Amy Wakeham delves into the history of the first men’s wristwatch, the Santos de Cartier, created for pioneering aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont in 1904.
Santos de Cartier
The 20th century was perhaps the most fruitful time in the history of humankind. From the discovery of antibiotics to the miracle of space travel, and from Queen Victoria to the Spice Girls, we certainly witnessed a lot over a short 100 years. Another thing that changed our landscape for ever (in more ways than one), was the invention of flying, which is inextricably linked with the creation of the modern watch as we know it today.
Back in the very early days of the 20th century there were a handful of dare devil, pioneering aviators who flew the first rickety, experimental aircraft so we could have our luxury airliners today. After the Wright brothers, the most significant is Alberto Santos-Dumont, a Brazilian aviator whose hot air balloons and early aeroplanes advanced the field considerably. But flying a plane and fumbling for a pocket watch don’t go well together and so, in 1904, his good friend Louis Cartier created a timepiece for him that could be strapped to his wrist and easily consulted mid-air. And thus the men’s wristwatch – and the Santos de Cartier (originally called the Santos-Dumont) – was born.
The original Santos-Dumont watch, with its flat, square face, screws that are intended to represent the positioning of the legs of the Eiffel Tower, and highly legible roman numerals (ideal for reading under stress), was put into mass production in 1911, with a Jaeger movement inside and a choice of a brown or a black leather strap.
In the century since, the Santos-Dumont was reimagined and reinvented in a huge variety of guises – in men’s and women’s iterations, as a chronograph and in manual and self-winding versions. It was relaunched in 1978, renamed the Santos de Cartier, and gently redesigned to promote the synergy between the lines of the case and the strap. However, its elegant, distinctive lines remained the same, and its status as one of horological world’s all-time most significant watches lies intact.
In 2020, Cartier went one step further and launched the Santos-Dumont XL as a tribute to that original, pioneering watch. This iteration beats with a 430 MC mechanical movement with manual winding, and features a contoured case, taut lines and an extra-large size.
As the first pilot’s watch (although it’s not considered one as such nowadays), the Santos de Cartier is the reason there will always be an irrefutable link between the worlds of watches and aviation. As the first men’s wristwatch, it kicked off a passion that went on to transform the landscape of the 20th century, and led to the kind of innovation that has continued to shape and define the watch world to this day. And you don’t get much more iconic than that.