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Why this surreal ‘dripping’ watch has become a cult celebrity favorite

<i>Karwai Tang/WireImage/Getty Images</i><br/>Jay-Z attended the London premiere of
WireImage
Karwai Tang/WireImage/Getty Images
Jay-Z attended the London premiere of "The Harder They Fall" wearing a Cartier Crash.

Oscar Holland, CNN

Prized by collectors and sought after by stars from Jay-Z to Kim Kardashian West, the Cartier Crash has become one of the luxury market’s most unlikely hot-ticket watches. Straight out of the swinging ’60s, its dripping shape looks more like one of Salvador Dalí’s Surrealist melting clocks than a celebrity timepiece.

The Crash also has an origin story — albeit an apocryphal one — that’s as unusual as its warped, asymmetric case.

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

Few are convinced by this tale — not least Jean-Jacques’s granddaughter Francesca Cartier Brickell, whose account is more straightforward. In her 2019 book “The Cartiers,” she wrote that her grandfather and designer Rupert Emmerson adjusted the already-popular Cartier Maxi Oval model for loyal clients demanding unique, custom-designed watches. They realized a metal case could be made to look “as though it had been in a crash” by “pinching the ends at a point and putting a kink in the middle,” she added.

Regardless of how Crash was born, the myth has only added to its cultural cache, according to Benjamin Clymer, founder of the luxury watch site Hodinkee.

“I think the story that has been perpetuated is just so compelling, so wonderful and romantic and crazy,” he said in a video call. “And then the name, the Cartier Crash with the double consonants — it just rings.”

Only a dozen or so watches are thought to have emerged from this first production run. The Crash’s irregular shape made it laborious to make — and Cartier’s signature Roman numerals and sword shaped hands proved difficult to read.

“That first Crash watch caused a lot of headaches,” Brickell quotes her grandfather as saying. “You see, it’s all very well coming up with a good-looking design, but it had to tell the time too! And because the dial was irregular, the numbers weren’t at the standard places.”

The watch was far from an instant hit. One the era’s biggest movie stars, Stewart Granger, was among the first customers, though he returned his within a week because it was “too unusual,” according to Brickell.

“I don’t think the design did resonate especially back then,” the author said over email, adding that it was “almost too radical for Cartier’s clientele” at the time.

It was nonetheless an important development for the company’s London outpost, which at that time only stocked Cartier watches from France and Switzerland. Jean-Jacques “really did want to push things forward,” Clymer said, adding the Crash helped establish the British branch’s reputation for design.

“From a geometric perspective, it was just so different than everything else out there.”

Skyrocketing prices

The very first Crash is thought to have sold for around $1,000 (about $9,000 in today’s money). But the model has soared in value on the resale market in recent years.

In 2021, one dating to 1970 fetched over 806,000 Swiss Francs ($908,000) at Sotheby’s in Geneva, setting a record for the model. Less than a year later, an exceptionally rare 1967 original smashed the record again when it sold for over $1.65 million via the online watch auction site Loupe This.

These astronomical prices can be attributed, in part, to the model’s scarcity on the collectors’ market, according to Tom Heap, a watch specialist at Sotheby’s London. Although Cartier does not publicize the total number made, experts believe it is in the hundreds, rather than the thousands. They exist in “immeasurably small quantities,” Heap added on a video call.

After the initial batch, Cartier continued to produce Crashes on demand. It went on to produce new versions in white gold, pink gold and platinum (most notably in a limited edition run in 1991, though these 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 via its New Bond Street store in 2018 — one with an 18-carat yellow gold case and the other made from white gold and encrusted with diamonds. They were moderately priced at 27,000 euros ($30,000) and 65,000 euros ($72,000), respectively, though Heap said they were mostly reserved for Cartier’s “top-tier clients.”

Rarity alone cannot explain the sudden surge in prices, however. Heap recalls speaking to dealers who, less than 10 years ago, turned down opportunities to buy Crashes for around £60,000 (now around $65,000), even though they would now sell for many times that. Clymer meanwhile said that while he saw revived interest in collector circles in 2016 or 2017, the Crash was “not super sought-after” even five years ago.

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

Subsequent celebrity endorsements have helped send prices skywards. Tyler the Creator, for example, sported a Crash in his 2021 “Lumberjack” video, before being spotted wearing one at a Cartier watch auction in Monaco later that year. “Schitt’s Creek” star Dan Levy meanwhile wore one to the Met Gala.

Heap welcomed the development as an antidote to the “big, ostentatious diamond-set pieces” normally seen on celebrity wrists. “It’s almost like a dress watch style, with a leather strap and a small-sized case,” he added. “I think that’s very cool.”

Wider trends

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

How much, if at all, Jean-Jacques Cartier and Emmerson were influenced by Dalí’s 1931 painting “The Persistence of Memory” — the iconic image of clocks appearing to melt in a sparse landscape — may be lost to history. Regardless, Clymer believes the connection between horology and culture at large reflects luxury watches’ growing role in mainstream consciousness.

“All important wristwatches are receiving so much more attention now than even three years ago, pre-Covid” he said, adding: “So, when there is something going on (in broader culture), like a revived interest in Surrealism, it’s much easier for people to make the connection between that and a Cartier Crash.”

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

“It looks almost like it’s liquid or fluid. When you pick one up, it feels like it’s going to move or wobble,” he added: “As opposed to a lot of pieces nowadays… you can tell it was made by a person. There’s a human element to it.”

Top image caption: A 1991 Cartier Crash that sold at auction in 2022.

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