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The Cartier Santos is the first true pilot’s watch. Designed by Louis Cartier in 1904, at the request of famed Brazilian pilot Alberto Santos-Dumont, it met the need for a legible timepiece that can be worn and read during flight.
At a time when pocket watches were considered the norm for men, that it was secured to the wrist by a leather bracelet was revolutionary, and this also makes the Santos one of the very first men’s wristwatches.
In true Cartier fashion, the Santos’ design was immediately recognizable and timeless at the same time. Its iconic square-shaped case, exposed screws, and French square dial remain hallmarks of the collection today. With more than 100 years of history to look back on, there are several variants of the Santos, but all remain unmistakably part of the family.
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The Cartier Santos is one of the masterpieces of Louis Cartier, grandson of Cartier’s founder, and one of the most renowned watchmakers of all time. As the story goes, Cartier was approached by his friend, the Brazilian pioneer aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont, about the difficulty of using pocket watches while flying.
Cartier designed a flat, square-cased watch with the brand’s signature Roman dial. It was also equipped with a leather bracelet to strap on the wrist, making it easy to read during flight. In another first, the bracelet was paired with a deployant, and for years was the only watch on the market with this mechanism. The watch became favored not just by Santos-Dumont, but also by other customers.
By 1911, Cartier put the Santos-Dumont watch on the market, with a movement from Jaeger LeCoultre, who at the time supplied movements for Cartier watches. These models came in either platinum and yellow gold cases and were sold in Cartier boutiques around the globe.
Cartier continued to produce the Santos-Dumont through the first half of the 20th century, but with the advent of the World War, the military requirements for round watches, and new design codes of the time, the Santos-Dumont’s square design slowly declined in popularity.
The 1970s saw the introduction of a new genre of watches – the luxury steel sports watch. Due to the success of Gerald Genta’s Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and Patek Philippe Nautilus, Cartier saw an opportunity to enter this market, with the Santos as its chosen model.
In 1978, Cartier redesigned the Santos and renamed it Santos de Cartier. The new design came in a solid stainless steel construction, with an integrated bracelet in place of the traditional leather strap. This was a major change in course for Cartier who only worked with precious metals before this period. Shortly after, Cartier made a two-tone version of the Santos de Cartier with 18k gold on the case and bracelet – a style that was extremely popular in the 1980s.
In 1987, the Santos de Cartier was again redesigned and named the Santos Galbée (French for curved). While it retained its famous square case, the Santos’ boxy shape was replaced by curves around the lugs, intended to hug the wrist. Most Santos Galbee watches came with quartz movements, with a few powered by mechanical movements.
While the sportier versions of the Santos headlined the collection in the 1970s-80s, Cartier continued to distribute classically styled Santos-Dumont watches in gold for both men and women.
In 1998, Cartier introduced the Collection Privée Cartier Paris, a collection that revived Cartier’s most iconic historical designs. Included in this series are two Santos-Dumont models.
For the 100th anniversary of the original Santos in 2004, Cartier launched the Santos 100, a modernized version of the Santos. It brought the Santos up to speed with the larger and more robust sports watches of the time with its heftier and more angular case. Cartier also experimented with other case materials such as white gold and titanium.
The Santos 100 also became a venue for Cartier to show off its skills in fine watchmaking, through a chronograph, a skeletonized version, and a flying tourbillon.
By 2018, Cartier discontinued the Santos and updated the collection. It debuted the new Santos de Cartier with not just one watch, but a collection of 13 watches in medium and large sizes. In 2019, Cartier expanded the line further with a Santos Chronograph and a revival of the Santos-Dumont with quartz movements.
That the Cartier Santos continues to be produced today, more than 100 years later, is a testament to its timeless design.
With over 100 years of history, the Cartier Santos watch has been produced in different variations. Here are the different iterations of the Cartier Santos and their key characteristics.
The Cartier Santos-Dumont is the original Santos created by Louis Cartier for Brazilian aviator Alberto-Santos Dumont. It featured a squarish case with angular lugs, a square dial, and long, thin Roman numerals. The original case measured from about 24.8 x 34.8 mm, and were exclusively made in platinum or yellow gold. These watches were exclusively available with leather straps and with a gold folding buckle. The buckle or deployant was another first from Cartier and for many years it was the only folding buckle in the market.
In 2019, the Santos-Dumont was revived with more modern proportions, and served as the Santos collection’s entry-level offering. The first batch of Santos-Dumont revivals came with quartz movements, and in 2020, Cartier released versions with manual-winding movements.
Encouraged by the popularity of steel sports watches, Cartier re-introduced the collection as simply the Cartier Santos in 1978. Instead of coming with a leather bracelet, the new design is made entirely of stainless steel. Shortly after, it was offered with touches of gold, not only to elevate the perceived value of the watch, but also to meet the demand for two-tone watches during this era.
In 1987, the Santos was completely revised and relaunched as the Santos Galbée. This model slightly enlarged the dimensions of the case and softened the edges of the lugs. The result was a more sensual shape and a better fit on the wrist. Most Santos Galbée movements come with quartz movements, but there are a few models with mechanical movements. The Santos Galbée was later updated in 2005 with the release of the Santos Galbée XL.
The Cartier Santos 100 was introduced in 2004 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the original Santos watch. It was a modern take on the Santos with its larger and thicker 51 x 41 mm case and prominent crown. It is available in a wide variety of materials including steel, yellow gold, rose gold, ADLC-coated titanium, and black rubber. It also comes with a choice of a leather strap or a steel bracelet. There are also “iced-out” versions of the Santos 100 with pave diamonds on the case and bezel.
The Cartier Santos Demoiselle is a ladies’ version of the Santos de Cartier watch. It was named after the featherweight aircraft designed by Alberto Santos-Dumont. Made in steel, yellow gold, rose gold, white gold and two-tone finishes, it does away with the signature exposed screws, but comes with a choice of diamonds for the bezel.
The Santos de Cartier is a modern incarnation of the classic Santos watch. It features a relaxed take on the usually angular case, with curved lugs that transition into the bracelet. It comes in two sizes – medium and large – and is offered in stainless steel, two-tone (steel and yellow gold), rose gold, and yellow gold. It also comes with the incorporated SmartLink system, which allows the wearer to easily change out the bracelet without the use of tools.
The Cartier Santos holds the distinction of being the first pilot’s watch and first wristwatch for men. Here are the most commonly asked questions about the Cartier Santos.
The Cartier Santos is a collection of square-cased watches, originally designed to be used by pilots during flight. As such, it comes with a simple, legible dial with Roman numeral markers. It is also well-known for its signature exposed screws on the bezel.
Cartier is a long-established brand that focuses on timeless design, while continuing to invest in innovation and the technical upgrades of its watches. As such, many Cartier watches do hold their value.
The Santos in particular fares well in value over time because of its classic looks and robust construction. It’s also one of the brand’s most popular sport watches, ensuring steady demand for years to come.
Most Cartier Santos watches are water resistant to 30 meters, which makes them “splash proof”. This means the watch can withstand water droplets and quick handwashing.
Cartier continues to produce the Santos de Cartier and Santos-Dumont, which were redesigned in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Other Cartier Santos models from previous years are available in the pre-owned market.