The ultimate luxury accessory is the perfect wristwatch. If you’re looking for a mix of heritage, robust build, and timeless design, then the Cartier Santos might be the one for you. With this guide, we’ll help you decide which version of the Cartier Santos would best suit your taste.
If you’d really like to make a statement, why not stray away from the classic round watch face? The Santos line by Cartier is the pioneer of the square watch and a symbol of French elegance and style.
Explore the Cartier Santos collection and all it has to offer with SwissWatchExpo‘s Ultimate Guide.
A Brief History of the Cartier Santos
The Cartier Santos earns the distinction of being the first pilot’s wrist watch and the first wrist watch designed for men. It all began when Louis Cartier, third-generation owner of the French Maison and chief designer of many of their iconic timepieces, met Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont.
In the 1900s, Santos-Dumont was already becoming famous all over the world for his feats in aviation. As he began flying heavier aircrafts, he desired a watch that he could use to track time without having to remove his hands from the controls of his plane (such as removing a pocket watch from his pocket). This request inspired Cartier to design a watch that could be fixed to the user’s wrist. While it was by no means the first wrist watch, it was the first designed for men, and its squarish face with rounded corners was also unorthodox at the time. After this, Santos-Dumont never piloted a flight without his Cartier watch.
The original Santos-Dumont watch was designed in 1904, but it wasn’t until 1911 that it was released to the public. Since then, it has changed and upgraded into several models and styles to choose from, still with the striking figure and build that made it famous in the first place. This a model that has been around for over 100 years with very little change. The Santos collection is the oldest line of watches made by the French jewelry and watchmaker, and it remains in their catalog to this day.
Key Features of the Cartier Santos
The most defining characteristic of the Cartier Santos is its square case. Louis Cartier not only wanted to challenge the norms of the day, he also found inspiration from the architecture of Paris and its symmetry. You’ll find more of Paris in the Art Deco dial with its large Roman numerals and the square mirror track in the center for the minutes.
The squarish case is a feature found in all versions of the Santos. It’s a popular style for many watch brands today, but it’s considered a hallmark of Cartier.
The square case was expertly designed to fit the wrist and allow for maximum comfort. The way the case curves around the lugs allows you to wear a square case that feels round on the wrist. It also fits better on a large range of wrist sizes thanks to the unique shape and styling.
Newer models were made even more ergonomic and sport more of a curve, and they mold to the wrist despite the square and right-angle look. You’ll find looking at the watch and wearing it on your wrist to be indescribably surprising. You won’t be able to understand how something that looks bulky and straight edged to wear so comfortably on the wrist. The design is that good.
All Santos watches come in medium and large sizes to accommodate more wrists, hence the Santos actually qualifies as a unisex watch.
Exposed screws on the bezel and bracelet
Another signature feature of the Santos is the exposed screws on the bezel and bracelet. The screws are used to secure the bezel and bracelet together, and while they are normally hidden, Louis Cartier’s decision to incorporate them into the design drives home the Santos’ tool watch aesthetic.
It has also become a signature in Cartier’s jewelry line. In 1969, Cartier introduced the Love bracelet, designed by Aldo Cipullo, with visible screws to complement the Santos’ aesthetic.
Different Versions of the Cartier Santos
Different Models of the Cartier Santos
The Santos Collection currently has two lines: The Santos-Dumont and the Santos de Cartier. However, throughout the years, there have been even more iterations of the Santos.
While upgrading the design and keeping up with the demands of the luxury watch market, Cartier focused on keeping all of the key features that made this watch unique. Let’s take a look at the different versions of the Cartier Santos watch, old and new.
Cartier Santos Dumont (1904 / 2019)
The Cartier Santos Dumont was is a classic interpretation of the pilot’s wrist watch that Louis Cartier designed for aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont in 1904. It became commercially available in 1911, but was discontinued during the Second World War due to aviation requirements. It was revived in limited editions in 1998 and 2004, but in 2019, it came back as a standard production piece.
The Cartier Santos Dumont is the closest model to the original watch from 1904, keeping the hallmark square case and the blue cabochon with a knurled crown. For its revamp, it was given larger dimensions and a sleeker profile to suit modern tastes. They also moved the railroad minute track from the center of the dial to the outer section for a cleaner dial.
