Cartier Crash: Past the hype

Beyond Kanye, towards a theory of collecting

Recently, the book The Cartiers by Francesca Cartier Brickell dispelled the common origin story of the Cartier Crash: it was never the result of a car crash melting a Cartier Baignoire Allongée, but instead the product of a collaboration between Jean-Jacques Cartier (who ran the Cartier London branch from the 1940s through the 1970s) and designer Rupert Emmerson. Sometimes, a great design is a great design — it doesn’t need some apocryphal story to raise its stature. Such is the case with the Cartier Crash. First introduced by Cartier London in 1967, the Crash has been produced in fits and starts on an extremely limited basis ever since.

But, why has the Crash become something of a flagship of Cartier’s collection as far as collectors are concerned? More importantly, how can collectors take note and identify future icons?

Crashing through records

Just as fascinating as the origin story of the 1967 Crash is the story of the modern market for the Crash, where bananas prices are the rule and not the exception. That story starts not in London, but perhaps with Kanye West. I first remember spotting a Cartier Crash on Kanye’s wrist back in December 2018:

As I wrote when surveying Kanye’s collection, his fashion is just as influential as his music, so no doubt people took note of him wearing a Cartier Crash around town. By this point, Cartier timepieces had already experienced a bit of a resurgence and renewed appreciation, but it’s hard not to take special note of the interest (and prices) of the Crash pre- and post-Kanye. Pretty much everything Kanye touches turns to gold, and the Crash is no exception.[1]

After its 1967 introduction, Cartier moved production of the Crash to Paris in the 1990s. A 1991 limited run of 400 is one of the first examples of (slightly) larger production numbers of the Crash. As such, it’s helpful to track prices of the 1991 Paris Edition to understand the market for the Crash more generally. Sure, unique Crashes are great too, but these are virtually priceless; meanwhile, other rare examples like this platinum Crash that sold last month are also superlative, but their rarity makes it difficult to fully analyze any trends. What’s more, it loos like it might be the model Kanye wears. The design of this 1991 Paris Edition stays relatively true to the original London model, featuring an 18k yellow gold case, measuring a modest 38mm in length. With that, let’s take a look at a few recent sales of the 1991 Paris Edition Crash.

If the market for the Cartier Crash was already hot, 2020 was the year it straight-up overheated. In Antiquorum’s May Important Timepieces auction, a 1991 Crash Paris Edition sold for HKD 812k (about $105k), what seems to be (far and away) a record for the model.

But, the record didn’t stand for long: last week, at Phillips Hong Kong XI, an example of the 1991 Crash Paris Edition sold for HKD 945k (about $120k). In other words, it blew away Antiquorum’s result from just 6 months prior. Hell, not even Amazon stock has risen by 20 percent in the past 6 months.[2]

So what has happened? It’s not like the Crash was doing big numbers, even three years ago.

Back in May 2017, Christie’s sold an example of the 1991 Paris Edition for CHF 37k (which, by the way, blew past its meager estimate). And I didn’t just pick out a low result here: a few months later, Christie’s sold another example for about the same price — the market price for this particular edition of the Crash was simply $30k or so back then. Now, with at least a couple of auction results achieving six-figure dollars this year, it shows how a particular model can take off when the right set of circumstances come together. Or in other words, how a watch can 3x in three years. Enter Kanye.

Crashing into Kanye

It’s a classic — albeit modern — story of hype. Sure, collectors have long loved the Cartier Crash; you’ll find interesting and unique Crashes in collections around the world from long before Kanye started tweeting about it. But, not until Mr. West plucked the oddly shaped watch from relative obscurity did the larger, well-heeled public seem to take note of it.

Once Kanye wore a Crash, it seemed like the watch started popping up everywhere. People took to posting shots of the Crash on Instagram.com more often — whether or not they actually owned the watch was irrelevant. More of those “for sale? how much?” comments would populate said posts. Oh, dear, naive commenter: those posts aren’t to sell a watch; they’re to flex a watch. GQ wrote about the Crash; so did Rescapement.

