History Of Ferrari Watches: The Unlikely Story Behind The Cartier Formula Ferrari
by Martin Green
Enzo Ferrari liked watches. The seed was planted by his godfather, Anselmo Chiarli, who gave his godson Enzo a silver watch to mark his first communion. As he achieved more success, he got more watches.
As a (former) racecar driver himself, and director of what would quickly become one of the most well-known and successful racing teams in the world, Enzo perhaps viewed watches as trophies to mark momentous achievements.
He soon began to place orders with various watch brands, each for just a couple of watches, yet always featuring the Prancing Horse proudly on the dial. These watches were given to a very select group of people, all of whom had contributed significantly to the success of Ferrari and shown loyalty to Enzo.
These watches were proudly worn by the men who received them as they were more than just pats on the back or badges of honor; receiving one of these watches meant that they belonged to the inner circle of Enzo Ferrari.
Allegedly, the moment the watch was gifted was quite unceremonious, with Ferrari often just pressing the watch into the hand of its lucky new owner. It was also not an event anyone could count on happening.
Argentine driver José Froilán González got his after winning at Silverstone during the 1951 Grand Prix season. While he was an excellent driver, it was fuel efficiency that made his car, fitted with a 4.5-liter, naturally aspirated V12 Ferrari engine, competitive. The 1.5-liter supercharged engines of Ferrari’s main adversary Alfa Romeo allegedly only went 1.5 miles on a gallon of fuel, which meant these cars had to stop twice to refuel during races.
For Ferrari it was the first time that his team had won a Formula One race with a car of his own make. But if you think that González got his watch for that, you’d be mistaken. Competitive as he was, Enzo Ferrari considered beating his nemesis Alfa Romeo González’s the true achievement.
Others had to wait considerably longer for their supreme tokens of approval from Il Commendatore – like Reclus Forghieri, who was in charge of the mechanical department and only awarded one after decades of being a driving force behind the scenes at Ferrari.
An interesting side note is that Reclus is also the father of Mauro Forghieri, who would become one of Ferrari’s most notable designers of Formula One cars. Mauro, who performed this task from 1960 through 1987, can be credited with designing the first transversal automatic gearbox as well as introducing rear wings on Formula One cars during the Belgian Grand Prix of 1968.
Ferrari: a (fortunate) victim of its own success
Enzo’s main passion was racing; Ferrari’s equally successful road cars were mainly a means to fund that passion.
And as the 1980s arrived, it became clear that the power of the Ferrari brand was more extensive than even that. People who could not even afford its road cars wanted to express their passion for the brand.
So merchandising became a real thing, and not all of it was official. This included watches, much to Enzo’s chagrin as he wanted to protect both the name and reputation of his brand. That is why he struck a deal with Cartier and they launched the new “Ferrari Formula” collection on April 15, 1983 at Ferrari’s headquarters in Maranello, Italy.
He did this with Alain Dominique Perrin, then president of Cartier International and well known for developing the highly successful Must de Cartier collection just a few years earlier.
The Cartier Ferrari Formula sub-brand had the same flair yet was a touch sportier. The name was clever, to say the least, as it included a nod to Ferrari’s popular Formula One team without literally using the trademarked racing series’ name.
Who made the Cartier Ferrari Formula watches?
The deal itself was understandable as Cartier always had a knack for design and was one of the few luxury brands to thrive during the so-called quartz crisis. Cartier, however, had no large production facility at that time, so the question remains: who made the Formula Ferrari watches?
I have yet to uncover the definitive answer, but the obvious choice is Ebel as this brand had also made many of the Must de Cartier models.
However, I’m not sure that Ebel actually made the Formula Ferrari watches. It also may have been Baume & Mercier. In those days, Baume & Mercier wasn’t yet part of the Cartier empire. That wouldn’t happen until 1988 when Cartier acquired a controlling stake in both Piaget and Baume & Mercier, laying the foundation of what is now the Richemont Group.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s Baume & Mercier had a collection called Formula S. Not only is this name surprisingly similar to Formula Ferrari, but the design of the watches also comes very close. While I have yet to confirm this officially, I believe that Baume & Mercier is the most likely candidate to have made the watches for the Cartier-Ferrari partnership.
Cartier Formula Ferrari: a well thought-out concept
As could be expected of men like Alain Dominique Perrin and Enzo Ferrari, the Formula Ferrari watches were endowed with quite a strong personality. The designs were a collaboration between Ferrari and Cartier and said to have been led by Giampiero Bodino, a heavyweight in the luxury world, particularly in jewelry design.
The task was not taken lightly as the watches needed to combine the high-tech atmosphere of a Ferrari racecar with a generous dose of elegance, all wrapped up in a contemporary design. And they succeeded in this.
One of the most distinctive features of most of the Formula Ferrari watches is the asymmetrical bracelet and straps. Some dials feature geometric patterns, which gives them an even more distinct look.
Both the Ferrari name and logo were prominent on the watches, but not annoyingly so. While originally launched with just two time-only models – in men’s and women’s sizes – chronographs followed and would soon make up the majority of the collection.
Automatic versions, even cased in 18-karat gold, existed as well, but in very limited quantities. The majority of these watches were powered by quartz movements, which was also a sign of the times.
The collection proved to be quite successful and soon also expanded into other products including lighters, pens, and leather goods – quite similarly to the Must de Cartier collection.
The holy grail
Among the Formula Ferrari watches there is one model that is the actual holy grail. In 1987, Enzo Ferrari commissioned a unique piece of the Cartier Formula Ferrari. With a movement based on the Valjoux 7751, its displays included a chronograph, moon phase, day (in Italian), and date.
It was given to Pope John Paul II when he visited Maranello and Fiorano in 1988, which included a tour of the Ferrari factory. While Enzo was a great admirer of Pope John Paul II, poor health prevented him from being present.
On August 14, 1988, only two months after the pope’s visit, Enzo Ferrari passed away in Modena, the same town he was born in 90 years before. The deal with Cartier died soon after, closing a remarkable chapter in watchmaking history of what was very likely the first large-scale commercial, successful collaboration between a car manufacturer and a watch brand.
How collectable are Formula Ferrari watches? To answer that question depends on what kind of collector you are. If you a Ferrari enthusiast and/or owner of a (1980s) Ferrari, it might be a fun accessory to have. If you are a watch collector, the Formula Ferrari is most likely only interesting trivia to share with fellow connoisseurs. The movements were mostly quartz, and the design is too dated to entice any further horological interest.
Maintenance is the biggest hurdle of owning a Formula Ferrari watch. While the build quality of these watches was good, they are more than three decades old and quite likely in need of maintenance. As a standalone brand, neither Cartier nor Baume & Mercier will service them. Spare parts are not available, forcing you to buy another example of the same model and hope that the parts required are good enough to serve as donors.
This makes owning one a bit of a headache. Prices are modest, and watches complete with box and papers can still be found on pre-owned watch sites for those who are interested. Just keep in mind that personal enjoyment should be the main reason to buy one of these as I doubt that they will increase much in value in the future.
This post is part two of a series on the history of Ferrari watches up to 2021. Make sure to catch part one at History Of Ferrari Watches: Engineered By Officine Panerai. And there are more to come!
Quick Facts Cartier Formula Ferrari Chronograph
Case: 41 x 10 mm, stainless steel, mineral glass
Movement: unspecified quartz
Functions: hours, minutes, seconds; date, day, chronograph