Cartier: An Origin Story

We rewind back to the very beginnings of Cartier’s most iconic collections, the Santos, the Pasha and the Tank Asymétrique.


Get It Right: Cartier de Santos vs. Santos-Dumont

Ok, let’s get this out of the way so there’s no confusion. A Cartier Santos, or Santos de Cartier, is a watch on a bracelet featuring screws on both its bezel and its bracelet. While it was clearly derived from the Cartier Santos-Dumont — the very first known luxury men’s wristwatch designed for Alberto Santos-Dumont by his friend Louis — it was actually conceptualised by a legend in the watch industry named Alain-Dominique Perrin, Cartier’s CEO from 1975 to 1998.

Understanding that he was at the helm of Cartier during a turbulent era beset by both the Quartz Crisis as well as the OPEC Oil Embargo and the global economic recession of 1973 to 1975, he knew he had to think out of the box.



Riding on the massive hit represented by the Le Must de Cartier watches — the brand’s lower-priced diffusion line— launched the year before in 1977, he introduced a revolutionary new wristwatch named the Santos in 1978 with the objective to connect the design language of Cartier to a whole new generation.

Perrin wanted to do something truly audacious in the context of Cartier’s history and that was to make a watch in steel. However, he always wanted the watch to allude to the grandeur of Cartier, and he understood that the modest yet strategically applied use of gold elements could both elevate the perceived value of the watch and also create a bold and easily identifiable visual signature.

As such, he fixed a gold bezel to the watch contrasted by steel screws; and then, in a brilliant design stroke, used the inverse pairing of gold screws on the steel bracelet, and ushered in the era of the two-tone dress watch.


The result was one of the most iconic watches in history and a runaway success for Cartier. In 1987, with Perrin still at its helm, Cartier introduced the Santos Galbee (a word that literally means curved or shapely), which slightly enlarged the dimensions of the case and softened the edges of the watch to give a highly appealing sensual shape.

This is the watch in yellow gold that Michael Douglas wore in Wall Street and which became synonymous with wealth and style during the economic boom of that decade. Considering the fact that the movie was only released that year, this means that the film had access to a prototype far before the launch.

I had the pleasure of working for Alexander Kitman Ho, the film’s producer, and I recall him saying, “Everything in the film was meticulously selected by Oliver Stone. The cigars were Davidoff, but they had to be Cuban Davidoff. The suits were made by the incredible Alan Flusser. The watch had to be a Cartier.”

While it remains something of a mystery exactly how the film got its hands on a prototype, the yellow-gold Santos Galbee remains to this day one of my favourite men’s dress watches — which means I was sure to love the return of the Santos in 2018 because it pays faithful tribute to my beloved Santos Galbee even while updating it perfectly to suit the needs of the modern customer with a larger case size.


With that settled, let’s also get this straight: any watch that is named a Santos-Dumont harks back to the watch created in 1904 and differs in design from the Cartier Santos; it is a dress watch and always has a leather strap like the original.

A Santos-Dumont is thinner and its bezel is shaped differently from that of a Santos. Think about it this way: it is a timepiece created for a flâneur or boulevardier, in contrast to the Santos’s sporty-chic nature. What is amazing about the Santos-Dumont is that despite it being created over a full century ago, its design is as urgently relevant today as the year it was born.

The Santos- Dumont is also one of those seminal Cartier watches that other classic Cartiers have been derived from, such as the 1978 Santos and the 1983 Panthère. The Panthère is, in fact, almost identical to the Santos-Dumont with the addition of crown guards and the integration of its beautiful brick link bracelet.

The Santos-Dumont was commercialised in 1911 by Louis Cartier, featuring a Jaeger movement, and soon became the club membership badge for the world’s most elegant men. From a design perspective, it featured a bezel with exposed rivets (inspired by those found on the Eiffel Tower); this feature is also found on the 90th-anniversary watch (launched belatedly in 1996) and the CPCP watches from 1998.

It should also be noted that the 90th-anniversary watch with its salmon dial, Breguet hands, platinum case and 36mm-by-27mm case diameter made in just 90 examples, is one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful watches in existence.

The Santos-Dumont was updated and launched in 2019 with a quartz movement, and in January 2020, that same watch reappeared — but this time, with a manual-winding mechanical movement. It is interesting to note that since its reintroduction in 2019, the bezel of the Santos-Dumont features small screws as opposed to rivets.