Like so many things that rise to seemingly sudden fame (watches included), the Crash has the added virtue of its odd shape, which makes it particularly easy to spot when doom-scrolling through wrist shots and lugs and jugs. In that sense, it’s similar to a Royal Oak, Nautilus, etc. But, the Crash is a phenomenon all its own: unlike those large, steel sports watches, the Crash is a relatively petite dress watch produced only in precious metals. Its styling seems to run counter to the generally-accepted narrative of the last few years, where those steel sports watches are everything, and nothing else really matters, especially not small dress watches from a super-traditional brand like Cartier.

But, here’s the trick of the Crash: When everyone else seems to have those bold stainless steel sports watches, the only way to stand out is to do the opposite. Kanye has always been known for being a step ahead of trends (or, more accurately, setting those trends), and the Crash is yet another example. With the Crash, he shows how it’s okay to wear a vintage-inspired gold dress watch while wearing Yeezy sneakers and sweats. If Kanye hadn’t done it, it’s hard to contend the Crash would be legitimately looked at as cool. Without Kanye backing you up, you’re just some nerd wearing a dressy Cartier, rambling on about how the shape resembles Dali’s “Persistence of Memory” and people should really pay more attention to the designs that came out of Cartier London in the 1960s.

Is it a bit bold to trace the Crash’s recent record-breaking results to one guy? Perhaps. To be sure, Cartier has helped the Crash trend too, re-releasing the Crash in extremely limited quantities so that people are (1) aware of the watch, and (2) more importantly, aware that it’s unobtainable, for them at least. But while Cartier is busy selling to its favorite clients, auction houses are more than happy to keep on selling to the highest bidder, so up the results go.

Charting a (Cartier) course

Listen, the Cartier Crash is a crazy cool watch, I’ll give it that. But does it deserve to be the most sought after, in-demand watch in Cartier’s vast and varied collection? That, I’m not necessarily willing to concede. Let’s take a look at a few other worthy watches from Cartier’s collection, produced around the same time as that 1991 Paris Edition Crash.

Cartier Monopusher Chronograph CPCP

First up, a watch you can actually buy. A Tortue Monopoussoir CPCP is for sale at next week’s Phillips “Racing Pulse” auction. Cartier first introduced the Tortue back in the early 20th century and revisits it on occasion. Nowhere has it been more well-executed than in this Monopusher Chronograph from the 1990s. Developed for the Cartier Privée Paris Collection (CPCP), the watch is most important for featuring a chronograph movement co-developed by Vianney Halter, Denis Flageollet, and F.P. Journe.[3] In an auction that’s already heavy on F.P. Journe, no doubt this one should get tons of attention. That said, it’s still relatively under-appreciated for what it is; still, don’t be surprised if it blows past that $8-12k estimate.

Cartier Santos-Dumont 90th Anniversary Limited Edition

I’ve written about the Cartier Santos-Dumont 90th Anniversary Edition before, released in 1994. For my money, it’s the best modern-ish Cartier: platinum case, vintage-inspired Breguet hands, and a terribly rich salmon dial. Limited to just 90 pieces, it’s rarer than that 1991 Paris Edition Crash, but prices don’t exactly reflect this rarity. Sure, prices for this model have exploded the past few years, probably growing 3x during the same period that the Cartier Crash’s prices seem to have also tripled. But, an example of this Santos-Dumont will still run you “only” in the neighborhood of $20-$25k, a fraction of the average Crash.

For that price — to me — it’s tough to beat. You get perhaps Cartier’s most classic shape; the Santos-Dumont was the “first men’s wristwatch,” and the 90th Anniversary Edition stays remarkably true to the original 1904 model, save for a few upgrades. It’s also equipped with a Piguet 21 ultra-thin manual wind movement, what for years was one of the thinnest movements around. Add to that the simple fact that it’s a Cartier in a white metal. As proof of its rarity, we haven’t even seen one of these Santos-Dumonts at a major auction this year: I think the collectors that have them know how perfect these watches are, and aren’t keen to get rid of them, even if prices continue to climb.

