96054 Cartier Paris Santos Dumont Ultra-Thin

The Santos Dumont was designed for aviation yet, in my head, it belongs permanently on the French Riviera, casually cruising the cliffs between Monaco and Cannes in an Aston. Some watches exude a certain presence that you can’t get away from. For example, a 5513 is no-nonsense, here to get the job done, brutally masculine. A Speedmaster says you’re a space nerd, but probably a quite likable person not too worried with appearances. A Journe mostly says ‘I’m better than you, f*ck off,’ unless it’s an Elegante, which says ‘I’m waiting in line to be able to say I’m better than you’ (I jest, relax, love Journe). And a Richard Mille is a please mug me sign for Youtubers (that one’s actually not a joke). But vintage Cartier, pre-CPCP, is what I most associate with casual old money, whether a mid-century Cintrée or this Santos Dumont, it’s evergreen on the Côte d’Azur like the opening scene of Fukunaga’s No Time to Die.

A bastion of utility with elegant design from the modern era, the Santos Dumont is what a pilot’s watch looks like when dressed to the nines. The ‘Dumont’ here is important, a deliberate naming choice made by Cartier to reference the full name of Louis Cartier’s pilot friend who, in 1904, needed a wristwatch instead of a pocket watch. Where the Santos has an integrated bracelet and larger case these days, the Santos Dumont harks back to that original design more closely . . .including the bezel screws, which were made to echo the construction style of the Eiffel Tower. It’s been off and on production for most of the last century, but the mid 70s saw this ultra-flat 26x36mm case which oozes elegance at just 4.5mm thin including crystal.

But there’s also a very poignant angle to the Santos Dumont which I feel is overlooked, quite apart from being the first Cartier wristwatch. After breaking many records and contributing significantly to developments in aviation, Alberto Santos-Dumont spent decades tirelessly campaigning against using airplanes as weapons of war, having seen airplane’s coming of age in WW1. In many ways, the Santos and its many variants could be said to be the only peaceful aviator’s watch, a paciflieger. I am perplexed that Cartier does not lean more into this side of the man’s story in marketing his eponymous watch. He viewed the airplane as in part his invention and its use in the World Wars tortured him in later life. The Santos Dumont means many different things to different people, but I think we can all agree it is an immense history tied up in one beautifully proportioned case. And it’s a dish best served vintage.

This example comes out of Japan, and as is often the case from watches of that part of the world, it’s been cared for. The case has a beautiful oxidation in some places, which gives a strong inclination of zero polishing. There’s light and even surface wear commensurate with age, almost entirely superficial. It has a Paris signed lacquer dial with no visible damage or cracks. Most examples you’ll find from this time have have service dials without this signature, it’s lovely. The watch is running well and comes with a Cartier inner/outer box, papers, and guarantee card. It’s a value and a winner.