Creativity may come from the most unusual of places, but the Cartier Crash truly remains one of the most puzzling and intriguing timepieces the world has ever seen. It’s equal parts defiant and sophisticated, and its non-conformity has become a fascination.
Accident by design
Now Cartier may be synonymous for some of the sleekest and most iconic watches in the market, but the Cartier Crash and its oddly shaped case is the antithesis of what a timepiece should look like, more so in the elegant world of watchmaking.
Born in the Swinging Sixties (1967, to be precise), the first of its kind was a jolt to the status quo. Symmetry has always been the fundamental to watch design; this principle was indiscriminately applied throughout watches of any shape. Yet Jean-Jacques Cartier, head of Cartier London at that time, didn’t seem fazed by the rules, and so the world’s most bizarre-looking watch was created.
While there are a few versions of how Cartier was inspired to create the surrealist-looking Crash, most accounts point to the remains of a Cartier Baignoire Allongé watch retrieved from a blazing car crash. It’s also sometimes believed that the “Melting Clocks” in Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory catalysed the watch’s strange design, though it was Piaget, not Cartier, that collaborated with Dali on a separate project in 1967 instead.
It’s strange to see how a mangled watch or a deformed liquified clock could be a muse, but this is perhaps the finest example of how beauty truly comes in all forms.
Needless to say, the Cartier Crash had massive underground appeal. The originals were rarer than many may realise — it was first launched in Cartier London in very limited numbers. The men’s watch came in both yellow and white gold, with sizeable dimensions at 43mm by 23mm.
Cartier Paris would later take over its production, launching its own version in 1991 that would see a limited edition of 200 pieces in a smaller 38mm case, and then a 13-piece release in yellow gold to commemorate the Rue de la Paix store opening in 1993.
Still, it’s the Cartier London Crash watch that sends collectors in a frenzy. Once in a while, a piece with the heralded word “London” on the dial resurfaces and is auctioned off to great fanfare — one sold at Christie’s for over S$175,000 last year. The modern versions simply indicate “Swiss made” instead.
Everyone knew the Crash was special but no one knew just how fashionable it would become. Save for countless commissioned pieces over the years, it wasn’t till 2013 when the Crash resurfaced from the archives to return with a ladies’ version. It took over a segment it had ignored for a very long time. Set glamorously against a gold case and gem-set bracelet, the diamond-encrusted piece was an unapologetically loud and whimsical work of art.
Recognisable a mile away
As alluring as its strange shape, white dial and psychedelic Roman numerals were, it was really the inner workings that fascinated watch enthusiasts. In 2015, Cartier stripped the watch to create the Cartier Crash Skeleton — a less-than-humble way of showing just how much it’s progressed mechanically.
In a larger 45mm by 28 mm, the Crash’s inventive contours were now reimagined in sculpted platinum, with its Roman numerals carved and “melting away” with the rest of the watch, instead of being merely painted on.
The manufacture caliber 9618 MC within, as you’d imagine, was designed explicitly for the case. In demonstrating a masterclass on improvisation, Cartier doubled the movement’s bridges as the numerals, while incorporating the rest of the mechanics around the iconic facade.
In commemoration of its emblematic London flagship reopening at New Bond Street — sat in the heart of the prestigious Mayfair — the brand will, once again, reinterpret the Crash. The 18K gold timepiece, accompanied by its jewellery version that’s set with brilliant-cut diamonds, will be numbered and limited to 15 pieces.
Now just over half a century old, the Cartier Crash still manages to turn heads and illicit gaping stares. An oddity in the luxury world despite its bewildering history, it’s unapologetically avant-garde. Yet most of all, it reminds us that sometimes, the best watches do not conform to any rules.