When you think of historically significant pilot watches, chances are the Cartier Santos isn’t the first watch that comes to mind. In fact, it’s likely absent from your list. And yet, this model was originally conceived for Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont, who was living in Paris at the turn of the 20th century. Since then, the design has undergone some pretty significant changes and it’s certainly no longer considered a tool watch, at least not in the traditional sense. However, the unique appeal of the Cartier Santos endures, as does the special place it holds in the history books of the luxury watch industry. Want to know more? Read on.
Designing for Generations to Come
Today, the Cartier Santos is considered more of a fashion statement than a practical timekeeper – not that there’s anything wrong with that – but its original intended use was quite utilitarian. As mentioned above, Santos-Dumont was an aviation pioneer. He dedicated the majority of his time to aeronautical studies and experiments. However, he soon discovered that using a pocket watch during his field tests was impractical, if not dangerous, as it was bulky to hold and operate, and required him to have at least one free hand.
He needed a practical solution. As the story goes, he visited a well-known figure in the watch industry in Paris, who apparently was also a personal friend, Louis Cartier. Grandson of Cartier founder Louis-François Cartier, Louis ran the Paris branch of the company and is responsible for some of the brand’s most celebrated designs (the Cartier Tank being the most famous).
Following this visit, the young Cartier created a flat watch with a distinctive square bezel. Its design was based around three core principles: clarity, simplicity, and practicality. Modern and contemporary, it reflected the era’s obsession with progress, yet it simultaneously embodied a certain timeless appeal. While a gentleman’s wristwatch was certainly novel for the time, the fact that the original design remains largely unchanged over a hundred years later is testament to Cartier’s long-term vision. He didn’t just want to create a one-off solution for his friend; he wanted to create a legacy for generations to come.
A Design With Purpose
It is believed Cartier drew inspiration for the case from a traditional square pocket watch from the brand. Robust yet still attractive, this rounded square style lent itself well to sitting flat against the wrist, which was ideal for Mr. Santos-Dumont’s requirements. Eight screws secured the glass covering to the dial and were supposedly intended to recall the legs of the Eiffel Tower. The dial featured highly legible Roman numerals for the hours – a distinctive characteristic of most modern Cartier watches – and can be seen as a precursor to the Art Deco movement, which combined modern styles with fine craftsmanship and rich materials. Perhaps most critically though, Louis Cartier attached a leather strap to the case so it could be worn on the wrist.
It’s unclear whether Santos-Dumont specifically requested a wrist-mounted watch or if Monsieur Cartier came up with this novel solution himself, but the result is the same. In 1904, what many consider to be the first purpose-designed wristwatch was born – and it was a hit. Santos-Dumont wore it everywhere, even when he wasn’t conducting aviation-related experiments. Something of a celebrity at the time in Paris, it wasn’t long before people started asking what was on his wrist. You have to remember that in the early 20th century, men still carried pocket watches in their jackets, so seeing a wristwatch on a prominent and influential figure caused quite a stir.
In addition to being a gifted designer, Louis Cartier was also an astute businessman. Recognizing an opportunity to take advantage of the buzz being generated by Santos-Dumont, he commissioned movement-maker Edmond Jaeger to mass produce the watch. In 1911, the Cartier Santos became the first men’s wristwatch (and the only Cartier timepiece to ever bear the name of its original wearer). Coming to the market during an era defined by progress, it was an immediate hit. Fashionable Frenchmen began to abandon their pocket watches in favor of this contemporary alternative.
That said, times change and so do tastes. With the advent of World War II, square watches began to decline in popularity. Round watches were more practical and utilitarian, so that’s what the world’s militaries commissioned watchmakers to make. A few years later, soldiers came home wearing these battle-hardened watches, which in turn started a new trend. The Santos didn’t disappear, of course, but it would be several decades before it regained the same star power it had on the wrist of Santos-Dumont.
The Luxury Steel Sports Watch
If you’re on Chrono24, you probably know about the luxury steel sports watch movement that began in the 1970s with Audemars Piguet’s now-iconic steel Royal Oak. Patek Philippe followed shortly after with the equally iconic Nautilus. Once it became apparent that a trend was building, many other brands sought to bring their own luxury steel sports watches to the market, Cartier among them.
A man by the name of Alain Dominique Perrin, Cartier’s Head of Marketing at the time, decided to give the Santos its first real overhaul in over 60 years, renaming it the Santos de Cartier in the process. The DNA of the original was there, but it was updated for the times. A key change was the introduction of a plate bezel held in place by tiny screws (a distinguishing feature of the design today). Likewise, the leather strap was replaced by an integrated, riveted metal one – a prerequisite for a luxury steel sports watch. Perhaps most intriguing, however, was the use of a partially gold case and bracelet for the first model. This was quite daring for the time and helped start another trend: the bi-color watch. Launched in 1978, this version was shortly followed by an all-steel watch.
Manufactured for mass luxury appeal, the Cartier Santos soon became an “it” watch in the 1980s. Many variations would follow in years to come until 2016, when the collection was shelved. Of course, this didn’t mark the end of the Santos story. It was simply time for another major overhaul. In 2018, 40 years after the last major update, Cartier delighted fans old and new with the unveiling of the new Santos collection.
The New Cartier Santos
More refined, more coherent, and somehow even more versatile, the new Cartier Santos collection remains as popular as ever. Offered in two different case sizes – large and medium – the design remains true to the original with some subtle updates. The signature eight screws that stud the square bezel are still there of course, but the bezel is now tapered, extending to the lugs and lending the case a more modern look. In keeping with the luxury sports watch theme, the case is now rated to 100 m (330 ft) of water resistance. Nonetheless, the watch remains svelte on the wrist. The large version measures just 9.08 mm thick, while the medium version is even thinner at 8.83 mm.
The biggest innovation was the introduction of Cartier’s new “QuickSwitch” system. By simply pressing a button on the underside of the watchband, you can instantly release the strap or bracelet from the lugs. This means you can easily change between looks in a matter of seconds. This is a very handy feature that perfectly complements the versatile nature of the Cartier Santos and its iconic design.