The Man Who Could Fly: Cartier, Alberto Santos-Dumont, and the World’s First Pilot’s Watch

The Santos de Cartier is not your typical pilot’s watch, but it was not created for a typical pilot. While it carries the classic hallmarks of Cartier watchmaking (roman numerals, sword hands, a sapphire or ruby cabochon on the winding crown) the squared case and bezel secured by eight exposed screws makes the Cartier Santos-Dumont stand out unmistakably.

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Its story, too, marks the Santos Dumont as an outlier. Now, more than a century after its creation, Cartier celebrates the high-flying roots of this classic timepiece with a quartet of limited-editions of the Santos XL. Here’s the story of the watch, the man, and the cutting edge aircraft he created.

A Santos-Dumont wristwatch from 1912. One of the very first Santos created by Cartier. Vincent Wulveryck, Cartier Collection © Cartier

Born in 1904

The Santos de Cartier was created for Alberto Santos-Dumont in 1904. Heir to a Brazilian coffee-growing empire, Santos-Dumont chose to forgo the family business and pursue his passion for invention. Santos-Dumont moved to Paris, which at that time was the global centre of the rapidly emerging science of aviation, and established himself as a leading figure in the race to create a heavier-than-air flying machine. Santos-Dumont also befriended watchmaker Louis Cartier, who would be tasked with creating a watch that could be worn on the aviator’s wrist, leaving both hands free to operate his flying machines. The resulting watch would help Santos-Dumont achieve his high-flying dreams, while helping to establish Cartier as a leading innovator in watch design.

Powered by Cartiers 430 MC manual winding mechanical movement, each of these new editions is dedicated to one of Santos-Dumonts flying machines with a unique combination of materials and an engraved case back.

Le Brésil”

When Santos-Dumont arrived in Paris in 1898, lighter-than-air balloons were the best technology of the day, so he set out to design one himself. Le Brésil” was the result of his efforts, a small balloon with a basket big enough to hold just the aviator himself. Santo-Dumont would go on to design 22 more airships over the course of his career, but this was the one he called his most beautiful creation. In hour of the Brésil, this edition of Cartier’s Santos Dumont features a platinum case and silvered dial decorated with 12 polished metallic Roman numerals, along with a distinctive ruby on the winding crown. Limited to 100 pieces, this watch features an engraving of its namesake aircraft on the case back.


La Baladeuse”

Santos-Dumont designed this flying machine in 1903. A single-seater, it was intended to foretell a future in which aviation became the de facto mode of transport for people around the globe. The day will come when aerial omnibuses will transport tourists and business travellers,” Santos-Dumont wrote, proving just how far ahead of his time he was. Limited to 300 pieces, the Santos de Cartier La Baladeuse” features a yellow gold case, champagne dial and patinated green alligator-skin strap.


The n°14 bis”

A yellow gold bezel on a steel case, anthracite grey dial, and gilded steel hands make a dashing combination befitting of its namesake. Limited to 500 pieces, this watch honours one of Santos Dumont’s most spectacular achievements, an officially verified motorized flight of 220 metres in November 1906. The flying machine itself was a hybrid of a kite and a biplane, with a V8 engine attached to the rear. Flying it required Santos-Dumont to stand on the fuselage, manipulating the machine’s rudder and fins with cables. Given that this airplane achieved sustained flight under its own power while the Wright brothers were still launching their prototypes using catapults, the 14 bis is considered by many to be the first true airplane.


La Demoiselle”

Limited to 30 pieces, the platinum-cased La Demoiselle” is the most exclusive of the new editions and dedicated to one of the most elegant and accomplished of Santosflying machines. Created in 1908, La Demoiselle” was considered to be the best aircraft of its day, and became one of the first aircraft to be mass produced. It heralded an age of aviation which would transform the world.We will sail through the air seeing Europe unfold at our feet like a geographical map,” Santos wrote. “There we will remain, suspended between the stars and the earth.”

Cartier pays tribute to Santos-Dumont’s ever-present Panama hat by equipping this edition with a made-to-measure Panama-weave strap, and a matching woven design on the central square of the dial. In place of the Cartier” signature often found hidden in the numeral VII, this edition proudly sports the wordSantos”.