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Cartier Santos: A Pioneer in the Air
The Cartier Santos, the world's first true pilot's watch, has over 100 years of history to look back on. With a square case, Roman numerals, and precious materials like 18-karat gold, this luxury watch is unmistakable.
A Square Icon
The Santos collection is by far the oldest line of watches still produced by French luxury jewelry and watch manufacturer Cartier. Louis Cartier designed the first Santos in 1904 at the request of Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont. The result was like nothing else offered at the time. Its square case helped set it apart from the era's conventional round pocket watches. It also featured integrated lugs, which enabled it to sit comfortably on the wrist using a strap or bracelet. Thus, the Tank would go down in history as the first genuine men's wristwatch.
Modern Santos cases still retain the original's square shape. The dial design with its unique Roman numerals and railroad minute track also remains largely unchanged to this day. Finally, there's the bezel, which has been held in place by eight screws for well over a century.
Of the current models, the Santos-Dumont bears the strongest resemblance to the 1904 original. The Santos de Cartier, on the other hand, has its roots in the Santos Sport from the late 1970s and the Santos 100 from 2004. These watches feel much sportier than the original Santos thanks to their crown guards and softer lines.
While the Santos' design has changed very little over time, the opposite is true of its materials and movements. In addition to different shades of gold, you will find Santos watches in stainless steel, titanium, and ceramic, as well as in various two-tone editions. Cartier offers models in men's and women's sizes. The Santos is traditionally a two or three-hand watch. However, today there are plenty of Santos timepieces with a chronograph function, moon phase indicator, or tourbillon. You can also choose from versions with quartz or mechanical calibers, including an increasing number of in-house movements.
5 Reasons to Buy a Cartier Santos
- The world's first pilot's wristwatch
- Part of Cartier's catalog since 1904
- Iconic square case
- Men's and women's models
- Available with skeletonized dials and in-house calibers
Prices at a Glance: Cartier Santos
|Model/Reference number||Price (approx.)||Material/Movement|
|Santos-Dumont, WH100651||51,000 USD||White gold, diamonds; manual|
|Santos de Cartier Skeleton, WHSA0010||45,500 USD||Rose gold; manual, skeletonized|
|Santos de Cartier Chronograph, WGSA0017||22,500 USD||Rose gold; automatic|
|Santos 100 XL Chronograph, W20090X8||15,000 USD||Stainless steel, diamonds; automatic|
|Santos de Cartier, WSSA0029||6,300 USD||Stainless steel; automatic|
|Santos-Dumont, W2SA0012||4,800 USD||Two-tone; quartz|
|Santos Galbée, 187901||2,600 USD||Two-tone; quartz|
How much does a Santos cost?
With over 100 years of history, the selection of Santos models is enormous. The same is true of its prices. Top models like the Santos 100 XL Tourbillon can cost upwards of 235,000 USD. This white gold watch features diamonds and a flying tourbillon. On the other end of the spectrum, you'll find timepieces for as little as 1,200 and 1,800 USD. Most of these watches come from the Santos Galbée series, which debuted in 1987 and was in production for around 20 years. There are also plenty of two-tone watches with quartz movements. Current models like the stainless steel Santos-Dumont and Santos de Cartier demand between 3,300 and 5,600 USD depending on their size. Their gold counterparts sell for anywhere from 8,500 to 11,500 USD. If you're interested in a skeletonized model, be sure to have between 23,500 and 45,000 USD on hand.
Santos de Cartier: A Modern Classic
Cartier released a new version of the Santos de Cartier in 2018. Its relaxed take on the usually angular bezel took the watch industry by surprise. The edges curve and transition seamlessly into the bracelet. These changes are especially prominent on two-tone models like the ref. W2SA0009, which changes hands for about 10,000 USD. The same watch in solid rose gold requires an investment of around 33,000 USD, while the stainless steel variant costs significantly less at 6,900 USD. All three watches are uncommon in pre-owned condition.
Santos de Cartier Chronograph
The Santos collection also contains a few chronographs. These "XL" watches measure 43.3 mm across and get their power from the in-house caliber 1904 CH MC. This movement has a minute and hour counter at 3 and 9 o'clock, respectively, as well as a date display and small seconds at 6. A push-piece at 9 o'clock operates the chronograph function. A simple press of the crown resets the chronograph to its starting position.
