Cartier Crush: the surreal “drip” watch that has become a celebrity favourite

written by Oscar Holland, CNN

Awarded by collectors and sought after by stars from Jay-Z to Kim Kardashian West, the Cartier Crash watch has become one of the most unexpected luxury watches on the market. Straight out of the swinging 60s, its swooping shape looks more like one of Salvador Dali’s surreal melting watches than a famous timepiece.

Crash also has an origin story – albeit an apocryphal one – that’s as unusual as his warped and asymmetrical state.

The legend began in London in 1967, when a customer arrived at the Cartier New Bond Street boutique to repair a watch damaged in a car accident. The fiery heat of the crash, or so the story goes, melted its one-day oval case. Jean-Jacques Cartier, grandson of founder Louis-François Cartier, was “so fond of the look that (he) decided to reproduce it,” the company claims in marketing materials shared with CNN.

Few buy into this tale—not least Francesca Cartier Briquel, granddaughter of Jean-Jacques, whose version is even more straightforward. In her 2019 book “The Cartiers,” she writes that her grandfather and designer Robert Emerson modified the already popular Cartier Maxi Oval model for a loyal clientele demanding unique, bespoke timepieces. She added that they realized a metal can could be made to look “as if it was on collision” by “compressing the ends at a point and placing a grille in the middle”.

Cartier crashes at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) watch fair in Geneva, Switzerland, in 2018. credit: Dennis Balibus/Reuters

Whichever way Crash was born, the legend has only added to its cultural cache, according to Benjamin Clymer, founder of the luxury watch site hodinky.

“I think the story immortalized is very compelling and wonderful and romantic and crazy,” he said on a video call. “Then the name, Cartier crashes with double consonants—it just rings.”

Only twelve hours or so are believed to have emerged from this first production series. Crash’s irregular shape made it difficult to make – and Cartier’s distinctive Roman numerals and sword-shaped hands proved difficult to read.

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“Crash’s first hour gave me a lot of headaches,” Brickell quotes her grandfather as saying. “You see, it’s all very good with a nice-looking design, but it had to tell the time, too! Because the dial was erratic, the numbers weren’t in the standard places.”

The watch was far from an instant hit. Among the first clients was Stewart Granger, one of the biggest movie stars of the era, though he returned his film within a week because it was “too unusual,” according to Brickell.

“I don’t think the design particularly resonated at the time,” the author said via email, adding that it was “too extreme for Cartier’s clientele” at the time.

Cartier New Bond Street store in 1978. credit: Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

However, it was an important development for the company’s London hub, which at the time only stocked Cartier watches from France and Switzerland. Jean-Jacques “really wanted to move things forward,” Clymer said, adding that the incident helped solidify the British branch’s reputation for design.

“From an engineering perspective, it was very different from anything else out there.”

Skyrocketing prices

The first crash is believed to have sold for about $1,000 (about $9,000 in today’s money). But the model has risen in value on the resale market in recent years.

in 2021, It dates back to 1970 It fetched more than CHF806,000 ($908,000) at Sotheby’s in Geneva, setting a record for the model. Less than a year later, an exceptionally rare 1967 original broke the record again when it sold for More than $1.65 million via online watch auction site Loupe.

These astronomical prices can be attributed, in part, to the model’s rarity on the collector’s market, according to Tom Heap, watch specialist at Sotheby’s London. Although Cartier does not announce the total number, experts believe it is in the hundreds, not thousands. They are present in “immeasurably small quantities,” Heep added in a video call.

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Kris Jenner attends amfAR Cannes 2019. credit: Gisela Schober/German Select/Getty Images

After the initial batch, Cartier continued to produce crashes to order. It continued to produce new versions in white gold, rose gold, and platinum (most notably in a limited edition in 1991, although these versions are credited to Cartier Paris and usually sell for less than older London models).

In 2018, Cartier then made two new, limited-edition Crashes available through its New Bond Street boutique in 2018 – one with an 18k yellow gold case and the other in white gold set with diamonds. They are moderately priced at €27,000 ($30,000) and €65,000 ($72,000), respectively, although Hebb said they are mostly intended for Cartier’s “first-class clients.”

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But scarcity alone cannot explain the sudden price hike. Heap recalls talking to dealers who, less than 10 years ago, had turned down opportunities to buy Crashes for about £60,000 (about $65,000 now), even though they would now sell many times over. Meanwhile, Clymer said that while he saw renewed interest in collectors’ circles in 2016 or 2017, Crash wasn’t “highly desirable” even five years ago.

He said the turning point came in 2018 when Kanye West was seen wearing one on David Letterman’s Netflix special. “I will give credit where credit is due,” Clymer said. “I think it was Kanye West wearing a crash that put him back on the map.”

Tyler the Creator wore a Cartier Crush jacket in the “Lumberjack” music video. credit: From Tyler the Creator

Subsequent celebrity endorsements have helped send prices skyward. For example, Tyler the Creator wore a Crash in his 2021 “Lumberjack” video, before he was spotted wearing one at a Cartier watch auction in Monaco later that year. Meanwhile, “Sheets Creek” star Dan Levy wore one to the Met Gala.

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Heap welcomed the development as an antidote to the “big, flashy diamond-encrusted pieces” commonly seen on celebrity wrists. “It’s very much like a dress watch style, with a leather strap and a compact case,” he added. “I think that’s pretty cool.”

broader directions

Crash’s appeal among collectors may speak to broader aesthetic trends. Perhaps it is no coincidence that its revived fortunes coincide with a renewed interest in the Surrealist movement, which is the subject of recent (and forthcoming) exhibitions at institutions including Metropolitan Museum of ArtAnd Tate Modern and London Design Museum.

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How deeply Jean-Jacques Cartier and Emerson were influenced by Dali’s 1931 painting The Persistence of Memory – if the iconic image of hours that seemed to dissolve into a sparse landscape – may be lost to history. Regardless, Klemmer believes that the relationship between watchmaking and culture in general reflects the growing role of luxury watches in mainstream consciousness.

“All important wristwatches get a lot more attention now than they did three years ago, before Covid,” he said, adding: “So, when there’s something going on (in the broader culture), like a renewed interest in surrealism, it’s a lot easier for people.” Connect that with the Cartier crash.”

Jay-Z attended the London premiere of “The Harder They Fall” wearing a Cartier Crash. credit: Carwai Tang/WireImage/Getty Images

For Heap, Crash’s appeal among collectors may also be due to its “imperfect and very organic” form—one that would be nearly impossible to mass-produce.

He added, “It almost feels fluid or fluid. When you pick one up, you feel like it’s going to move or sway,” and added, “Unlike a lot of slashers nowadays…a person. There’s a human element to it.”

Top caption: The 1991 Cartier Crush sold at auction in 2022.

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