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Behind the Icon: Cartier Santos

May 30, 2018 by Tom Chng


Behind the Icon is a series dedicated to the horological greats. Honouring their heritage, recounting their rise to fame, and discussing their impact on watchmaking. In this installment we discuss the Cartier Santos, a hugely successful timepiece that has held its place as one of the most popular watches of all time.


Aviation Roots

It may not be immediately apparent that the Cartier Santos is actually a pilot’s watch. It is dressy-ish by modern standards and not the de facto pilot watch that first comes to mind. We think of the Rolex GMT Master, IWC Pilot, or even the Breitling Navitimer. The birth of the Santos is deeply intertwined with that of modern aviation itself, they both find their origins with Alberto Santos-Dumont.



Alberto Santos-Dumont

Alberto Santos-Dumont was a Brazilian inventor and aviation pioneer, one of the very few people to have contributed significantly to the development of both lighter-than-air and heavier-than-air aircrafts.

His greatest achievement came in 1906, successfully demonstrating a heavier-than-air flight before a large audience at the Paris' Château de Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne for a distance of 60 metres with an altitude of about five metres in his 14-bis aircraft, designed and made by Santos-Dumont himself.



This won him the Deutsch-Archdeacon Prize for being the first officially observed flight of more than 25 meters. 3 weeks later, he broke his own record with a 220 metres flight, certified and registered by Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) as a first. It is widely debated that the Wright Brothers’ performed a similar feat 3 years prior with their Wright Flyer, albeit with the assistance a launch rail and a wheeled dolly during take off, as opposed to Santos-Dumont’s independently powered aircraft with wheels at the rear.


The Cartier Santos

Thankfully, the timepiece accredited to Santos-Dumont share no such controversy. It is without doubt the first aviation watch, and the first wrist watch designed specfically for men. At this time wrist watches were worn by ladies, as men still preferred to carry around pocket watches. This didn't work well for Santos-Dumont and he confided to his good friend Louis Cartier about the difficulty of checking his pocket watch while flying. Cartier went on to design a wrist-mounted watch that would allow Santos-Dumont to check the time without removing his hands from the flight controls, and voila, an evergreen icon was born.



At this point the watch was exclusively for Alberto Santos-Dumont, who proudly wore it on his subsequent flights. His achievements, combined with an energetic and colorful personality gained him great fame, along with his signature timepiece. He single-wristedly made it acceptable for men to wear wrist watches, and the first batch of commercially available Santos timepieces finally came about in 1911 and the rest is history.


The Santos Today

114 years after Alberto Santos-Dumont received his monumental timepiece, the Cartier Santos remains largely unchanged. The line received makeovers of varying degrees in the 70s, 80s, and 2004 when it celebrated its 100th birthday, but it never strayed far from its roots. The Santos’ cult status was further reinforced when it found its way into filmmaking history, appearing on Gordon Gekko’s (played by Michael Douglas) wrist in the 1987 classic Wall Street.



It is amazing how a watch this old is still so relevant and celebrated. To put things into perspective, the Santos is older than both the Rolex Submariner (1953) and Audemars Piguet Royal Oak (1972) combined.


The Cartier Santos 100: released to mark the line’s centenary. Discover it here.


Today, Cartier has many variations of the Santos, a wide selection of sizes, materials and complications. While no longer practical as a pilot’s watch, a discerning owner will never forget its glamorous aviation beginnings. An icon that has withstood the test of time, and nothing left to prove.

Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.

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