Cloche de Cartier

The Cloche is another of Cartier’s more geometrically curious creations. First introduced in the early part of the 20th century, it’s been brought back in various forms over the past few decades. At its November Hong Kong auction, Antiquorum sold a 1-of-2 example from the 2000s (above) for about $25k. It sounds like a lot for what’s otherwise an obscure, oddly shaped watch with a rhinoceros (or a triceratops?). Sure, it can also be laid sideways and used as a nightstand clock, but still. But, when you realize that Antiquorum sold a similar 1-of-2 watch for roughly the same price back in 2011, it’s easy to wonder why the Cloche hasn’t appreciated as much as a watch like the Crash.

Historically, the Cloche was perhaps one of the first watches from Cartier to break from traditional shapes (for Cartier, that meant squares like the Santos-Dumont). For that reason alone, it’s important to Cartier’s history, as the brand is almost as associated with its daring shapes as it is its little red boxes.

Past the hype

“I enjoy looking past the hype and going ‘that is empirically something really special.’” John Mayer says in his Talking Watches 2. “If we’re constantly looking back at watches and going why didn’t we know, there have to be future iterations of that that we can act on now.”

Ironically, Mayer said this about the modern yellow gold Daytona with a green dial, a watch that became perhaps the most hyped of the year as soon as Mayer annointed it so. But this entirely misses the point. The Crash isn’t cool because Kanye wore it; a green dial Daytona isn’t cool because John said so. These watches are cool because these tastemakers saw something that no one else saw, and acted on it.

Listen, people like Kanye or Mayer became admired because they’re willing to push boundaries, look past the hype, see what no one else sees, and wear what no one else wears. Rather than emulating the watches our heroes or celebrities wear though, collectors instead need to emulate the mindset of these heroes, looking past the hype to identify the future icons, as articulated by Mayer. In that way, collectors can also emulate the spirit of Cartier that led to designs like the Crash — bold, daring, and a bit contrarian. This means looking past the hype and record-breaking results garnered by some models to seek out other potential icons. The ones no one else is paying attention to.

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[1] I remember when I saw Kanye wearing this ‘Midwest Kids’ sweatshirt last year, I immediately went searching for one. Sold out everywhere.

[2] Jeff Bezos is currently worth $186 billion, meaning he probably wouldn’t even notice if you took from him the $48m it would cost to buy each of the 400 Cartier Paris Editions from 1991 at this latest auction price. On some level, it baffles me that some rich guy doesn’t just come in and corner the market for a few rare watches.

[3] Check out this great interview with Flageollet discussing the Monopusher CPCP.


Through the Wire

Heuer Skipperrera Sells for $81k

In Bonham’s Art of Time auction this week, a Heuer Skipperrera ref. 7753 sold for $81.5k. It’s the second fresh-to-the-market Skipperrera we’ve seen in as many months, after Fellows recently sold an example for $70k. According to Bonham’s, this example was consigned by the original owner, an avid sailor himself. The dial looks to have some light damage around the outer track and lume plots, but Bonham’s says the case is unpolished. In any event, it’s another strong result for one of the biggest Heuer grails around.

🤍 Speaking of records, a white gold Patek ref. 3448 broke records for the reference at Christie’s last week, selling for ~$1.2m. ✈ An oversized Universal Geneve split seconds also performed well. The trailer for Keeper of Time, a documentary releasing in 2021, is 🔥. 📰


Rescapement was added to Watchville this week; if you’re new, welcome. Rescapement is a weekly newsletter about watches (mostly vintage-ish), written primarily by me, Tony. Give us a subscribe to get this email delivered to your inbox every Sunday morning: