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Review: Cartier Rotonde de Cartier

You may think that all Cartier watches are all small, rectangular and dressed with Roman numerals, and for the most part you'd be right, but just because that's the rule doesn't mean there aren't exceptions. This is what happens when the famous French jeweller lets its hair down: the Cartier Rotonde de Cartier Central Chronograph.

High-end watchmaking has really evolved in the last few decades, primarily because of greater consumer understanding thanks to exhaustive resources like the internet, and that has led to buyers paying a little more attention to what's doing to the ticking inside their new timepiece.

Movements purchased off-the-shelf from manufacturers like ETA and Sellita are good—great in fact, especially when it comes to maintenance and long-term reliability—but more and more would-be watch owners are coming to terms with the fact that they want something a bit more special.

This is a good point to get some perspective—most people who buy a watch aren't worried about the specifics of the movement in much the same way most car buyers aren't worried about the engine in their luxury car, but the small pool that does is getting bigger.

So, while Cartier enjoys a lot of well-deserved success for the following its small, rectangular watches dressed in Roman numerals get, there's an opportunity arising to do something a little more … interesting.

Cartier is no stranger to the pursuit of the esoteric, in fact the brand's history is littered with weird and wonderful pieces that turned tradition on its head. A great example is the ID One concept watch, housing a movement fashioned by deep reactive ion etching for tolerances so precise that the entire movement needs no lubrication, at all.

Or, going back some, the 1920s mystery clocks, works of visual trickery that appeared to suspend the display entirely independently of the mechanical drive, many of which still baffle to the same extent now as they did back then.

And back a little further still, how about the crazy idea to manufacturer a case with solid lugs for a more structurally sound wristwatch, rather than simply soldering wire lugs to a pocket watch like everyone else did. Sounds obvious now, but Cartier did it first, and now the company is at it again.

What ties many of Cartier's innovations together is the pursuit of a practical solution, which isn't really what you'd expect from, traditionally, a manufacture of fine jewellery. It's what stands Cartier apart, an understanding that goes more than skin deep. The ID Two concept is another great example of this, a watch that, among many other technical highlights, uses fibreglass mainsprings for vastly increased stored energy, up to 32 days.

The practical solution here is equally sensible, and one that has plagued wristwatches since Longines first made one with a chronograph built in. Traditionally, a chronograph or stopwatch has been a separate device to a clock, or has a clock as a secondary function, but with wristwatches the size they are, and with the priority given to the main timekeeping function, the chronograph has always taken a back seat.

What you get is small sub-dials that get easily obscured, a fact that changed Omega's Speedmaster design quite considerably before it was suitable for use by NASA. The hands may have been thinned and coloured white to increase legibility, but their overlapping interaction was never fully resolved.

So Cartier has had a crack at solving it, by making the chronograph the centre of attention—but not at the expense of the primary timekeeping functionality. This was achieved through an entirely new hand-wound movement, the calibre 9907 MC, which has completely rearranged the typical chronograph architecture in favour of a central display.

The way it operates is much the same as your run-of-the-mill chronograph, with one pusher to start and stop the movement and another to reset it, but it's in the display that things take a turn for the interesting. Dominating the centre of the dial is a raised display, with a seconds track around its circumference and a minute disk set just inside.

But what of the time? Here's the clever part: only the tips of the hour and minute hands really need to be seen to tell the time, with everything in the centre simply wasted space, and so that's all you get—just the tip. With the hours—in Roman numerals of course—and the chronograph seconds track doubling as a minute track as well, it's more than enough to get the job done.

There are many thousands of people happy with their small, rectangular Cartier watches, and that's great for them, but if you're looking for something that adds a bit more technical spice to the Cartier name, you needn't look elsewhere. Watchmaking may have changed over the last few decades, but in this respect at least, it's certainly been for the better.

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