying Tourbillon
Case: 39 x 11.4 mm, pink gold, sapphire cabochon on crown
Movement: manually wound Caliber 9452 MC with one-minute flying tourbillon, stamped with Seal of Geneva, power reserve 50 hours
Functions: hours, minutes
Produced: 2014 – 2017
Original price: €94,000 incl. VAT / $99,500
Quick Facts Cartier Crash Skeleton
Case: platinum, 28.15 x 45.32 x 9.62 mm with beaded crown set with blue sapphire cabochon
Movement: manually wound Caliber 9618 MC
Functions: hours, minutes
Price: €76,000 (incl. VAT)
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Also published on Medium.