Paris—A rare and important Cartier wristwatch is headed to Sotheby’s Paris this September.
The auction house will offer the 1983 Cartier Cheich watch—what it’s calling a “watch unicorn”—on Sept. 30 as part of its Luxury Edit sale series.
The model has a history steeped in racing lore that begins with the Paris-Dakar race, also known as the Dakar Rally.
The Race That Inspired the Cartier Challenge
Started in 1978, the Paris-Dakar race originally began in Paris, France and ended in Dakar, Senegal, traveling some 10,000 kilometers, or 6,214 miles. (Today, the Dakar rally is held in Saudia Arabia after a decade in South America.)
Motorcycle racer Thierry Sabine conceived the Paris-Dakar rally after becoming lost during a race in the Libyan desert and falling in love with the landscape.
He opened the Paris-Dakar to any motorized land vehicle, amateur or professional. The grueling race took 20 days, with racers camping out along the way.
On Paris-Dakar’s fifth anniversary in 1983, Sabine partnered with Cartier’s then-president Alain Dominique Perrin on the Cartier Challenge.
It required a racer to win the race twice in consecutive years, with the same form of transport both years, i.e. motorcycle, car, or truck.
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Only one contender was able to fulfill the Cartier Challenge—Belgian Gaston Rahier won in 1984 and 1985 by motorbike.
Rahier’s illustrious career nearly ended in 1982 when he came close to losing his hand in a motorbike accident. Determined to recover, he participated in his first Paris-Dakar rally the following year in 1983.
He was the first non-French person to win the race in 1984, and the first and only winner of the Cartier Challenge when he repeated the effort in 1985.
His victory was marked with a bespoke Cartier Cheich watch.
Jacques Diltoer, the then-creative director of Cartier and Perrin, designed the Cartier Cheich in ode to the Paris-Dakar mascot, which depicted the silhouetted face of a Tuareg person, the Berber ethnic group that inhabits the Sahara, in traditional robes that protect from the desert sun, called the cheich.
Only four models of the Cartier Cheich were ever made. Two were created in 1983: the one awarded to Rahier that Sotheby’s is auctioning, and a ladies’ edition in case of a potential female winner.
A third edition was created in 1985 for a possible future champion.
Then-President Perrin had a fourth made for Paris-Dakar creator Sabine. This final edition is thought to have been given to a French motorbike race driver named Hubert Auriol but is believed to be lost.
Each of the four timepieces has unique elements.
The Cartier Challenge ended in 1986. That year, Sabine died in a helicopter crash in Mali resulting from a sandstorm during the Paris-Dakar rally.
Cartier has possession of the two remaining Cartier Cheich watches. According to Sotheby’s, the Cartier Cheich that Rahier won is the only one that will ever appear at market.
The cheich-inspired case is the most significant design departure from any other Cartier timepiece.
The unique shape required new engineering as it couldn’t accommodate the usual bars that screw through the lugs to attach to the strap. The back of the main case was carved with a special fixture that holds the strap in place.
While the case is unusual, it’s not the first to incorporate asymmetric elements. The Tank Asymétrique and Cartier Crash watches are examples of other asymmetric styles.
The Cheich case is rendered in 18-karat yellow gold with elements of 18-karat rose gold and 18-karat white gold, another Cartier signature as seen in styles like the Trinity rings.
The dial depicts a rectangular rail track with baton and Roman indexes as well as two blued-steel hands in classic Cartier Paris style.