The word “iconic” might be the most overused adjective in watches. And following closely behind it in the hackneyed department is the story that begins something like, “Iconic is an overused word, but so-and-so’s vaunted such-and-such is a true icon that stands up to naysayers and deserves the title.” I’ve definitely written that before (sorry), but I’m going to spare you the tedium today. The Cartier Santos is one hell of a watch and its design integrity, build quality, and thoughtfulness speak for themselves. No “iconic” required.
When I first saw that Cartier would be relaunching the Santos collection at SIHH 2018, I’ll admit I wasn’t out-of-my-mind excited. The Santos always seemed like a fine watch to me, but not a watch worth a raised pulse. However, every day is a school day, and sitting down to look at the new collection that first morning of the show, I realized that this go-around, the Santos was something different. It is now something truly lust-worthy and I needed to spend some time with one of these watches ASAP. Luckily the kind people at Cartier North America decided to oblige my appeal, and I was able to wear a Santos around New York City for a week ahead of its launch in San Francisco earlier this month.
As many of you are probably aware, the Santos is generally accepted as the first watch designed for the wrist from the beginning. In the late nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, people were strapping pocket watches to their wrists or fitting old movements into modified cases with straps, but the Santos was, from idea to initial execution, a wristwatch.
In 1904, Louis Cartier made a special watch for his friend Alberto Santos-Dumont, a Brazilian aviator who needed a timekeeper he could check without taking his hands off the controls of his early aircraft (Santos-Dumont flew lighter-than-air ships extensively before getting into airplanes, in 1906). Cartier obliged, making Santos-Dumont a little gold watch with exposed screws and a square profile. It’s not exactly what you think of when you hear “pilot’s watch,” but it’s as real-deal as it gets in the history of flight. (If you want to read more about this, check out Volume 1 of the Magazine, where my good friend Jason Heaton lays out the entire history of the pilot’s watch, including the early influence of the Santos.)
A few years later, around 1911, Cartier put the aptly-named Santos into production, selling a refined version of the square watch at its flagship boutique in Paris. Remember, this is still half a decade before the Tank was to be invented, so lest there be any arguments about which influenced which, know that the Santos had the lead by a long shot. In case you’re wondering, these early Santos models were produced in partnership with Le Coultre, who was able to create the tiny hand-wound movements needed.
Over the ensuing decades, Cartier made dozens, if not hundreds, of variations on the theme. The defining characteristics of the watch have always been the square dial with Roman numerals, the square case, and the screws in the bezel. Other traits such as the crown guards and the bracelet came much later, but now it’s hard to imagine the Santos without them.
Speaking of which, the Santos bracelet might be as recognizable as the watch itself. In 1978, Cartier created what we can think of as the first modern Santos. This watch was a two-tone steel and yellow gold model, with a polished yellow gold bezel and a new bracelet that echoed the screw motif of the bezel, only with yellow gold screws punctuating the steel bracelet links. At the time, this was one of the more affordable watches from Cartier and it’s hard to imagine the louche 1980s aesthetic of broad-shouldered pinstripe suits, pastel foulard neckties, and Gucci loafers without the Santos there to finish the look.
Most recently, there was the Santos 100 collection. Launched in 2004 to commemorate the centennial anniversary of Louis Cartier making a wristwatch for his pioneering friend, it’s a watch that very much speaks to the trends of the early 2000s in watchmaking: it’s large, it’s more overtly masculine, and it’s about making a statement. For many fans of the old Santos, the Santos 100 spoke just a little too loudly, despite trying to say the same things as its predecessors. The Santos 100 remained the Santos in the Cartier collection for over a decade – until now.
As you can see, the Santos has a pretty robust history and relatively fixed design codes. Reinventing something like this and balancing the respect for its past, and the desire to make it feel fresh, is tough stuff indeed. But Cartier really swung for the fences in a way that might make Hank Aaron blush. They weren’t afraid to throw things out, bring new ideas to the table, and create a Santos that feels right for today.
Along with the modern watch comes a modern marketing strategy too. It’s easy to forget in our little watch-world bubble that most watches are not bought by “watch people.” Most watches are bought by human beings who want something nice to put on their wrists; they want to buy into a brand image or a lifestyle; they want to communicate something by wearing a Cartier Santos instead of a generic whosie-whatsit. Building a particular image around the product, whether it’s by hosting a non-traditional launch event in San Francisco, or signing up Jake Gyllenhaal as a brand ambassador, is no less important commercially than creating a good product from the start.
“Cartier is a maison of paradoxes, you know, of tensions,” said Arnaud Carrez, International Marketing and Communications Director of Cartier at the Santos launch event in San Francisco earlier this month. “There is always a balance to be found and Santos is exactly this. It’s taking a classic of the maison and finding contemporary narration around the watch. That’s what we always need to find. We have amazing icons, but we need to express them in the contemporary, relevant manner.”
Deciding to debut the watch in San Francisco at a three-day event that felt more like the TED Conference than a watch launch says a lot already. Instead of flutes of champagne and hushed conversations there was a juice bar in a repurposed pier building and panel discussions about creativity and art featuring the likes of actor Idris Elba, chef Alice Waters, and designer and artist Es Devlin. The evening festivities included a concert from Hot Chip, Phoenix, and Jamie XX. Like I said – not your usual luxury Swiss watch event (believe me, I wish this was the norm).
“We think people are a bit bored with the usual events, all looking exactly the same” Carrez noted. “We knew what we built in needed to be unique. We have substance, we have content, and the ideas of being bold and being fearless resonates very well here in San Francisco. We said, ‘let’s build content beyond the product’ and create something that connects with other communities.” Continuing, Carrez emphasized the role that marketing and positioning plays in a launch like this. “It’s a subtle exercise, but one that is very exciting. Santos is about a whole universe, about a spirit. We need to capitalize on that. We need to build something that is totally different than what you typically find in a watch launch and I think we’ve done it. We want to push boundaries – we don’t like routine.”
The new Santos isn’t a watch, but rather a collection of watches. There are 12 models in all, split between two sizes (medium and large). Two of the 12 are special skeletonized verions in the larger size, and we’ll mostly be ignoring those as they’re a different beast entirely. The key traits, however, are shared across all the models and the collection really does feel like a unified family with just enough variety for different tastes.
I chose to spend my time with the medium Santos in stainless steel, thinking it the purest expression of the watch overall.
The name Santos-Dumont may not immediately ring a bell for everyone; most people probably just know this model as the Cartier “Santos.”
But long before the legendary steel-and-gold Santos was launched in 1978, there was a small version of the model called the “Santos-Dumont.” And this is actually the watch that inspired the famous Santos of today.
Louis Cartier created that Santos-Dumont model in 1904 for his aviator friend Alberto Santos-Dumont, who had asked for a watch that allowed his hands to remain free for controls while flying. On November 12, 1906, he became the first person to be filmed in an airplane in flight when he flew 220 meters in 21.5 seconds – wearing what may well be the first pilot’s wristwatch in history.
For seven years, Alberto Santos-Dumont had the privilege of being the only one to wear this model as the Santos-Dumont was not officially available to the public until 1911.