There is a strange contradiction in horology, where a practice focused solely on accuracy and precision has a history which is so open to inconsistency and interpretation.
Many of the discrepancies and disagreements center around which timepiece was the ‘first’ to do something. Aficionados will argue endlessly over which was the original dive watch, for instance, and sides are taken alternatively with the Panerai Radiomir or the Omega Marine or Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms, etc.
These days, of course, dive watches fall into the tool watch category—a genre of models which do more than simply tell the time and generally include additional features to aid wearers when carrying out their occupation.
But the tool watch category also had to start somewhere, so which was the first? Well, most people agree, that honor goes to the Cartier Santos.
Where the Cartier Santos Started
To appreciate the importance of the Cartier Santos, it is helpful to understand the age in which it first appeared. Let’s explore the history of the Santos de Cartier.
At the turn of the 20th century, pocket watches were still very much the only way men carried a timepiece. However, wristwatches had indeed been invented. Their creation can be traced back to either Abraham Louis-Breguet in 1810 or to the fabled marque of Patek Philippe some 50-years later (so, we have yet another historic disagreement amongst fans).
What we do know for sure is that the first person to wear a Patek ‘wristlet’ was Countess Koscowicz of Hungary in 1868, and she would serve as a good representation of the typical wristwatch wearer for the next several decades—an aristocratic woman. Men simply didn’t wear them, and they were considered feminine items of jewelry rather than anything else.
Yet, in 1904, Louis Cartier, the grandson of the brand’s founder and the man in charge of the Paris branch of the business, was approached by one of the age’s true pioneers. Alberto-Santos Dumont, legendary Brazilian aviator and great friend of Cartier, was in need of something special to tell the time with while piloting his lighter than air dirigible. His usual pocket watch was too cumbersome, requiring Dumont to take his hands off the controls of his rudimentary flying machine, which was already dangerous enough.
Cartier’s solution was a flat, square-bezeled wristwatch (not unlike a similarly shaped pocket watch the manufacture had made some years previously) with a highly legible, Art Deco-inspired dial, its Roman numeral hour markers laid out to mimic Baron Haussmann’s radial design of Paris’s centre-ville. Even the screws which held the crystal in place were meant to mimic the shape of the Eiffel Tower’s legs.
The result was dubbed the Cartier Santos-Dumont, the first and only time the brand would name a watch after its original wearer.
The Cartier Santos Arrives
It was a perfect meeting of influence. Although Cartier had only been in existence for a little over 50-years by this time, they were already perhaps the era’s most distinguished luxury manufacturer; or, to quote Edward VII of England, they were, ‘the king of jewelers and the jeweler of kings’. Santos, for his part, was a major celebrity, his daring exploits thrilling the world and the fact he wore a wristwatch did not go unnoticed. Pretty soon, inquiries started flooding in to Cartier’s offices from potential customers eager to emulate the great aviator.
Yet it would take until 1911 before the Santos-Dumont was put into full production. By that time the company had entered into an agreement with one of the other great names in horology, Jaeger-LeCoultre, and they had become Cartier’s exclusive movement supplier.
The initial run of the Santos was powered by JLC calibers and the 25mm x 35mm cases were made in either yellow gold or platinum, as befit a true luxury item. Along with being arguably the first mass produced wristwatch and certainly the first pilot’s watch, it can also claim the very first deployant buckle on its leather strap—an invention of Cartier themselves.
With its radical design and priceless endorsement, the Cartier Santos-Dumont essentially created the market for men’s wristwatches overnight and signaled the first death knells of the pocket watch.
The Cartier Santos in the 20th Century
While the watch was an unqualified success, there were still obstacles for it to overcome. The popularity of square watches would come and go, and the Second World War saw a shift in trend towards round models, from a purely utilitarian standpoint—it was more common for a square timepiece to snag on a tunic sleeve, a major hindrance in the heat of battle. As a result, military forces commissioned round-cased watches and those worn by returning soldiers started the fashion which continues to this day.
