The First Pilot’s Watch Ever Is Also One of the Best Dress Watches Ever

The innovative Cartier Santos was the first pilot’s watch.

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Welcome to Watches You Should Know, a biweekly column highlighting important or little-known watches with interesting backstories and unexpected influence. This week: the Cartier Santos.

At the turn of the 20th century, wristwatches were women’s jewelry and “aviation” referred in no small part to airships. With the advent of the first aircraft and a watch made for a fearless pilot and inventor, however, all this was about to change.

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Before the first airplanes, the Brazilian-turned-Parisian Alberto Santos-Dumont designed and built flying machines of the ligher-than-air, gas-buoyed variety. Somewhat eccentric and certainly not risk-averse, he was also famous for publicly demonstrating his inventions himself. And he was buddies with jeweler-to-royalty Louis Cartier.

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Alberto Santos-Dumont

This era often looks stiff and unsmiling in its sepia photographs, so it can be easy to forget that men like Santos-Dumont were nothing short of daredevils. Exposed to the elements high in the air, he could be found at the helm of experimental contraptions often filled with explosive hydrogen. You wouldn’t want to have to fish a handheld watch from a pocket in this kind of situation, right? Wanting a timepiece that would leave his hands free for the controls while flying, he went to Cartier.

The year following the Wright Brothers’ famous flight, the first pilot’s watch was born in 1904: Dubbed by Cartier the “Santos,” the watch was small (by modern standards) and square. The exact watch worn by Santos-Dumont himself is lost, but surviving early examples show basic elements that are present in today’s Santos and other Cartier watches.

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Cartier Santos from 1912

Original features included the famous cabochon crown as well as Roman numerals and railroad track-style markers. The distinctive exposed screws on the bezel (preceding the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak by many decades) could be seen to reference airplane rivets. At the time of its introduction, its square shape helped emphasize its wrist-worn purpose and set it apart from round pocket watches.

This is the watch that would have been on Santos-Dumont’s wrist as he made the 1906 flight of his 14-bis Oiseau de Proie aircraft, considered by some to be the first “true airplane,” rather than the Wright Flyer. This is just part of what makes Santos-Dumont, who never patented his inventions in the belief that they would benefit humanity, a significant and truly fascinating character.

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A modern Santos with clear callbacks to the original

The Cartier Santos’s most unusual feature, however, was that it was a men’s wristwatch. Though uncommon, the idea wasn’t altogether unheard of. Soldiers at the time are reported to have been repurposing pocket watches for use on the wrist, and there were even some companies that sold them that way from the factory. However, many early wristwatches were essentially just pocket watches with wire lugs soldered on, whereas Cartier’s out-of-the-box, integrated design was built from the ground up as a wristwatch — and this was game-changing.

Whether or not you consider the Cartier Santos the “first wristwatch,” it was most certainly the first pilot’s watch. Pilot’s watches today tend to be associated with military watches of several decades later with highly technical or practical designs that focus on legibility. The Cartier Santos is nothing like them (indeed, Cartier seems incapable of producing anything other than the most elegant of watches), but this just makes it feel all the more unique among modern watches.


In Santos-Dumont the men’s wristwatch had a worthy ambassador, but it didn’t catch on right away, and was initially looked upon with disapproval. The Cartier Santos was eventually made available to the public (around 1911), but it was another Cartier watch that would help give the wristwatch mainstream appeal. Seeming to build upon the Santos’s angular design, the rectangular 1917 Cartier Tank watch helped wristwatches become a 20th-century phenomenon.

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A modern Cartier Santos from 2018
Henry Phillips

Today, the Santos is a core, popular collection among Cartier’s watches. It’s seen a range of variations over the years, from quartz, automatic and hand-wound versions to skeletonized avant-garde iterations. A sub-collection called Santos-Dumont retains an elegant feel, while the Santos itself was reinvented in 1978 as a sport watch with crown guards and sometimes even a steel bracelet. Among the brand’s overwhelmingly formal watches, the Santos has a masculine appeal.

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Just some of the modern editions of the Santos.

As late as 1916, wristwatches were, according to a New York Times article, considered a “silly ass fad” in the United States (though they caught on a little earlier in Europe), but perceptions were beginning to change. Of course, the rest is history: Cartier’s 1904 watch was ahead of its time, as was the adventurous pilot who wore it, and it’s one of the most unique and important watches still produced today.

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