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.
Over A Century Of Santos
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 HODINKEE 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.
Old Watch, New Life
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
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 Case And Dial
Looking at the Santos, you’ll notice right off the bat that this isn’t the same watch you’ve seen before. The case still has the general square shape, but it’s a lot curvier this time around. The medium model measure 35.1mm x 41.9mm (while the larger comes in at 39.8mm x 47.5mm), but it’s a little hard to get a sense of exactly what these dimensions mean when we’re used to talking about round watches. I did a little experiment, trying the watch on alongside round watches of various sizes, and, in my totally subjective and non-scientific opinion, I’d say the medium wears similarly to a 39mm watch while the large wears more like a 42mm watch.
The curves come through most clearly in the new shape of the lugs and how they seem to effortlessly flow into the crown guards. There’s a shapeliness to the new Santos case, and the right side in particular looks like undulating waves rendered in steel. The use of brushed finishes along the top and sides accentuates the softness, while a slim bevel at the edge adds necessary definition. The case is just 8.83mm thick, so it’s extremely slim and integrates nicely with the bracelet (more on that in a bit).
The biggest change to the case, however, is the bezel. It’s still square, sure, but it’s no longer a perfect rounded square shape simply screwed on top of the case. At the top and bottom it now extends a bit and slopes down to between the lugs. The idea here is that it makes the bracelet or strap feel more integrated, and it’s a raging success. To me, it completely changes the look of the watch for the better. My only complaint is that the bezel is brightly polished, which makes it both a scratch and dust magnet as well as a nightmare to photograph for Instagram (hey, this is a 21st-century watch we’re talking about here – I stand by this being a legitimate problem).
The dial, on the other hand, is pure classicism. The silvered finish doesn’t have any fancy guilloché going on and the dark black Roman numerals and railroad minutes track are complemented by the blued steel hands you’re used to seeing from Cartier. The medium model does not have a date (yes!), while the large model has a small window at six o’clock in place of the numeral (less yes!).
The movement definitely isn’t something Cartier wants you to be too worried about with the Santos, and I’d tend to agree with them. However, that doesn’t mean they’ve skimped out.
Powering both the medium and large versions of the Santos is the caliber 1847 MC. This is an in-house movement that measures 25.6mm across, runs in 23 jewels, beats at 4 Hz, and has a 42-hour power reserve. It’s a modern workhorse automatic with simple decoration, and a Cartier-signed rotor (not that you can see it through the solid caseback). The caliber also makes use of nickel phosphorous components that make it extra resistant to magnetism, plus it’s covered with a paramagnetic alloy inside the case. Cartier doesn’t provide an exact gauss measurement, but does say that the Santos is “effectively resistant to the powerful magnetic fields a watch may be exposed to in everyday life.” That’s good enough for me. And, no fear, there are date and no date versions of the 1847 MC, so you’re not going to get a dead crown position on the medium model.
As an aside, the skeleton versions of the Santos do not use an 1847 MC base, but rather the 9619 MC. It’s a completely different movement that utilizes an atypical bridge structure to display the typical Cartier Roman numerals.
The Bracelet (And Strap)
To me, the bracelet is everything for the Santos. It’s a lot of look, but in the best way possible. There’s something so unabashed and shamelessly indulgent about the Santos bracelet, and while I can’t quite put my finger on why, I’m into it.
The bracelet on this Santos is solid stainless steel with matching steel screws. The links are angular, but not sharp, with brushed surfaces and polished edges that echo the lines of the case. The entire thing tapers gently from the case to the hidden clasp at the back, though it never gets too narrow or delicate. I love that the screws are seemingly random in orientation. I’m a pretty Type-A person (I know, big surprise), but this bit of wabi-sabi is much needed (it also prevented me from being able to obsess over whether each was exactly in place at all times).
When the Santos showed up on my desk, the bracelet was too big for my wrist. But, no fear, I didn’t have to make a trip uptown to have it sized. Cartier’s patent-pending SmartLink system meant I could make the adjustment myself. Basically, you push a button on the bottom of a link and a pin will partially pop out, letting you slide the link out. The pins don’t come all the way out, so you can’t lose them (smart one, Cartier), but you can make the adjustment with a toothpick or any other soft, pointed object you have lying around. I’d emphasize soft here, as it would be easy to scratch the heck out of the bracelet quickly if you used something sharp or too hard.
If you want to swap out the bracelet altogether – though I don’t know why you’d ever want to do that – that’s easy too. Another patent-pending system, this one called QuickSwitch, lets you push a tab between the lugs, and then simply slide the bracelet or strap out of place. You can do with with your fingernail. Together, QuickSwitch and SmartLink remind me a lot of what Apple did with the steel bracelet for the very first Apple Watch, and it’s good to see watchmakers paying attention. It’s easy to be jaded about these things, but let’s remember that most customers don’t know what a springbar tool even is, and something like this make a huge difference in terms of customer enjoyment.
Adding one more nice touch to things, Cartier lets you pick your strap color when you buy the Santos. Most models come natively on the bracelet (though you can opt out for some of the solid gold models) and then you choose a strap from a variety of leathers to go with your new watch instead of having to take a pre-selected option. My only gripe with the new strap system is that it means you can’t use normal straps on the Santos at all. There’s no springbar system, only the proprietary QuickSwitch connector. Luckily Cartier makes very nice straps in a variety of colors and styles, otherwise this could be a real issue.
