WORDS: SIMON DE BURTON | PHOTOGRAPHY: Sotheby’s
We’ve all heard of the Paris-Dakar Rally – but who can remember the Cartier Challenge?
The world’s toughest off-road race and the high-end jeweller may seem worlds apart, but they came together 39 years ago in an unlikely collaboration to be remembered in the sale of a unique wristwatch that is now tipped to fetch as much as €400,000 at auction.
The story dates back to the start of the fifth Paris-Dakar in 1983, when the then-Cartier CEO Alain Dominique Perrin approached the event’s founder Thierry Sabine with the idea of offering a glittering prize to anyone who could achieve what both men considered impossible: to win the Paris-Dakar two years in succession using the same category of vehicle.
But the pair had not counted on the remarkable talent and superhuman endurance of diminutive Belgian motorcycle racer Gaston Rahier, the triple 125cc motocross world champion who, after giving up scrambling, became a BMW-mounted rally raid superstar.
No sooner had the Cartier Challenge been announced than Rahier clinched victory in the 1984 event, and proceeded to follow it up with a win in 1985 – thus meeting the requirements of ‘the challenge’.
His prize was the decidedly, er, unusual ‘Cheich’ watch which will be offered for sale direct from his family at Sotheby’s Paris in September.
Inspired by the rally’s logo – the silhouetted face of a Tuareg tribesman wearing the traditional cotton head protector known as a ‘cheich’ – the watch is forged from three colours of 18 carat gold (white, rose and yellow) to create a monumental case that meticulously replicates every one of the garment’s soft folds.
Nestled within them is a typical Cartier dress watch dial with a rectangular central minutes track, hour markers in the form of a combination of batons and Roman numerals, and a winding crown set with the maker’s signature blue cabochon.
Such is the design of the case that conventional lugs could not be used – instead, the leather band passes ‘invisibly’ through the back.
As well as that original strap, the watch is also accompanied by the bespoke case in which it was presented to Rahier, the lid of which carries the legend ‘Trophee Paris Alger Dakar’ in gold script.
Only three Cheich watches are known to have been created: the one awarded to Rahier; another for a potential woman winner and a third made in 1985 for anyone else who achieved the necessary ‘double’.
In the event, the Cartier Challenge came to an end almost as quickly as it had begun due to the sudden death of Thierry Sabine in a helicopter crash that was caused by a sandstorm towards the end of the 1986 event.
The other two examples of the Cheich remain in Cartier’s historic collection and will never be sold – meaning that the sale of Rahier’s, the only one ever to have been awarded, is likely to represent a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
If recent sales of vintage Cartier watches are anything to go by, however, potential buyers will need deep pockets – in May, online auction site Loupe This sold a 1967 ‘Crash’ model for $1.65m.
But while no more than a couple of dozen examples of the original Crash are thought to have been made, it is positively commonplace compared with the Cheich.
So those with ‘only’ €400,000 to spend may be left wanting…..
The Gaston Rahier Cartier Cheich goes on show to the public for the first time this week at Sotheby’s Monaco gallery. It can be seen there until July 17.