Yet the Santos endured, a distinctive oddity but a much loved one. It would continue in its original form until the 1970s and the arrival of an all-new genre, the luxury sports watch. Conceived by Gerald Genta and his trailblazing work with Patek’s Nautilus and Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak—both moving away from purely circular shapes and into gently rounded squares—they were the inspiration for Cartier to overhaul their own icon. The newly-named Santos de Cartier arrived in 1978 with the traditional leather strap replaced by an integrated bracelet, just as on Genta’s creations. What’s more, further copying their sports watch brethren, this new model was cast in stainless steel, where it had been a purely precious metal piece beforehand. Yet the bezel and exposed bracelet screws remained in yellow gold, resulting in a beautiful two-tone just to add the sort of lavish touch the Cartier name demanded.
In 1987, and at the height of the Quartz Crisis, the maison reacted again by issuing another revamp to their perennial favorite. The Santos Galbée, while still keeping the general time-honored shape, became more curved at the lugs, hugging the wearer’s wrist and proving just about the most comfortable example of the model thus far. The majority were issued as quartz models, with a smattering of automatic pieces thrown in, and all proved highly popular additions to the range. In 2005, the Galbée XL, at 32mm x 45mm became the largest Santos to date, catering to the early 21st century’s fad for outsize watches.
The Santos in the Modern Era
Over the last few decades, Cartier have launched a variety of Santos models, along with several limited editions.
The Collection Privée Cartier Paris, emerging in 1998, was a series of historical reimaginings that included two Santos-Dumont models which, like the originals, were crafted in either yellow gold or platinum. However, this time around they measured a more modern 36mm x 27mm and were powered by high end Frédéric Piguet movements.
That was followed up in 2004 by the ‘1913’, a special edition of just 100 pieces, complete with Breguet style hands which have become much sought after by collectors.
In the same year the Santos celebrated its centenary with the launch of the Santos 100 collection, released in two versions; the medium (35.6mm square) and the large (51mm x 41mm).
In addition to the entry level stainless steel models, the anniversary editions gave Cartier license to play around with some experimental materials. You will find PVD-coated and titanium pieces in amongst the range, as well as a titanium chronograph watch too. Most impressive though are the haute horlogerie skeletonized examples, in either white gold or ADLC-coated titanium. Here, the elongated Roman numeral indexes form the bridges for the watch’s movement, and the caliber inside, the manually-wound 9611 MC, represents Cartier’s first in-house built mechanism.
The contemporary collection consists of 35-pieces, across both the Cartier de Santos and the Santos-Dumont variations.
The former was given a refresh in 2018, adhering to its vintage design cues while keeping the slightly curved, wrist-hugging nature of the Galbée from the ‘80s. This too is available in medium (35mm x 41.9mm) and large (39.8mm x 47.5mm) sizes and in either stainless or black steel, two-tone, or rose, yellow or white gold. There are also extra-large chronograph models, at 43.3mm on all sides.
The Santos-Dumont line, released in 2019 as a more affordable, mostly quartz-powered option, comes in either small (meant as a ladies piece, measuring 38mm x 27.5mm), large (43.5mm x 31.4mm) and extra large (46.6mm x 33.9mm). However, although the series is marketed as an introduction to the model, the Santos-Dumont collection is where you will find the flagship watch, the stunning white gold XL Skeleton, with Cartier’s manufacture caliber visible through the face. Top of the shop, it retails for around $60,000.
The King of Jewelers is clearly still enamored with its groundbreaking square legend and, while the watch may not have quite the pull of that other of the maison’s fabled creations, the Tank, it is still an undoubted staple of the brand. The modern selection is divided into quartz and mechanical pieces, all with in-house manufactured movements, and are perfect examples of the sort of early 20th century chic which springs to mind as soon as you think of Cartier. A timeless design, and one which can claim more heritage than most, the Santos is one of horology’s greatest names.