On The Wrist
Strapping on the Santos, I couldn’t help but crack a smile. There’s something really charming about its intentionally bold look. I said it earlier, but this is a watch that apologizes for nothing. It’s something people are going to notice, but not in a blinged-out-dinner-plate kind of way. The Santos doesn’t look quite like any other watch, and people are going to want to know what it is. It’s a design that looks good from 10 feet away but rewards closer admiration.
After a day or two, I really settled into wearing the Santos. It stopped having the feeling of a vintage throw-back and just felt right. The way I know a watch is really good is if, during my review time with it, I look down at my wrist to check the time and don’t even notice I’m wearing something different. The Santos felt perfectly at home on my wrist, and the bracelet and case proved extremely well balanced and comfortable over the course of a full day. I could definitely see myself wearing this watch regularly.
Cartier’s straps are perfectly nice – better than most, in fact – and the new QuickSwitch system makes changing them in and out as easy as can be. However, for me, the Santos is a bracelet watch. With the new bezel, it actually looks like a fully integrated bracelet unless you really scrutinize it, and I kind of treated the watch like that while I was reviewing it. To be honest, I put the strap on for the sake of due diligence, and then put the bracelet right back in place.
One of the best things about the QuickSwitch and SmartLink systems is that they make the Santos a perfect sharing watch. When it was announced at SIHH, I got a text from my wife asking if I’d seen it yet and what I thought. That’s not an everyday occurrence, people. Once I had one in the apartment, there was no way I was keeping it off her wrist. Luckily, I had the bracelet sized to her wrist in five minutes, she wore it out to dinner one night, and then I got it ready for another day at the office in less time than it took me to walk our dog.
The medium vs. large debate is, in most cases, a personal one. That’s true here to an extent, but the lack of a date on the medium model makes it a better design in my opinion. Also, the proportions of the Santos work much better in a smaller size. The large actually looks like a blown up version of the smaller watch rather than something that was meant to be that size from the beginning. It’s not bad by any means, but I’ll take the medium all day over the large.
At $6,250 in stainless steel, with both the bracelet and a strap of your choosing, the Santos presents pretty great value in my opinion. There are plenty of watches in the $8,000 to $10,000 price range that don’t exhibit this level of finish, quality, and attention to detail, not to mention the watch’s overall handsome look. However, there are a lot of great stainless steel watches under $6,500 and you’re spoiled for choice if that’s what you’re looking for. I could list options for days, but I’ve tried to distill out three here that I think compete with the Santos in three particular ways.
NOMOS Glashütte Tetra Neomatik 39
Okay, so this watch has basically two things in common with the Santos: It’s square and it has an automatic movement inside. Other than that they’re pretty different. The Santos is much curvier and has a more industrial-chic quality to it, while the NOMOS Glashütte Tetra Neomatik 39 is all clean lines and sharp angles. However, there just aren’t that many square watches out there. The little pops of color on the dial (especially the gold “neomatik” at 12 o’clock) and the stepped lugs add some real depth to this otherwise clean-as-can-be watch. So, if you’re looking for something square but the Santos doesn’t quite do it for you, the Tetra could be a viable alternative.
Rolex Oyster Perpetual 39
This might not be the most obvious comparison here, but stay with me. What I think makes the Santos so successful is that it’s a mid-sized watch that shows just the time, and looks great on either a robust bracelet or a strap of basically any style. The basic Oyster Perpetual does exactly the same thing, despite being round instead of square. Everything about this watch is purpose-driven and there’s nothing here that you don’t absolutely need. There are a few color options, but I’ve totally fallen for the new white option quietly unveiled at Baselworld – it’s a soft white, not a bright white, and it’s the one to go for. I’m also partial to the 36mm size ($5,400), but I know that the 39mm is the most crowd-pleasing.
Cartier Tank Américaine
As far as I’m concerned, the greatest competition the Santos faces is from within its own family. The stainless steel Tank Américaine was one of my favorite watches of 2017 (if not my outright favorite) and I still think it’s a straight stunner. If you want a non-round watch from Cartier, this and the new Santos are the two contenders for daily wear. The Tank is a bit more refined and low-key, while the Santos isn’t afraid to rev its engine a little. Both feature automatic movements, both are available without the date, and both are quintessential Cartier through and through. Between these two you really can’t lose.
$5,100 (medium), $5,750 (large); cartier.com
The Cartier Santos is that rare watch that balances familiarity and ingenuity. It’s a watch that you can be comfortable with from the get-go, while still catching yourself staring at it for a little too long throughout the day. Although I didn’t think I was a Santos guy before spending a week with the latest iteration, the watch won me over and I now firmly believe that it can stand side-by-side with the best of Cartier’s modern watches. It’s not a design for everyone, but that’s part of the charm. If you’re at all intrigued, I highly recommend you give the new Santos a closer look.
Breathing new life into a design that everyone thinks they already know might be difficult work, but with the Santos Cartier has done what they do best: executed subtle but important improvements, kept the the classics as they should be, and made it all look effortless in the process.
The Cartier Santos is available now worldwide. Prices start at $6,250 for the medium size in stainless steel with both the steel bracelet and a strap of your choice. The large 18k rose gold model seen here is priced at $37,000 while the medium two-tone model is priced at $9,100.
For more, visit Cartier online.