The origin of Cartier’s most bizarre watch ever dates back to 1967. There are a couple of frightening, unconfirmed stories about the way the watch came to life, both of which took place in London. One is about a lady who brought her Baignoire watch in for repair, since it had been involved in a traffic accident where it got badly damaged. Another story is about a Cartier London manager, who was involved in a car accident that resulted in a fire. His watch – a large, curved Maxi Oval – melted from the heat exposure. The melted timepiece inspired Jean-Jacques Cartier, then head of Cartier London, to create a watch that was inevitably christened the “Crash”.
Which of these stories, if either, is the correct one, we don’t know, but the latter sounds the more plausible, since the Maxi Oval, with its sharp case top – similar to the Crash – could easily be melted to the distorted shape of the Crash watch. It is sometimes believed that the design of the watch was inspired by a painting of Salvador Dalí’s, but there is absolutely no evidence of that at all. On the contrary, it was Piaget that started work on a project with Salvador Dalí in 1967 that lasted almost till 1970.
Cartier London launched the timepiece as a men’s watch, in yellow-gold and white-gold (just three in white-gold, though) cases that measured 43mm by 23mm, and produced the watch in very limited numbers. Before Cartier Paris took over the production of the Crash (after the manufacturing of watches became centralised), two designers of Cartier London left the company and started their own brand, Churchill Watches.
The company was not that successful and did not survive long either. But their first release was interesting – a Churchill Crash watch. Released in a 52mm-long white- or yellow-gold case and powered by an ETA calibre, the watch was sold in the UK and USA. While the watch is often the subject of discussion, it was never sought after by collectors, nor did it ever fetch a decent price at auctions. It is still the Cartier London Crash watch that sets auctions on fire, when, once in several years, a piece – preferably in white-gold with the magical word “London” on the dial – emerges and is auctioned off.
Cartier Paris continued the production of the Crash watch and La Maison launched their version in 1991, in a limited edition of 200 pieces and in a slightly smaller 38mm case. Later on, in 1997, another limited edition of just 13 pieces in yellow gold was crafted for the reopening of the Rue de la Paix store. In the meantime, La Maison accepted custom orders for the Crash from clients, since the watch was almost never available because of the extremely limited production. In 2013, Cartier released diamond-set Crash watches for ladies on gold and gem-set bracelets.
Watch collectors and watch aficionados, especially in Asia and Europe, have had tried persuading Cartier over the past 10 years to make a larger and more wearable Crash watch than the classic version. 38mm may sound reasonable, but since the watch becomes very pointed at the top, it becomes a very little gem. It was worth the wait! Cartier presented the long-anticipated piece at SIHH 2015 in Geneva, as a completely new design – and, more importantly, finally in a case that was large enough to be worn by men.
Cartier could have done it the easy way, by creating a larger case that fitted an already existing movement (for instance, the Calibre 430 MC or the Calibre 9780 MC used in the Tank Cintrée). This would certainly have fitted the bill and pleased collectors. But instead, Cartier did it the Cartier way and decided to start a new series within the Fine Watchmaking Collection called the Mechanical Legends, with the renewed Crash watch as its first chapter.
Cartier came up with a new construction for the case of the Crash, and created a skeleton calibre, the 9618 MC, specifically for this new watch. The dial is completely skeletonised, covered with oversized Roman numerals formed from skeletonised bridges that reveal the movement beneath: the hand-wound Calibre 9618 MC beating at 28,800 vph and offering a remarkable power reserve of three days. In an improvement to the vintage Crash watches, the 2015 model is water-resistant to 30m and the case measures 45.32mm by 28.15mm, significantly larger than its predecessor, and also larger than the original London Crash watch.
The Calibre 9618 MC may have been based on existing skeleton movements, such as the Calibre 9611 MC housed in the Santos-Dumont Skeleton, but it had to be completely redesigned to fit in the “crashed” shape of the case. To achieve this, Cartier had to relocate the barrels, as well as the gear train. Because the case of the watch is curved, mineral crystal had to be used for the front (sapphire cannot be formed in the shape needed). The back of the case is almost flat, and here, the movement can be inspected through a sapphire-crystal caseback. This skeletonised Crash was produced in a limited run of just 67 pieces in platinum, and another run of 67 pieces in platinum set with diamonds. The quantity of 67 pieces refers to the year the melted Maxi Oval morphed into the beautiful Crash watch.
When we look back at the history of the Crash, it becomes clear that La Maison sees the Crash as a very special model. All production runs over the years have been very limited and made for those who really care for an exclusive watch, which the Crash certainly is. That’s why this timepiece, which has fascinated collectors for years, became the first chapter of the new Mechanical Legends collection.
What to expect next in the Mechanical Legends collection remains a big question, since a new model will only be launched in 2017. It could be that another version will be launched in gold. As Cartier treats the Crash and all new models in the collection with extreme exclusivity, we will just have to be patient and wait.
Since Cartier has now finally created this gorgeous, larger and watertight case for the Crash watch – which was almost sold out during its presentation and launch in Geneva – I wonder if we will ever see this watch released in its new case but with a conventional movement and a classic guilloché dial? In 2017, the Crash will celebrate its 50th birthday… am I now daydreaming or indulging in wishful thinking?