Watches & Jewellery

Why vintage Cartier Tank collector and expert Harry Fane loves the iconic timepiece

Also a dealer, the Englishman has sold some of the most important Cartier creations to aristocrats and celebrities

Harry Fane is a promiscuous man. At least, that’s the case when it comes to Cartier Tank watches. “I often say this is the watch I’ll have for the rest of my life, but then a prettier one comes along and out with the old!” said the impeccably suited Brit, a well-known collector of vintage editions of the iconic Cartier watch, and also a dealer who has sold some of the most important Cartier creations to aristocrats and celebrities.

Fane was in Singapore in May to exhibit and sell 31 vintage Tank watches exclusively at multi-label boutique Dover Street Market. The watches, which are from the 1920s to the 1970s, are extremely rare, including a highly coveted 1945 Tank Chinoise with a case inspired by 18th-century Chinese Chippendale furniture. “I also brought a London Tank from the Swinging Sixties when Cartier made a series of watches unique to London. People go crazy for them.”

As a dealer of objets d’art in the early 1970s, Fane would sporadically come across pieces from Cartier. It started with a lighter, a clock and then some cufflinks – small accessories and items that soon birthed his hunger more. “I spent days poring over old archives. I bought more Cartier over the years but the one thing I really enjoy is a watch,” he said.

Today, Fane has his own private gallery in London. Established in 1978, Obsidian deals exclusively in vintage Cartier watches, objet d’arts and jewellery. Fane himself has about 45 Tank watches in his current collection, though he estimates that at some point he had amassed about 200 pieces of them.

He showed us the 1924 Tank Normale – the first model of the signature design – on his wrist, which he got three years ago. Like other watches of that era, it is tiny by today’s standards, but wears perfectly well. That, said Fane, is the power of timelessness: “It’s amazing how you would still want a Tank watch 100 years since it was introduced. Many things that were designed as little as 20 years ago already look dated.”

His perennial search for the next vintage Cartier watch started with a “gift” from Cartier. “In the 1980s, I presented a Mystery Clock from the 1920s to Cartier,” Fane recalled. “I had bought it from a private collector when I was younger, and I knew Cartier wanted to own it.” The cheeky man then suggested that as a way of thanking him for bringing the coveted clock back to them, the company should give him a Cartier watch as a present.

“They said, no, no, and I said, yes, yes,” he laughs. After much discussion, they reached a satisfactory agreement, where Fane could indeed choose a watch for himself. A modern 1980s Tank Americaine became his first Cartier watch. But that wasn’t enough for Fane, who decided that he wanted vintage watches, especially one with many past lives, stories and of course, a beating mechanical heart. “That started the whole ball rolling for me,” said Fane. Here, he shares his thoughts on seeking out rarities from the past, partnering with one of the edgiest fashion retailers around today, and the one watch he regrets selling.