What’s most notable with the current crop of Santos Dumont watches is the custom quartz movement that has a six-year battery life. While modern Santos models are powered by automatic movements, the choice of a quartz movement here opens the collection up to a larger audience.
The current Cartier Santos Dumont is available in steel and rose gold, as well as two-toned versions and those with diamond accents and a high-quality, alligator leather strap.
To please men and women, Santos Dumont case sizes come in 38 mm x 27.5 mm and 43.5 mm x 31.4 mm.
Santos de Cartier (2018)
The Santos de Cartier (2018) is a modern version of the original Santos watch. It shares many of its design elements with its predecessor, but it also has some notable differences. The crown lock, specially designed bezel, and adjustable metal link bracelet really set it apart from the original. You’re looking at complete luxury without the ostentatious flash.
There are several models available today in gold, stainless steel, and two-tone styles. The two-tone styles are the perfect blend of luxury and stainless steel with the gold screws on the bracelet and the gold bezel against a stainless steel case.
You’ll also find models with three hands rather than two, chronographs, and even skeletonized models. This contemporary and sportier take on the Santos is powered by in-house calibers, the Cartier Santos 1847 MC (time only), 1904 MC (chronograph) and the 9611 MC (skeleton).
When the Santos de Cartier predecessor was first designed in 1978, Cartier wanted to use the Santos line to follow the new trend of luxury watches made from stainless steel. That’s what inspired Cartier to move away from the original leather strap for the Santos and instead create the metal link bracelet that matched the exposed screws on the iconic bezel.
With the return of the Santos de Cartier in 2018, the French Maison introduced the “QuickSwitch” and “SmartLink” bracelet systems. The QuickSwitch system allows the wearer to simply press a small rectangular button beneath the watch band to release the bracelet – no tools necessary. This makes it easier to swap out the metal bracelet for a leather strap when you please. Meanwhile, the SmartLink system allows the wearer to adjust the size of the bracelet through a button placed on each link that, when pressed, will release the individual link. Again, no tools needed.
Cartier Santos 100 (2004)
The Cartier Santos 100 was released in 2004 to celebrate the Santos’ 100th anniversary. It ceased production in 2018 with the release of the Santos de Cartier, but it’s still sought after and has a massive following on the second-hand market.
This model was the first to feature a crown guard and a more striking and masculine design. As the case size increased to 41mm x 51mm, they increased the size of the Roman numerals to maintain the Art Deco styling of the original dial.
The large, angular cases have been modernized to include carbon, titanium, stainless steel, and the more traditional gold. You’ll also find models that appear a little sleeker and youthful with black ADLC coating.
The Santos 100 was made available in three sizes: midsize which is 33 mm wide, large at 38 mm wide, and XL at 42mm wide.
Cartier Santos Galbee (1987)
The Cartier Santos Galbee (1987) introduced an advanced quartz movement to bring the brand back into the spotlight and survive the quartz crisis. Cartier was known for adapting to market trends quickly and you can see that not only in the watches the brand released over time, but in the longevity of the company.
This model sports more curves than the previous versions – in fact, galbee means curved in French. The rugged square shape was smoothed out and appeals to collectors. This new curved shape hugs the wrist a little closer increasing the comfort of wearing and better fit for more people. It’s naturally contoured to the wrist compared to the more right angles of the original.
This particular model was phased out of production in 2005 to make way for the Santos 100.
Cartier Santos Ronde (1980s)
Cartier Santos Ronde (photo: Christie’s)
The Santos Ronde diverted from the line entirely. This was the only instance where the original design of the Santos watch was set aside for something more blended with tradition in the watchmaking industry. Trading out the square case for a round case and dial, the Santos Ronde also featured an octagonal bezel in male and female versions.
The case was made from gold, stainless steel, and two tones that gained in popularity during the 80s. You can choose a bracelet or a leather strap, appealing to both vintage enthusiasts and modern thinkers.
Unlike the Galbee, the Ronde was available in quartz and automatic movements, appealing to a wider market. If you happen to love vintage watches, this one is a keeper – it blends seamlessly from casual day wear to a tuxedo or suit.
Cartier Santos Ultimate Guide: Final Thoughts
With its colorful history, impeccable build, and timeless design, the Cartier Santos is one of the most iconic watches ever made, in the true sense of the word.
The design has evolved over time, but its core features have remained constant throughout.
Explore the vast range of Cartier Santos watches available at SwissWatchExpo.com and see the difference on your wrist.