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Santos de Cartier, the modern icon
History & Masterpieces

Santos de Cartier, the modern icon

Thursday, 08 March 2018
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Marie de Pimodan-Bugnon
Freelance journalist

“One must be absolutely modern.”

Arthur Rimbaud

It takes passion, a healthy dose of curiosity and a sense of wonderment to convey the innumerable facets of watchmaking…

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5 min read
Santos de Cartier
Cartier
Fabio Teta
There's so much to love about the Santos, beginning with a new-generation movement and the patented QuickSwitch system that makes swapping and changing straps simplicity itself. Not forgetting, of course, the elegant square case whose contours take us back to the very first Santos in 1904.
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Technology and design have undergone countless transformations since 1904 when Louis Cartier imagined the Santos for aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont, and still this revolutionary wristwatch hasn’t aged a day. For proof, the new Santos collection, presented this year, bears a striking similarity to the original, as befits a true classic.

Water has run under the bridges of Paris. A man has walked on the Moon. Crossing the Atlantic in a matter of hours is par for the course, and sports cars are blasting off towards Mars. Pierre and Louis Cartier, grandsons of the man who started it all, wouldn’t believe their eyes. No more than the visionary Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont. And yet none of these three friends was lacking in imagination. They had dreams and ambitions to last a lifetime. Their destinies crossed paths with one of the most charming revolutions in the history of time measurement: the invention of the modern wristwatch.

From the Aéro-Club de France to the first men's wristwatch

Paris, France, 1904. At the foot of the Eiffel Tower, still a novelty in a city transformed by Baron Haussmann, there was excitement in the air. These were the early days of aeronautics, and Paris had a front-row seat. Within the influential spheres of the capital, frequented by captains of industry, academics, sportsmen and artists, a new society was taking shape before the Cartier brothers’ eyes. Louis quickly developed an interest in aviation, and frequently enquired of advances made with the commissioners at the Aéro-Club de France, who were tasked with timing flights, judging records or noting the potential of different engines and fuels.

The watch designed and made for Santos-Dumont, which went on sale to the public as of 1911, laid the foundations for contemporary watchmaking.

It was here, in this club for enthusiastic visionaries, that Louis Cartier met Alberto Santos-Dumont. A pioneer of flight, he cut an eccentric figure as archive documents show – one image portrays him dining with friends on long-legged chairs, so as to accustom himself to the sensations of a flying machine. Through conversations with this unconventional and dapper man, Louis Cartier learned the situations these early pilots faced, and their needs. And it was thanks to this precise understanding that he made, in 1904, the first Cartier watch for men designed specifically to be worn on the wrist. Functionality prevailed over its creation, providing what now seems an obvious answer to a seemingly simple question: how to monitor time spent in the air, and therefore fuel, without letting go of the controls to fish around for one’s pocket watch? By wearing the said watch on the wrist, of course! The watch designed and made for Santos-Dumont, which went on sale to the public as of 1911, laid the foundations for contemporary watchmaking, and answered the needs and preoccupations of the day.

At last, form meets function

From a design perspective, this very first Santos bears all the hallmarks of a Cartier watch. Its contours clearly allude to the steel bridges spanning the Seine, and the monuments dotted around the capital. A square bezel set with screws, stylised Roman numerals, a railroad minute track, a sapphire cabochon set in the crown and a leather strap… form and function, elegance and practicality merge in this miniature object. Other equally recognisable styles would follow – the Tortue, the Tonneau and the Tank – but the Santos marked the beginning of Cartier’s odyssey in form wristwatches.

One of the secrets to the Santos' long life is its capacity to move with the times.

In 1978 the Santos reappeared in an audacious combination of gold and steel – a lookalike of the Santos watches launched at SIHH 2018. Exactly 40 years later, the square shape and straight lines borrowed from Parisian architecture are unchanged. Eight screws still punctuate the bezel which Cartier’s designers have made slightly longer, creating a stronger synergy between case and bracelet. The heart of the watch is designed for the modern age: the mechanical 1847 MC automatic calibre showing hours, minutes, seconds and date has anti-magnetic properties.

The new Santos de Cartier, 2018
The new Santos de Cartier, 2018

The Santos owes its very existence to the fact it is worn on the wrist, and so it’s appropriate that the 2018 Santos should focus so much attention on this characteristic. Whether in steel or gold, calfskin or alligator, the bracelet or strap is released from the case at the press of a button, and can be swapped and changed to match the wearer’s mood or needs, thanks to Cartier’s patented QuickSwitch system. The metal bracelet is easily adjusted to fit by means of hidden buttons which allow links to be added or removed, without any special tools. This ultra-practical invention is a reminder that one of the secrets to the Santos’ long life is its capacity to move with the times, as it has always done. Water still flows under the bridges at the foot of the Eiffel Tower but, from the revolutionary first wristwatch to today’s interchangeable bracelets, the Santos continues to glide through the decades with enduring elegance and eternal youth.

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