The thrill of adventure, the thrill of collecting

The complete history of the rarest Cartier

Some say history is an infinite cycle, an eternal return of the same. Religions, philosophers, scientists even: many believe time to be an immense wheel, maybe too big to be perceived by the human eye, but destined to bring up over and over events, ages and players. And yet, some eras are so unique that they seriously undermine this a belief. Chapters of history – be them brief or long – so sensational it’s clear that no such things are ever to be seen again. The age of exporation in the Sixteenth century, for example; or the frantic technological progress of the Industrial Revolution. Some still remember mankind’s latest golden era – the one that’s closest to us: the Eighties. A decade of opulence and edonism, a decade in which nothing seemed to be excessive or out of place, not even the unlikely match between the hardest race on the planet and the king of jewellers.

We’re talking of the Paris-Dakar (of the 1984 race, to be precise) and of Cartier. In that year Thierry Sabine, the mastermind behind the world’s most famous Raid, and Alain Dominique Perrin, then CEO of the jewellery brand, came up with the idea of the “Cartier Challenge”. Its rules were very simple: the first pilot to win the exhausting race – which at the time still spanned over the original 6000km course between the capitals of France and Senegal – would receive a Cartier timepiece. The feat, actually already achieved by Cyril Neveu in 1979/80, was soon repeated by Belgian rider Gaston Rahier, who was first on the finish line in 1984 and 1985.

The prize awarded to Rahier, however, was no Tank or Santos – that would have been too simple – but insted a splendid work of high jewellery, expressely designed for the occasion. White, pink and yellow gold finely draped the faithful shape of a traditional Touareg headpiece, elegantly framing the shield-shaped dial of what would be diminishing to call a watch. The Cartier Cheich is rather a work of goldsmith art, a sculpture condensed in the minute dimensions of a timekeeper.

The Cheich awarded to Gaston Rahier in 1984, auctioned at Sotheby’s

Browsing the Dakar’s Hall of Fame, it’s easy to realise how the Cartier Challenge was actually less prohibitive than what Perrin and Sabine had imagined, but the tragic passing of the latter in 1986 caused the interruption of the relationship between the race organizers and the Maison, thus bringing the challenge to a premature end: Gaston Rahier’s Cheich remained therefore a unicum in the history of the competition… and of watchmaking.

The GS1000’s of the BMW team, winner of the 1984 Dakar

This unique Cheich, however, is not the only Cheich: indeed, considering the possibility of a female victory in the Challenge, Cartier had also prepared a second piece alongside the one presented to Rahier: this second watch is slightly smaller, and further embellished by a setting of diamonds in the case. The piece never left the Maison, and is now a permanent part of Cartier’s archives. The same archive also guards a second men’s Cheich, made in anticipation of the next victory, which differs from Rahier’s one in the dial layout. Finally, Thierry Sabine himself owned and wore a fourth watch, which was allegedly lost for good at some point after his death.

For many years, then, these four watches have been considered by collectors a sealed chapter in the history of horology, an unusual yet successful excercise in style done in true Eighties fashion. Nobody could imagine, though, that a man was about to change it all – one of those rare man capable to turn dreams into realities, and bring the past to life thanks to their genuine passion. When, less than one year ago, a fifth Cheich was revealed to the public, the surprise was matched by a shared consciousness: if there was a person capable of dreaming, commissioning and obtaining such a piece, that was Giorgio Seragnoli. The name of the Bologna-based collector should ring a bell to many: some might know him as the greatest collector of white metal Patek Philippe, some other as the owner of the largest collection of white gold and platinum Cartier; Seragnoli has been both, to the point he published a book on Cartier, co-signed by Osvaldo Patrizzi, which is now mythical amongst enthusiasts.

His Cheich was commissioned to the Maison in 2010, well before the customization program offered by Cartier became known to the general public. The white gold case, setting it apart from its four siblings, faithfully reproduces the size and design of Rahier’s watch. The dial, instead, shares the layout of the second version – the one kept in Cartier’s safe. The caseback, secured with four screws, reads “2010 – N°1”. Those who are familiar with the niche of special order Cartier watches might argue that, at times, the Maison wasn’t shy of making “unique” pieces that were almost impossible to distinguish from each other; but with this Cheich, things are definitely different. It’s known for a fact that Cartier has already declined at least two commissions for a sixth piece, regardless of the configuration.

The caseback of the white gold Cheich, bearing the commission year and the “N°1” engraving

Therefore, it’s safe to say that not only does a fifth Cartier Cheich exist, but it’s also a unique piece as much as any of the others. And it’s probably needless to mention the seven figures fetched by Rahier’s example at a recent Sotheby’s auction, to grasp the historic relevance of this fantastic timekeeper. Who knows if this year, as we celebrate the model’s thirtieth anniversary, the white gold Cheich will find a new loving owner: until that day, anyway, The Watch Boutique will be more than honored to be its custodian…

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