What is the purpose of this history lesson? Well,it is to demonstrate that while Cartier has always been a tremendously successful and storied maison, it hits particularly high marks when helmed by strong, innovative and insightful leaders.

And, since 2016, what is clear based on the consistent excellence of the watches it has launched, is that its CEO has a particularly strong creative sensitivity. Because each time Cartier launches something like the Santos, the Panthère, the Santos-Dumont or last year’s Pasha, they’ve gotten it right.

I suppose it comes as no surprise, considering current CEO Cyrille Vigneron is a man who can enjoyably hold forth on the nuances of Horowitz’s interpretation of Listz’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, or the dynamic tension between acidity and fruit in Coche-Dury wines.

My point is that he is sensitive to the details of beauty — which is why it’s no surprise that he and the Cartier watch team collectively created one of the strongest, most commercially compelling and just all-around beautiful collection of watches for 2020, in particular with his launch of the new extra-large limited-edition versions of the Santos-Dumont, each named after one of the famous Brazilian aviator’s famous aircrafts; the unveiling of a reinterpreted Tank Asymétrique; and the staging of the return of the iconic Pasha.


Since we’ve been on the subject of the Santos- Dumont, let’s look at these first. The most evocative and physically the largest of these watches is named “La Demoiselle”. This has a 46.6mm-by-33.9mm platinum case with an exceptional dial that is ivory coloured and features a guilloché pattern inspired by Santos-Dumont’s omnipresent Panama hats.

The watch also features black Breguet hands, a black chemin de fer minute track and the model’s signature Roman indices. A nice touch is the ruby cabochon set in the large sized crown which is used to power up the manual-winding calibre 430 MC based on the 2.1mm-thick Piaget 430P. The selection of this movement allows the case to measure a very lithe and elegant 7.5mm in thickness. It will be made in a limited edition of 30 examples, comes with a second fabric strap with a Panama hat weave pattern, and costs CHF41,600.

The Santos-Dumont limited editions are also expressed in three more versions all featuring 43.5mm-by-31.4mm cases. The 100-piece platinum Le Brésil version features a slate-gray dial, alligator strap, a ruby cabochon for the crown, and costs CHF17,800. The magnificent 300-piece La Baladeuse comes in a yellow-gold case with champagne dial, comes with a green alligator strap and costs CHF13,600. And finally, the 500-piece two-tone Le 14 Bis features a black dial and costs CHF6,850.

La Demoiselle

Le Brésil

La Baladeuse

Le 14-bis

On the subject of the Santos, let’s also take a quick look at what I find to be a highly-appealing, all-black version of the Cartier Santos — that’s the sporty-chic watch on metal bracelet — launched last year. Like the dynamic tension found in Coche-Dury wines, somehow, I like the stealth element introduced to this model. I also like that Cartier has made a rubber bracelet that faithfully replicates the look of the watch’s metal bracelet right down to the addition of its signature screws. And yes, this watch also comes with an alligator strap, but it is still a Santos and not a Santos-Dumont. It measures 47.5mm by 39.5mm, with a thickness of 9.38mm, has an automatic movement, and costs CHF7,600 for the ADLC model.

Pasha de Cartier

Now that we’ve talked about the Santos, let’s switch gears to discuss the all-new Cartier, which feels a lot like the 1985 Pasha de Cartier designed by the great Gérald Genta. The Pasha gets its name from the Pasha of Marrakesh, Thami El Glaoui — aka “Lord of the Atlas” — who, in the context of the ’30s, was one of the richest men in the world.

Interestingly while his father was a qaid of Telouet, his mother was a slave. He ascended to his position when his elder brother passed away prematurely. His fortune, acquired through his shareholding in French mines and other businesses, was estimated to be USD50 million at the time, which would roughly translate to USD880 million today.

In 1932, he commissioned a waterproof watch from Louis Cartier to wear while in his swimming pool, which Cartier delivered to him in 1933. Now that’s where the mystery begins, because the whereabouts of this original watch are unknown, and even the configuration of the watch is unclear.

Now let’s go back to the ’80s when Alain-Dominique Perrin was at the full height of his creativity. It was clear that there was a market for waterproof luxury watches, with timepieces such as the Ebel 1911 Classic Wave rising in popularity and the solid-gold Rolex Submariner taking a dominant stance.

