When the intrepid Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont flew his airship around the Eiffel Tower in 1901, he became the man of the hour. Not only is there an airport named after him in Rio de Janeiro, but the first men’s watch specifically designed to be fastened around the wrist bears his name. The Santos watch by Cartier, which is generally acknowledged as the first men’s wristwatch, was designed by his friend Louis Cartier in 1904 and allowed Alberto Santos-Dumont to read the time without having to pull a pocket watch out of his vest pocket on board his extraordinary flying machines. Flying forward 118 years, the iconic square Cartier Santos-Dumont returns with lacquered flourishes on the case and bezel, resulting in a trilogy of watches that many of us consider the best Cartier collection of 2022.
Louis Cartier had an innate flair for design and anticipated the clean, streamlined ethos of the Art Deco period with his square 1904 Santos and 1917 Tank watches. As the son of a wealthy Brazilian coffee planter cultivating his passion for flight in Paris, it was only natural for the forward-thinking Alberto Santos-Dumont to turn to the forward-thinking designer of Cartier to create a practical watch for his experiments in aviation.
The original watch was characterised by its square bezel with visible screws, a radical departure from the round faces found on pocket watches of the era. Although wristwatches existed, they were strictly a feminine accessory. Not only was Louis Cartier’s watch the precursor of the gent’s wristwatch, but the fact that a pilot wore it also earned it the title of the world’s first pilot watch. It’s also worth remembering that Santos-Dumont’s daredevil flying feats made him a very popular figure in the day, and his dapper dress sense – combining Panama hats with linen suits, wing collars and trousers with large turn-ups – became all the rage in Paris, the epitome of a stylish man of action.
What started as a bespoke commission for the Brazilian aviator went into serial production in 1911 with LeCoultre movements. The Santos took off again in the 1970s when it was revisited in a bracelet piece with screws on the bezel and bracelet. Taken out of production in 2016, the Santos de Cartier reappeared in 2018 with a refreshed, sportier and more curvaceous presence. Released again in 2020, the Santos-Dumont XL was closer in spirit to the historic 1904 model and fitted with an ultra-thin mechanical movement. A winning series of limited-edition watches was also dedicated to Santos-Dumont’s flying machines.
The Most Art Deco Santos-Dumont
Louis Cartier’s design for Santos-Dumont was an early proponent of the Art Deco style that originated in France in the late 1910s and was consecrated in Paris, in 1925, during the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. Characterised by sleek geometric lines and influenced by Cubism, Art Deco coincided with the advent of large-scale manufacturing and sought to imbue beauty in mass-produced products. With its pragmatic square shape and exposed screws, Louis Cartier’s design picks up on this aesthetic and marries functionality with a sleek, streamlined style. Some say that the rivets on the bezel were inspired by those used by Gustave Eiffel to hold together his famous tower.
The three Santos-Dumont models unveiled during the 2022 edition of Watches & Wonders feature attractive lacquered surfaces that highlight the slick geometry of the case. Presented in rose gold, steel and platinum, the cases measure 43.5mm x 31.5mm with an ultra-slim profile of 7.3mm. Described by the brand as a ‘Large’ size, the watch is more on the petite side for masculine wrists and shares dimensions with the 2020 limited editions.
The rose gold model caught our eye with a creamy beige-coloured lacquer on the bezel and lugs. Instead of lacquering the whole case, it is applied to the recesses engraved into the bezel and lugs and then polished by hand to create a smooth surface. The beauty of the lacquer is that it does not extend over the edges of the case and respects the rounded gold borders that give the case its signature silhouette. Adding brilliance and depth to the watch, the translucent lacquer adds a stylish touch to the Santos-Dumont.
The stainless steel model with sleek black lacquered touches and a black dial is very much a black-tie watch. Although the idea of a burgundy-coloured watch might sound odd, the platinum model with the burgundy lacquer and a white dial works really well.
The thee limited editions are faithful to Louis Cartier’s original watch with eight screws in the bezel, Roman numerals, a railway track minute counter and a sapphire (synthetic spinel in the steel model) or ruby cabochon placed in the beaded crown. However, the dial of the new models is animated by a sequence of squares that grow in size from the centre and underscore the square case. If you look at the central squares, they produce an optical effect of a pyramid. Applied silver-coloured Roman numerals and sword-shaped hands complete the dial.
Beneath the sealed caseback with Santos-Dumont’s signature is the calibre 430 MC, a Cartier-branded version of Piaget’s ultra-thin, manual-winding 430P calibre for the hours and minutes. With a height of just 2.15mm, the movement runs at a frequency of 21,600vph/3Hz and has a relatively short power reserve of 38 hours.
Availability & Price
Another uplifting fact related to these watches concerns the price, and many will agree that 16k euros for a platinum or about 5k euros for a steel watch by Cartier is not outlandish. All three Cartier Santos-Dumont Lacquererd models come with alligator leather straps (dark green for rose gold, black for steel and burgundy for platinum) and pin buckles. The platinum is a limited edition of 150 pieces and retails for EUR 16,000; the rose gold of 250 pieces and retails for EUR 12,000, and the steel will form part of the regular collection with a price tag of EUR 5,100. Availability from November 2022.
For more information, please visit Cartier.com.