Extraordinary Encounters (I): Cartier’s First Wristwatch for Men

Saffronart’s inaugural Jewellery Conference, titled The Timeless Legacy of Indian Jewels, was held on 6 – 7 October 2017, and was the first of its scale in the region. Counting down the weeks to our second conference in October 2019, we bring you some interesting anecdotes that were shared by our expert speakers in 2017. 

The first in this series of Extraordinary Encounters is Francesca Cartier Brickell’s talk, titled “Cartier’s India Connection: Maharajas and the Tutti Frutti Jewels Seen from a Family Perspective,” highlighting innovation and creativity at Cartier. 


Francesca Cartier Brickell speaking at Saffronart’s inaugural Jewellery conference, 6 October 2017. Image courtesy of Saffronart.

The company was established in 1847 by Louis-François Cartier, who was an apprentice to the Parisian jeweller Adolphe Picard, and took over his business upon Picard’s death. For most people, Cartier is synonymous with wristwatches, but in fact, the brand initially began as a jewellery house, and remained one through most of the 19th century. 

When the company was inherited by Louis-François’ three sons – Jacques, Louis and Pierre – they set out to conquer the global market. While Louis supervised the creative side of the business, Pierre and Jacques travelled the world meeting and acquiring clients. Jacques took an interest in India, participating in the Delhi Durbar of 1911, and meeting the Nizam of Hyderabad, who became one of the company’s clients. In time, the brothers expanded the business and transformed it into a globally recognised name.


A recent photo of Maxim’s, Paris, 2012. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

According to Francesca, Louis Cartier used to frequent the now iconic Maxim’s nightclub in Paris, “a place where men met their lovers rather than their wives… [Louis] called it his second office, because by meeting one man there he had two commissions.” 

It was here that Louis met and befriended the pioneering Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont in 1900. Both men often ran into each other at Maxim’s, and it was on one such occasion in 1904, while collecting an award for aviation, that Santos-Dumont complained to Louis about the inconvenience of checking a pocket watch while flying. 

Santos had said to him, “it was hard to check my time during the flight, I wanted to see if I was going to beat my record… but I couldn’t check my pocket watch because I had to have two hands on the steering wheel.” … Louis went away and thought about this and came up with the idea of strapping the small watch to the wrist so Santos could look at it whilst he flew.

This interesting encounter motivated Cartier to manufacture the company’s first wristwatch for men. It was a flat wristwatch with a square bezel that could be affixed to the wrist with the help of a leather strap and buckle. At the time, men primarily used pocket watches, since wristwatches were seen as a feminine accessory. The French word for “watch” was feminine, “la montre,” and wristwatches were usually ornately decorated bracelets that adorned women’s wrists. Cartier had to put in the hours to change the public’s perception of this new invention – beginning by gifting it to Santos-Dumont, who, like a brand ambassador or “the Kim Kardashian of his day,” was photographed everywhere wearing it. The watch became known as the “Santos.”


Alberto Santos-Dumont and the first Santos watch. Image courtesy of italianwatchspotter.com.

The wristwatch was not marketed to the public until 1909, by when it already had a large fan base and was quite in demand. Cartier collaborated with movement-maker Edmund Jaeger to mass produce the wristwatches in 1911. 

In 1917, during the First World War, Cartier crafted another wristwatch called Le Tank, inspired by the new Renault tanks on the Western Front. This rectangular watch featured a chemin-de-fer chapter ring, blue steel hands, and a sapphire cabochon crown. The masculine, tank-like design tapped into the zeitgeist and completed the transformation of the wristwatch being seen as a male accessory.


Cartier Men’s ‘Tank Reversible Basculante’ Steel Wristwatch, ref. 2405. Sold for INR 1.08 lakhs.

Cartier deviated from their original Santos formula in 1978 when they decided to use steel instead of gold, making the watch more affordable. Over the decades, the classic watch has been updated and tweaked, ensuring that it never goes out of style. 

The second edition of Saffronart’s Jewellery Conference, titled Mapping a Legacy of Indian Jewels, will take place in October 2019. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be posting interesting articles in conjunction with the conference. Stay tuned!


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