Created in 2002 but rooted in a long heritage of innovation, the Cartier Libre watch collection continues to push the boundaries of imagination in the horological world.
The first-ever men’s wristwatch was born in 1904, during the era of round pocket watches, when Louis Cartier dreamt up the square Santos for his friend and famous Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont. In 1912, he stretched the typical round shape of a watch dial to create the Baignoire or “bathtub” in French, then audaciously introduced the tortoiseshell-inspired Tortue, which garnered a cult following.
Five years later, upon the unveiling of the Renault FT-17 tanks built for World War I, his imagination was reignited once again by the vehicle’s silhouette – resulting in the creation of the maison’s most legendary model, the Tank. The bell-shaped Cloche, originally designed to be worn on the lapel as a brooch, then appeared in 1920. And in a most bizarre turn of events, a car crash blaze in ’60s London caused a Baignoire Allongée watch to be melted and mangled out of shape, for it to be reborn as the surrealistic Crash watch by Jean-Jacques Cartier, head of Cartier London of that era.
The product of genius or serendipity, Cartier’s imaginative take on watch shapes has always flowed through its veins since its early years. Why should timepieces be boring? And judging by the various models’ success, watch lovers, too, agree. Finally, to the delight of contemporary horology enthusiasts, the Cartier Libre feminine watch collection was launched in 2002 to honour Louis Cartier’s pioneering spirit and continue the maison’s legacy of inventiveness in playing with shapes, lines and volumes.
Expect the unexpected
As much as Cartier is synonymous with its emblematic watch shapes, it is also known for a refreshing unconventionality rare in the realm of horology. This character is very much epitomised by Cartier Libre.
Pierre Rainero, the brand’s director of image, style and heritage, explains: “This collection pushes creative limits, forcing us to question how we look at things. These watches reflect a great freedom. Unexpected shapes appear, lines move, colour is added, inspirations begin to converse with one another. Volumes and perspectives are explored and shaken up. Precious materials, bold designs and chromatic contrasts for some – this work is continuously enriching the maison’s vocabulary. This collection, a balance between measure and excess, cannot be categorised. Hence its name: Cartier Libre.”
If a watch looks unfamiliar yet strangely familiar, it could very well be a Cartier Libre. Despite the design twists, the house’s aesthetic codes are always present, even subtly. What can be more precious and personally rewarding to connoisseurs or collectors than to be able to identify the Cartier signature style?
Between 2002 and 2012, 10 collections of numbered, limited-series watches were born, with diamonds being the common denominator among them. While the debut models are sensuous and dainty interpretations of classic forms, the 2008 ones are resolutely black-tie creations that take the subversion up a notch with swivelled dials and repeated patterns. The pieces introduced between 2009 and 2012 were mainly black and white monochrome – recognisably Cartier – that fused minimalism with distortion.
Brazen and beautiful
In recent years, Cartier has further developed its aesthetic repertoire for the Libre by showcasing designs based on three themes, or “universes” as the house calls it. The 2018 range features unseen shapes, in black and white, that mirror the Baignoire and Crash watches. Their proportions are disrupted, volumes accentuated and lines lengthened.
Case in point: Even if it is rebellious in birth, flaunting oversized Roman numerals stylised as glossy black ADLC (amorphous diamond-like carbon) “straps” wrapped over a diamond-studded Baignoire case turned lengthwise, the Baignoire Interdite is unequivocally elegant and undeniably Cartier.
2019 saw a technicolour and ultra-modern edition consisting of five women’s watches, including a new, geometric and Art Deco-inspired aesthetic called the Diagonale. Represented were also two Baignoire Allongée variants, which were texturised with paved diamonds and volumised with bezel-set emeralds and Paraíba tourmalines, or black spinels and yellow sapphires.
It is plain to see that the watches are treated as precious works of art. Indeed, a key signature that bears the heartbeat of the Parisian maison is the masterful use of gemstones. Cartier’s director of design for watchmaking Marie-Laure Cérède, elaborates: “Because Cartier is above all a jeweller, Cartier watches, whether they are for men or women, blur the lines between these two professions that the maison was founded on, allowing for the best of both worlds. This is why our creations transcend all categories. They are not just instruments for telling the time, nor are they simply jewellery. They are a third type of object with their own uniqueness. Cartier watches only resemble themselves.
“The complexity of Cartier watchmaking is due to its duality. It is being able to express creative freedom while working under technical constraints. This intellectual challenge is exciting. And the challenge is all the greater when aesthetics take precedence over the rest. It means that we must master the technical side, making it feel like second nature so that emotion is able to emerge. This intuitive intelligence has always been evident in our designs. The creative process is the result of a controlled tension between the head and heart, an alchemy from which meaning and identity emanate.”
Just you watch
This year, Cartier takes the play on shapes up several notches by introducing two animals from its menagerie into its high jewellery Baignoire and Tortue creations. With the case and dial completely adorned with diamonds, enamel and other precious gems, both are extravagant, evocative masterpieces. Their Libre DNA also makes them contrarians.
The white gold Baignoire Turtle stays true to the form of a turtle shell with its voluptuous oval shape, black enamel outline and 24 buff -top tsavorites on the edges. The shell pattern comes to life with pentagonal and hexagonal blue enamel-lined motifs decorated with brilliant cut diamonds and 18 flat-cut sapphires. This quartz watch is fitted with an alligator strap, and available in a 30-piece edition.
Not to be outdone, the Tortue Snake is a tortoiseshell wearing the flamboyant skin of a serpent. Black and coral enamel, diamonds and mother-of-pearl are inlaid within the cells of its white gold dial and case, creating a hypnotic, organic and impressively continuous pattern of reptilian scales. Even the edges between 1 and 2 o’clock, and 7 and 8 o’clock, are jagged for a vivid impact. Made in a 30-piece edition, it is driven by the compact, manually wound calibre 430 MC, boasts a power reserve of 38 hours and comes with an alligator strap.
On the creative process for these new models, Cérède says: “More than just an expression of unbridled creative freedom, Cartier Libre demonstrates the constantly tense creative requirements involved in seeking both aesthetic meaning and emotion. For this vintage, the goal was to give the Baignoire and Tortue models a new look, inspired by life’s transformations. How could we, without visibly altering their DNA, communicate something new that would change or simply mutate their iconic case’s genome?
“For the Tortue, we chose to apply coral snake scales that, on certain contours, go as far as creating an adaptation of the lines to those of the motif. The brancard becomes a shell. The Baignoire is given a second skin, becoming Tortue. These mutations of form, of decoration and even of name blur the boundaries between watchmaking and jewellery.”
(Main and featured image: Cartier via Watches by SJX; all other images: Cartier)
This story first appeared in the August 2021 issue of Prestige Singapore.