Revisiting the oldest men’s wristwatch in 2020 has its difficulties. How far can you stray from the original without corrupting its essence? But, how far should you honour its essence without creating a fuddy-duddy watch? Well, Cartier’s latest Santos-Dumont XL manages to reconcile both these extremes in what is perhaps the most historically faithful yet appealingly proportioned and elegant iteration to date. Three versions – in steel, in two-tone steel and pink gold and in solid pink gold – of the Santos-Dumont XL were presented in the digital edition of Watches & Wonders 2020, all fitted with mechanical movements and, here’s the other bit of great news, at prices that sound pretty fair. We were fortunate enough to spend some hands-on time with the two-tone and the steel models and were pretty impressed.
When Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont commissioned a watch from his friend Louis Cartier in 1904 that he could wear while piloting his flying machines – and not have to lift his hand from the controls – little did either of the gentlemen suspect that the result would become one of the most popular and enduring Cartier icons of all time. Characterised by a square case with visible screws, a shape that flew in the face of fashion of the day for round pocket watches, the Santos has gone down in history as the first wristwatch purpose-built and designed for a man.
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 it was worn by a pilot has 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 with wing collars and trousers with large turn-ups – became all the rage in Paris, the epitome of a stylish man of action.
What started off 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.
It’s worth pointing out that there are two Santos collections at Cartier: the core Santos de Cartier collection and the more historically accurate, and more often than not, limited Santos-Dumont watches.
Last year, a Santos-Dumont watch that paid homage to the 1904 model was quietly introduced alongside a Santos de Cartier chronograph. Largely overlooked by the specialised watch media because it was fitted with a quartz movement, the Santos-Dumont of 2019 featured historical nods to the original with a beaded winding crown and the prominent blue cabochon along with a flatter, less voluminous case that the Santos de Cartier.
Previous Santos-Dumont models, for example, the 90th anniversary model of 1996 measuring 36mm with an ultra-slim Piguet movement and Breguet hands, is hard to find on the market today and has become a hot collector’s item. The models we are looking at today feature the same aesthetics as the 2019 models but are now fitted with mechanical movements and come in only one size: XL. Just ahead of the Watches & Wonders 2020 launch, we introduced the four limited-edition versions of the Santos-Dumont with engravings of the aviator’s legendary flying machines on the caseback.
The case and dial of the Santos-Dumont XL 2020
When placed side by side with the 1904 model, you can clearly see how the main features of the historic model have been respected. The iconic square bezel with eight screws, the pointy blue cabochon protruding from the beaded crown, the Roman numerals, the railroad tracks, etc… However, the dimensions and finishes are more in tune with contemporary tastes and our expectations from a Maison like Cartier.
The thin, square case measures 46.6mm x 33.9mm and has a height of 7.5mm. Relayed in numbers, the case might seem large for a dress watch but believe me when I say that the word ‘flat’ is misleading. One thing is flat, another thing is flattened. Yes, it is flat when viewed from the top, but there is an ever so gentle curvature along with a slight dip at the lugs allowing the watch to sit flush against the wrist. If you view it from the side you can appreciate the elegant silhouette of the case. With a thickness of 7.5mm (that’s just 0.2mm thicker than the quartz models currently available), the thinness manages to attenuate the length of the case.
The luxurious finishes enliven the case. The casebands feature a vertical satin brush contrasting to the bevelled and polished edge of the case. Like the 1904 model, the crown is beaded and set with a blue cabochon but looks infinitely sturdier than the original (the models we had for the hands-on have blue synthetic spinel cabochons, the sapphire is reserved for the gold model). The hallmark square bezel is slightly rounded at the edges and features the mandatory eight screws that are set deep into the metal.
The silvered dial, decorated with a sunray satin finish, displays Cartier’s signature Roman numerals and the railroad track that appeared on the first Santos-Dumont model. Unlike the original, where the track was placed in the centre of the dial, it is stamped on the perimeter of the dial. Fitted with blue sword-shaped hands, there is nothing else on the dial except the word Cartier printed below 12 o’clock. A simple dial with no flourishes, it doesn’t steal the limelight from the case and its dynamic finishes.
Integrated and interchangeable
Another welcome touch is the interchangeable strap system accompanying the integrated leather strap. If you look closely, you’ll see how the leather strap reaches all the way up to meet the case leaving practically no space between the leather and the metal. A simple device on the reverse side releases the spring bars allowing you to change the strap in a cinch.
Calibre 430 MC
The solid caseback is engraved with Alberto Santos-Dumont’s signature and has eight screws, although these are not aligned like those on the bezel. The watch is fitted with a Cartier-branded version of Piaget’s ultra-thin, manual-winding calibre 430P calibre for the hours and minutes. With a height of just 2.1mm, the movement runs at a frequency of 21,600vph/3Hz and has a relatively short power reserve of 38 hours. Used by Cartier in its extra-thin models of Santos-Dumont, Ballon Blue and Tortue and by Piaget in many of its Altiplano watches, the dependable and durable 430P has been around since 1998.
The Price is Right
Compared to the current quartz Santos-Dumont models on Cartier’s website, the new XL Santos-Dumont comes in at roughly EUR 2,000 more than its quartz counterparts. Not a too excessive mark-up considering the incorporation of a slim mechanical manual-winding movement with practically zero sacrifices on the thickness front. Another improvement over the quartz is the integrated leather bracelet and the versatility offered by the quick-release bars allowing you to change the mood of the watch in minutes. Obviously, there are many people who favour the hassle-free maintenance of a quartz watch and are not prepared to spend an additional EUR 1,900 for a mechanical movement, but they are probably not devotees of MONOCHROME.
In addition to the fact that this watch – priced well below EUR 6,000 in steel – features an ultra-thin Piaget movement, the overall quality of the case/bezel is pretty impressive in this price range. We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the overall package offered by Cartier with these new Santos-Dumont XL.
As we said above, Cartier had the price, the design and the mechanics right. The brand has managed to retain the beauty and spirit of the original model, with its thin and compact proportions, its beautiful bezel and overall elegant (yet bolder than you think) design, but also to integrate a slight dosage of modernity that, overall, creates a contemporary piece with great presence.
Now, there’s a debate within the team, between our founder Frank and my managing editor Brice. On the one side, Frank agrees with everything said above, except that, according to him, the dial lacks originality and punch – to him, the brushed pattern on the dial isn’t pronounced enough and it’s too ‘flat’. He told me he would prefer a matte, off-white dial or a classic Cartier guilloché pattern on a silvery-white dial, maybe with blued Breguet hands. And this is where Brice doesn’t agree… To him, the silver brushed dial is the main reason why he appreciates this new take on the Santos-Dumont, with a slightly more modern and minimalistic approach. To each his own…
The three Cartier Santos-Dumont XL models come with alligator leather straps and a pin buckle. The prices start at EUR 5,650 for the plain steel version (ref. CRWSSA0032), EUR 7,800 for the steel-and-gold model (ref. CRW2SA0017) and EUR 15,000 for the solid 18k pink gold model (ref. CRWGSA0032). More details at cartier.com.
May 2nd, 2020 - prices updated