Like the three-hand models, the Santos de Cartier Chronograph is available in gold, stainless steel, or as a two-tone watch. One particularly interesting-looking example is the ref. WSSA0017. This stainless steel timepiece features a black DLC (diamond-like carbon) coating on its bezel and bracelet, lending this model a decidedly sporty appearance. You can call this watch your own for about 8,600 USD new and 6,700 USD pre-owned. If you'd prefer a two-tone or 18-karat gold edition, you should expect to pay between 12,500 and 22,500 USD.
Some of the collection's other top models belong to the Santos de Cartier Skeleton series. As the name implies, these watches boast intricate skeletonization. Cartier crafts these timepieces without dials and instead shapes the manual 9612 MC movement's bridges so that they form the Roman numerals 3, 6, 9, and 12. The overall design is extremely modern. This is especially true of the ref. WHSA0009, a stainless steel model with a matte black DLC-coated case. This watch can be yours for 25,000 USD in mint condition or 22,500 USD used. There are also gold and two-tone versions available, which sell for between 27,000 and 46,500 USD.
Santos-Dumont: Back to the Roots
Those looking for a faithful re-creation of the first Santos from 1904 should turn to the Santos-Dumont series. These modern timepieces share the original's square case, prominent bezel with eight exposed screws, and beaded crown with a blue cabochon. Their dials are also classic, though the railroad minute track has shifted from the center of the dial to the outer edge.
Precise quartz calibers power the women's and unisex models. In 2020, Cartier launched the Santos-Dumont XL with the in-house manual caliber 430 MC. This watch is available in stainless steel, gold, or with a two-tone design and costs between 5,500 and 12,000 USD. The white gold edition with a diamond-studded bezel will set you back some 51,000 USD. Prices for quartz-powered versions depend on the exact model and range from 3,500 to 11,500 USD.
On a Larger Scale: The Santos 100
Cartier introduced the Santos 100 series in 2004 in honor of the Santos' 100th anniversary. The Parisian company ceased production of this model in 2018. Unlike the small and delicate original from 1904, the Santos 100 keeps up with modern trends. Its case is much larger and more masculine. Measuring 42 x 51 mm, it's well suited for larger wrists, and the crown guard only heightens its sense of bulk. However, it still maintains some details from the original Santos, including a square stainless steel case with rounded edges, a bezel with exposed screws, and Roman numeral hour markers. Most models get their power from a modified ETA 2892 movement.
The Santos 100 is available in stainless steel, two-tone stainless steel/yellow gold, and black-coated titanium. The Santos 100 Carbon ref. WSSA0006, the black model, comes with a calfskin strap and has the sportiest feel, and its red second hand creates a stark contrast with the black watch. This particular watch demands between 4,600 and 6,600 USD, depending on its condition. Be sure to set aside around 6,800 USD for a well-maintained stainless steel XL edition (ref. 2656). You'll also find two-tone and 18-karat gold models on sale for between 4,100 and 16,000 USD.
This series is also home to a line of chronographs. One such timepiece is the Santos 100 Chronograph ref. W2020004. Its case is made of black-coated titanium and contrasts beautifully with the rose gold bezel, hands, and pushers. The automatic caliber 8630 MC ticks away inside the case. This movement is a modified ETA 7753. Prices for this elegant timekeeper sit around 7,200 USD.
Santos Demoiselle: Designed for Women
The Cartier Santos-Dumont and Santos 100 collections also offer plenty of women's watches. Cartier markets the Santos Demoiselle series directly toward women. These feminine timepieces have smaller cases measuring 24 x 18.7 mm or 28.25 x 21.65 mm and are perfect for more delicate wrists.
New stainless steel models start around 4,700 USD, while pre-owned pieces sell for as little as 2,100 USD. More decorative versions with diamonds and rose gold cases demand about 16,500 USD.
The History of the Cartier Santos
Aviation was still completely new in the early 20th century. Brazilian pilot Alberto Santos-Dumont was especially influential in France due to his experiments with motorized flight. In 1904, Santos-Dumont went to his friend, Louis Cartier, and asked him to create a watch he could use in flight without taking his hands off the controls. Cartier immediately went to work and soon presented the aviation pioneer with the Santos – the world's first genuine men's wristwatch.
In 1906, Santos-Dumont completed the first public flight with a motorized plane. During the flight, which set many world records, Santos-Dumont wore a unique square wristwatch. Demand for the watch quickly increased, leading Cartier to begin series production of the Santos in 1911.