Santos Dumont: High-flyer

The much-heralded launch of the Santos de Cartier references the very beginning of watchmaking history, albeit with some new developments. By Debbie Hathaway.

Brazilian aviator Santos Dumont’s aircraft La Demoiselle above Saint Cyr (Photo by Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)

The first Santos prototype was made by Louis Cartier in 1904 at the request of his friend, the Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont, who wished to time his performance in flight better than he could on his pocket watch. Effectively, he needed to see the dial with both hands on the controls.

Cartier found the answer in what was to kick-start a new fashion for men; the first purpose-designed watch that could be strapped to the wrist with a leather band and small buckle. The aviator reportedly never flew again without it.

An immaculate dresser who favoured stylish high-collared shirts and a Panama hat, Santos-Dumont didn’t like to be restricted by his clothing. His trademark in-flight look was cap on backwards, aviator goggles and custom-made coat criss-crossed with cables attached to the controls. His penchant for function over fashion reflected the mode of the day; comfort that reflected the new modern lifestyle.

Friends with the industrial, artistic and scientific elite, Santos-Dumont nevertheless said he flew to “escape society and to think”.

The diminutive son of a coffee magnate, Santos-Dumont was destined to be an engineer until he became fascinated by flight. His many achievements include an ascent in his first balloon, Brazil, in 1898 and flying from St Cloud to the Eiffel Tower and back in 1901.

Santos-Dumont designed, built and flew his No. 14-bis in 1906, a significant achievement in powered flight. His 60m hop won him the Ernest Archdeacon trophy, established for the first flight of 25m. Meanwhile, his later addition of octagonal ailerons, which bank the aircraft for turning, to the outer bays of the No. 14-bis helped him fly 220m and so claim the 1 500-franc prize presented by the Aéro-Club de France for the first flight of 100m.

Actor Jake Gyllenhaal stepped both behind and in front of the camera to make a short film for Cartier celebrating the relaunch of the French luxury house’s epoch-making Santos de Cartier wristwatch.

In 1909, Santos-Dumont produced the ‘heavier than air’ high-wing Demoiselle monoplane, the first plane to be mass-produced in a factory. Having designed it to be able to land “in any broad Parisian thoroughfare”, he shared his drawings with other aviators in the interests of research. A working replica of the Demoiselle was featured in the film Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines.

Evolution of the Santos watch

  • The first square wristwatch for men was introduced in 1910. The rectangular Santos-Dumont was made available to the public in 1911.
  • In 1978, the watch was presented with a gold and steel bracelet.
  • In 2004, the Santos 100, Santos-Dumont and Santos
    Demoiselle watches were created to celebrate 100 years of the Santos de Cartier watch.
  • In 2009, the Santos 100 Skeleton watch in palladium was created.
  • In 2018, the Santos de Cartier is reimagined with a more modern aesthetic, rooted in historic style.

The bezel design has been updated to achieve sleeker lines and promote synergy between the case and strap, which are ergonomically modelled to fit comfortably on the wrist.

Spirited Style

The new Santos de Cartier echoes the original design that reflected the spirit of speed and progress demonstrated by Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont in the early 20th century. Its square shape remains unchanged, as does the inclusion of eight screws on the bezel. Now, however, the bezel design creates sleeker lines between the case and strap. The strap is available in gold, steel, calfskin or alligator skin, all versions of which are interchangeable through the Cartier QuickSwitch system. The bracelet length can be adjusted via Cartier’s SmartLink technology without the use of a tool.


US actor and producer Jake Gyllenhaal is the new
face of the Santos de Cartier campaign. Acknowledged for
his role in Brokeback Mountain with a BAFTA for best
supporting role and an Oscar nomination, he’s starred in David Fincher’s Zodiac, Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals,
and Stronger (2018), which he also produced.
Watch the latter and you’ll get some insight into how well he fits Cartier’s ‘bold and fearless’ launch theme.