Watches

Cartier in Motion

The Parisian maison opens the season’s most intoxicating exhibition to date at London’s Design Museum

Words by
Robin Swithinbank

Watch enthusiasts often make the connection between wristwatches and cars, but as a new London exhibition reminds us this week, the link between wristwatches and aviation is every bit as, if not much stronger.

Cartier last night opened its Cartier in Motion exhibition at London’s Design Museum, in the company of its curator Lord Norman Foster, Cartier CEO Cyrille Vigneron and a hugely influential gathering of guests that included George Osbourne, Peter Mandelson, Ron Dennis and Gerry McGovern.

Cartier in motion

The exhibition centrepiece is a full-scale replica of the Demoiselle, the last plane made by pioneer Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont. As visitors are shown, it was the relationship between Santos-Dumont and Louis Cartier – the third generation head of the great Parisian maison – that spawned what’s widely believed to be the first wristwatch made for a man.

The Cartier Santos was designed in 1904 to give the flamboyant flyboy a timekeeping device he could reference while flying, without the need to dip into a pocket, where up and till that point a fashionable gentleman would have kept his watch. At the time, wristwatches were seen as feminine accoutrements – bracelets, to all intents. Santos-Dumont broke that mould, sporting his Cartier wristwatch during many of his highly publicised flights, presumably grateful to be able to track his flight times without ever needing to release his hands from his contraptions’ controls.

Lord Foster has gathered a remarkable collection of more than 170 exhibits that tell this and many stories besides, including models of cars and planes created by Louis Cartier and brought to London from the Cartier Archives. The exhibition charts the early 20th century friendship between the two entrepreneurs (it was Louis Cartier and his brothers Pierre and Jacques who made the company the name we recognise today) and showcases how Cartier was influenced by the likes of Santos-Dumont and Gustave Eiffel (the exhibition’s intricate, 8-foot model of the Eiffel Tower is worth the trip alone) during one of the most exciting periods for design, architecture and engineering in French history.

The exhibition doesn’t exactly dispel the notion that Cartier is first-and-foremost a maker of fine watches and jewellery, and nor does it aim to, but it does cast fresh light on the broad scope and talents of the most important characters in its illustrious history, and on how their influence continues to steer the company’s current crop of creatives. The critically acclaimed Drive de Cartier, the most recent of Cartier’s self-titled ‘montres de formes’, is a cushion-shaped beauty that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the wrists of Louis Cartier and his pals. Cushion-shaped watches first appeared in the 1920s, after all.

Cartier in motion

Cartier in Motion falls in the year Cartier marks 100 years of its most famous and most enduring design, the Tank. Inspired by the bird’s eye view of the Allied tanks that kept Paris safe during the First World War, the Tank has become a staple of all serious watch collections, and is recognised as a defining moment in watchmaking history. The Design Museum has both a Santos and a Tank watch in its permanent collection.

‘Good design is long-lasting,’ said Alice Black, one of the Design Museum’s co-directors, quoting Dieter Rams’s 10 principles for good design at last night’s launch. That’s what Cartier in Motion demonstrates, and that’s how Cartier, ultimately, deserves to be referenced.

Cartier in Motion at the Design Museum runs until July 28, 2017 and is open daily from 10am-6pm. Entry is free and booking is not required.

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