Cartier took the mythology of the Pasha and asked Gérald Genta to make manifest a vision of this timepiece. And in 1985, the Pasha de Cartier was born. It was a massive 38mm watch with a thick case, stylised centre lugs with cross member-like end pieces and a very cool screw-down cap that covered the crown and provided water resistance.

This system was actually derived from water-resistant military watches from the ’30s and, as such, was a wonderful stroke of creativity. The Pasha was, of course, a massive hit and was soon made in a truly heady variety of models: the Pasha Perpetual Calendar (using a Génta movement); the Pasha Seatimer with a rotating bezel; the Pasha “Golf”; and my personal favorite, the Pasha Grid, which features a grid-like protection over the crystal which was also gleaned from military watches of the era. This, on the delicate brick “Figaro” bracelet in yellow gold, was a work of ravishing, opulent decadence.

The point I’m making is that there were a great many Pasha models to draw from. “We actually went to our vault and laid out all the different examples from the model’s history,” says Cyrille Vigneron. “In the end, we focused on a watch that very spiritually aligned with the original from 1985 with its Arabic numerals, square minute track dynamically offset by the round case, and the signature blued sword- shaped hands.”

The new Pasha is just that: an essential and iconic watch that is perfectly aligned with its predecessor, now enlarged to 41mm, and featuring a date function in a nod to contemporary pragmatism. It has a quick- change bracelet and strap, is available in steel and yellow-gold versions with automatic movement 1847 MC, and costs CHF6,300 (steel) and CHF16,500 (yellow gold). There are also fantastic skeletonised versions, where the square minute track and Arabic indices become functional bridges that I love.

This is made in a manual-winding, time-only version in steel that costs CHF26,000, and two flying tourbillon versions: one in pink gold that costs CHF94,500, and one in white gold set with diamonds that costs CHF136,000.

Tank Asymétrique

The ’30s, despite all the political and economic upheavals, was a time of profound fecundity for Louis Cartier. In 1936, he created a watch named the Tank Oblique to suit the needs of drivers.

The parallelogram-shaped case featured a dial that was canted diagonally, so that when your hands are on a steering wheel at nine and three o’clock, the dial is oriented upright. The watch was later rechristened the Tank Asymétrique and became one of the most coveted and recognisable timepieces thanks to its total originality in design.

In 1996, the Asymétrique was revived by CPCP, Collection Privée Cartier Paris (a project helmed by the brilliant Hélène Poulit-Duquesne, now CEO of Boucheron, to pay tribute to Cartier’s historical icons) in two limited editions of 100 watches in platinum and 300 watches in yellow gold with Arabic indices. These watches adhered to the proportions of the original watch and are small in comparison to modern tastes; like the original watches, they did not feature the central lugs.

In 1999, Cartier created two sets of watches produced in left-handed and right-handed versions, each in a 99-piece limited run to commemorate the Macau Handover. The watch, in a smaller size, had a Roman-numeral dial but with an applied 18K gold “9” above the Arabic-numeral “9” to form “99”. All of these watches have the dimensions of 23mm by 32mm.

Then, in 2006, Cartier unveiled a new CPCP version in 150 pieces in yellow gold, with a Roman-numeral dial this time in a larger size and with a center lug, which I prefer. Note that there were also a few platinum unique watches made in this configuration. Today, these CPCP watches are some of the most avidly collected amongst Cartier fans.





For 2020, Cartier has brought back the Asymétrique, but now in an all-new extra-large size measuring at 47.15mm by 26.2mm. What is appealing is that Cartier has returned to the original Arabic-indices dial.

After all, if a watch’s raison d’être is legibility while driving, it stands to reason that Arabic indices are the way to go. All these watches feature the manual-winding calibre 1917 MC. They are made in pink gold, yellow gold and platinum, in 100 examples each, priced at CHF27,200 (pink and yellow gold) and CHF30,800 (platinum).



They are also made in skeletonised versions where, again, the square minute track and indices become the bridges of the movement. These are made in pink gold, platinum and platinum with diamonds and cost CHF60,500 (pink gold), CHF68,500 (platinum) and CHF96,000 (platinum with diamonds).

That ends the round of Cartier’s 2020 novelties, a thoroughly thrilling selection of new watches with excellent connectivity to the brand’s history, complemented by appealing modern sizes.




January 2021


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