JUNE 2021

Cartier Santos: How to Collect Cartier’s Iconic Model

And a look at two of the rarest Santos references you can find

by Tony Traina

Santos-Dumont and the Santos: Looking back, and forward

You probably already know the history. The Cartier Santos-Dumont: the first men’s wristwatch, strapped to the wrist of Brazilian inventor and aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont by his friend and jeweler, Louis Cartier in 1904 after Mr. Santos-Dumont complained about fumbling for his pocket watch while flying his fancy new aeroplanes. The rest, as they say, is history.

It’s fine enough to say that Cartier creates “timeless designs,” and it’s true in many cases. But even the icons -- even the “first men’s wristwatch” -- need a timely update every few decades. So what does Cartier decide to do when the Quartz Crisis and the excess of the 80s combine to threaten the very existence of the maison? Look back to the watch that started it all, of course.

Cartier print advertisement

Enter the Santos de Cartier, introduced by the brand in 1978. Bigger, bolder, two-tone, and on a bracelet, it was everything the original Santos-Dumont never was, and never could be. If Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe met the new era by introducing the world to the “sports luxury watch” -- i.e. the ridiculous proposition that a time-only stainless steel sports watch might cost more than its precious metal counterparts -- Cartier showed what it meant to create a watch like this that was still rooted in its own history. The Santos is Cartier reminding Audemars Piguet that Gerald Genta took that idea to put screws in the bezels from somewhere and that if Cartier did it first in1904 they’ll damn well do it again if they want to in 1978.

The Santos might be a bit, well, ugly for your conservative, “form follow function” mid-century sensibilities, but that’s kind of the point. After the first quartz wristwatch was introduced in 1969, all the function a watch could ever serve was completed by a battery and circuit board the size of a fingernail. Form was the only way a watch could truly stand out. Lucky for Cartier, that’s what they do best.

As if the Santos de Cartier wasn’t enough, Cartier took it a step further in 1987, introducing the Santos Galbee (literally, “curved” in French). When people think 1980s, two-tone, Wall Street, this is the image their mind conjures, perhaps even involuntarily. It’s the “Gordon Gekko” watch, the one that might still be caught on the set of a show like Industry, but that, for some reason, despite these sometimes objectionable associations, you still lust after.

Cartier Santos with curved case and bracelet adapting to the shape of the wrist

While the original Santos from 1978 was very square -- it’s often referred to as the Santos Carree (“square” in French) -- the Galbee has softer curves and lines. Listen, there’s a reason the Galbee (and not the Carree) has become one of the most enduring watches of the past 40 years: it’s a better design than its straight-angled, straight-laced older sister. The rounded angles, curved crystal, and hidden clasp mean the Galbee just wears better than its right-angled predecessor -- it seems to naturally contour to nearly every wrist, no matter the size or shape.

Because of its popularity, the Santos has almost become a victim of its own success: we see a Santos, all day, everyday, making it difficult to stop and see the proverbial forest for the trees, recognizing when a particular reference is worth a few more moments of our attention.

Let’s take a couple references in particular as examples. This has all been a long wind-up on the history of the Santos-Dumont and the Santos, but, as with all things Cartier, the present is rooted in the past, and only in contextualizing a watch can we fully appreciate its appeal.

Santos reference 2961 with rare grey dial

You’ll find the Cartier Santos reference 2961 in all kinds of configurations. As the vehicle Cartier used to re-engineer the Santos into something sporty, it tried all kinds of things. Of course, there’s the instantly recognizable two-tone with gold bezel and screws, but Cartier also produced all-gold and all-steel versions of the Santos, even venturing so far as to produce a platinum version with a diamond-set dial.

Cartier Santos Carree 2961 with slate dial

But one particular effort that stands out is the Santos reference 2961 with a slate grey dial. The dial is totally unadorned, but for the date window at 3 o’clock and a simple Cartier at 12. The grey dial matches the steel case and bracelet. It’s about as simple as a steel watch can get.

If the Santos de Cartier is best understood as a reaction to the Royal Oak and Nautilus, this particular iteration of it feels like a reaction against that reaction. After seeing the steel watch movement for a few years, Cartier finally threw its hands up and said “steel, I’ll show you steel!” and popped in an ice-cold dial to match the case and bracelet.

At just 29mm x 41mm, the Santos is by no means a large watch, even if the bracelet does give it a presence as instantly recognizable as anything side of a Presidential bracelet. But the dimensions are beside the point: this is a watch that demands power, not wrist circumference, to be properly donned. 

Cartier Santos Galbee 2002 Limited Edition

Of course, drawing a throughline from one Santos with a grey dial to another is an obvious narrative, but if Cartier thought enough of grey to do it twice, who are we to cast aspersions?

Cartier Santos Carree 2319 Limited Edition Grey Dial with Roman Numerals

In 2002, Cartier released a limited edition version of the Santos Galbee at the SIHH watch fair, featuring a sunburst grey dial, no date, and lume-filled Roman numerals. Limited to just 2000 pieces, collectors have increasingly come to appreciate the beauty and collectibility of this particular Santos Galbee.

It’s an even more fascinating watch when you consider that many of the models from Cartier’s CPCP collection that have become darlings of the market would have been produced concurrently alongside this piece. While CPCP timepieces have become popular for their commitment to traditional Cartier designs, there’s something new and exciting about this Santos Galbee that a CPCP timepiece could never offer.

But the beauty of this newness isn’t that it’s untethered from Cartier’s history. No, it’s tied up with that history: how Santos-Dumont becomes Gekko becomes a humble limited edition. Even the grey dial -- it’s something Cartier tried before in the 1980s when it first ran through all of its different ideas for its new sports watch. A couple decades later, they trotted it back out in a limited edition. Compared to Cartier’s typical white, Roman-numeral filled dials, it feels totally modern, almost out of place.

Cartier Santos Carree 2319 Limited Edition Grey Dial with Roman Numerals

Like the Santos Carree, the Galbee measures just 29mm by 41mm. But its presence is a bit softer, its curves feeling more natural on the wrist. The grey dial with luminous hour markers is about as sporty and functional as you’ll find from Cartier. Both this 2002 Limited Edition and the reference 2961 with its grey dial feel like a Santos for the collector who actually prefers the original Santos-Dumont: austere, minimal, almost traditional in a way that’s ironic considering the purpose of the Santos was to drag the original men’s wristwatch into the modern age.

Santos: Collecting more than a “power watch”

The Cartier Santos has become one of the most recognizable forms in all of watches: from the traditional Santos-Dumont to the updated Santos de Cartier, and even the down-sized Panthere, there’s something for everyone. But, it’s still divisive. Some people see it and immediately picture Gekko power-posing on his desk, yelling at you to finish whatever it is people on Wall Street actually do and looking at his watch to ask why you weren’t done five minutes ago.

Often, we hear about how watch collectors gravitate towards the “power watches” of the era they grew up in -- a kid who grew up in the 1960s might want LBJ’s Rolex Presidential, as a kid who grew up in the 2000s I’m constantly longing for one of the massive Hublots from Jay-Z’s “big watch” era. But if you grew up in the 1980s, it was all about the Santos. And while the two-tone model defined the era, Cartier iterated on it dozens of times, creating sometimes legitimately beautiful and rare watches that, for discerning collectors, will keep them coming back to the Santos for another century.