A unique Cartier Asymétrique: featuring decorative techniques mastered by only a handful of craftspeople

Cartier’s long tradition of issuing groundbreaking timepieces finds expression in this skeletonised platinum pièce unique dating from around 1997, offered in Watches Online: The Dubai Edit until 30 April

Cartier, Asymetrique, a unique platinum skeletonised wristwatch, in Watches Online: The Dubai Edit at Christie's Online

Cartier, Asymétrique, a unique platinum skeletonised wristwatch, 1/1, Case number: A 114478. Width: 23.5 mm. Estimate: $50,000-100,000. Offered in Watches Online: The Dubai Edit until 30 April 2024 at Christie’s Online

One of the earliest iterations of the wristwatch as we know it today was created by Louis Cartier around 1904 for his friend Alberto Santos-Dumont, a Brazilian coffee-plantation heir. Santos-Dumont was something of a daredevil, and had taken to flying airships over Paris. What he needed, he told Cartier, was a gadget that could tell him the time while he kept both hands on the dirigible’s controls — something like a miniature clock that he could place on his forearm and glance at.

In 1911, Cartier’s invention — named the Santos-Dumont — went on sale to the public. It was an instant success.

The following year, Cartier unveiled an oval wristwatch that would ultimately become the Baignoire. Then, in 1917, came Cartier’s famous Tank watch, inspired by the Renault FT-17 tank used during the First World War.

In 1936, Louis Cartier had another idea: an off-kilter wristwatch with pronounced Arabic numerals and a face tilted 30 degrees, with ‘12’ in the top right corner and ‘6’ in the opposite bottom left, designed to be read by drivers with their hands positioned at 10 and two o’clock on the wheel. He named it the Cartier Parallélogramme.

The intricately carved face of the unique Cartier Asymétrique features minuscule numbers ‘6’ and ‘12’, a tiny Cartier logo and scrolling foliage

The Parallélogramme was the final watch released during Cartier’s ‘golden years’ of Art Deco design. In 1996, it was reissued with a new name: the Cartier Tank Asymétrique. When it was updated a second time, in 2020, Hodinkee labelled it ‘one of the most breathtakingly chic’ watches Cartier had ever produced.

The updated versions were offered in gold, pink gold and platinum. Some contained a third middle-lug for improved stability on the wrist. Others had the option of Roman, Arabic, or Thai numerals. In 1999, one model was offered with a single applied gold number 9 to commemorate the date Macau was handed back to China, ending 442 years of Portuguese rule.

Crucially, these watches were released in editions of only a few hundred — sometimes even fewer. The rarest of all Tank Asymétrique models, however, exists in an edition of just one.

The reverse of the Cartier Asymétrique, which is inscribed ‘1/1’, has been fitted with a crystal, allowing light to pass right through its body

It’s a well-known secret that Cartier offers select individuals the option to create a completely bespoke watch, whether that’s switching a silver dial for a salmon one, or subtly swapping the winder’s usual sapphire with a ruby. There is only one rule for customisation: the maison must approve the design. Once agreed, a finished product can take several years to manufacture.

A unique Cartier Asymétrique offered in Watches Online: The Dubai Edit was commissioned sometime around 1997. It’s made from platinum and has a dial featuring not one, but two decorative techniques that have been mastered by only a handful of craftspeople in the realm of watchmaking.

The first is skeletonisation. This is the process of removing any excess material from the watch’s face, as well as bridges and plates inside the movement. The technique was pioneered in 1760 by André-Charles Caron, a Frenchman who had risen to become resident clockmaker to King Louis XV. He reduced the components of his timepieces to only their essential parts, revealing their inner workings.

In more modern times, Swiss watchmakers adopted the process in order to highlight their mastery of mechanics. Today, skeleton watches have become so coveted that, paradoxically, the ‘emptier’ the watch, the more desirable it can be.

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The second technique is engraving. The entire remaining surface of the watch has been intricately carved with minuscule numbers ‘6’ and ‘12’, a tiny Cartier logo and scrolling foliage, which dances under raking light.

The reverse of the watch, which is inscribed ‘1/1’, has also been fitted with a crystal, allowing light to pass right through its body. The final result? The movement’s ticking heart appears to levitate magically above the wearer’s wrist.

The preview exhibition of Watches Online: The Dubai Edit takes place at the Four Season’s Dubai International Financial Centre, Gate Village, Building 9, from 25 to 29 April 2024 (10am and 8pm; 12pm and 8pm Saturday and Sunday). Bidding takes place online until 30 April

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