Santos Dumont role in the history of watchmaking

 By: marcelo : June 7th, 2010-06:40

Some people, especially in Brazil, think Santos Dumont co-invented the wristwatch with Louis Cartier. We know it’s not true, but according to Paul Hoffman, author of Wings of Madness – AFAIK the most comprehensive biography of Santos Dumont – he “…may have been the first civilian to own a wristwatch. Without any doubt, he gave start to the wristwatch fashion for men. Like other items of his wardrobe, the elegant men of the city (Paris) adopted it.”

That’s because Santos Dumont was very well-known in Paris not only as a genius of invention, but also because of his elegance.

Based on that I would like to hear your opinions about Santos Dumont role in the “popularization” of the wristwatch wear/use.




This message has been edited by SJX on 2010-06-09 20:45:39 This message has been edited by SJX on 2010-06-12 09:50:39

Some thoughts

 By: SJX : June 7th, 2010-08:02

Hi Marcelo,

Interesting question.

It is probably a little inaccurate to characterise Santos Dumont as the first civilian wristwatch wearer. Ladies did wear wristwatches in the late 19th century, both Patek and GP boast of having made wristwatches in that era. I think it was Constant Girard of GP who made wristwatches for the German navy in the late 1800s.

Santos Dumont was probably the best known male wristwatch wearer; aviatiors were global celebrities back then, Charles Lindberg had tens of thousands of people waiting for him when he landed in Paris. Nonetheless I would think his influence on the fashions of the day would have been limited to the upper classes. Cartier's clientele too in those days were mostly royalty, nobility and the wealthy.

What did propel the popularity of the wristwatch on a large scale was the First World War, as the men in the trenches found it more convenient than a pocket watch. Today you can still find, fairly easily, early wristwatches of that era made for the military, many with distinctive grilles over the crystal for protection. It was only in the post-WWI period that the sales of wristwatches really took off; vintage watches today provide a clue since pre-WWI wristwatches are exceedingly rare.


This message has been edited by SJX on 2010-06-07 08:12:15

Thanks for the reply, SJX!

 By: marcelo : June 7th, 2010-09:19

Nice insights, especially on the WWI. smile

In fact Paul Hoffman says exactly what you did about ladies wearing wristwatches in the late 19th century and that the militaries were the first men to wear them. According to Hoffman the German commanders used them on the Franco-Prussian War and British officials did the same during the Boers War. That’s why he said Santos Dumont would have been the first (man) civilian to own (even though I think that saying he was the first to “wear” would be better) a wristwatch.


Personally, I am not so sure that Santos really boosted the wristwatch ....

 By: Marcus Hanke : June 7th, 2010-12:49
.... since I assume that he did not wear this watch when being handed over from one distinguished salon and evening society to the next. Most certainly, he wore a conventional pocket watch then. Newspaper photography was an innovation not widespread, since it increased printing costs, so most pictures printed were still of the drawn/cut type, which barely showed small details as a watch. To prove my point, just execute a Google picture search for Santos Dumont: Not a single picture of him shows a watch. Most pictures depict him in a formal suit, with which a pocket watch was the standard accessory. The few pictures portraying him in his leather pilot outfit do not show any watch at all. Therefore, I do not think that Santos Dumont played any crucial role in paving the road to the wristwatch's success. I rather believe that it was Cartier's public relation that emphasized this story much, much later.


Makes a lot of sense, Marcus.

 By: marcelo : June 7th, 2010-13:00

You raised interesting points, like the pictures, that really do not portray Santos Dumont wearing a wristwatch.

Thank you!


I sincerely hope I did not kill a discussion that has potential ....

 By: Marcus Hanke : June 7th, 2010-23:32
... since for me, the connection between Cartier and THE first pilot watch is still not known well enough with the majority of people interested in watches.

This message has been edited by Marcus Hanke on 2010-06-07 23:33:06

Absolutely not, Marcus.

 By: marcelo : June 8th, 2010-07:14

The points you raised were really interesting smile


Excellent point

 By: Martin Green : June 8th, 2010-02:39

Both World Wars probably did more for the upcomming of the wristwatch then Santos Dumont, but like you already pointed out I think that the fact that Santos Dumont wore a wristwatch in itself is the most significant fact. That makes the Santos indeed the first true pilotwatch and (again) Cartier as a true pioneer in watchmaking. Modern marketing has the tendency to portray these facts in the most glamerous way, often inviting the customers to create a more grande picture in their minds about these watches then the facts might justify. However, I rather have it that they do this about historic facts then that fushion mumbo jumbo that I hear so much about recently. But I guess that is just a matter of personal taste.


I disagree

 By: SJX : June 8th, 2010-08:07

I do not disagree with your conclusion, which is plausible, but rather with the reasons.

I do not know Santos Dumont well enough, perhaps the biography Marcelo mentions would indicate, to say for certain if he wore his wristwatch on the ground. Because it was convention to wear pocket watches does not mean he stuck to that. Given his feats in the air I'd assume he was not the ordinary sort.

And even though newspaper photography was not widespread, newspapers were and that was good enough to spread news, perhaps of a wristwatch.

Remember that the Prince of Wales (later King Edward) did not do the bottom button of his jacket and that has since become de rigeur in men's wear. This occurred in around the same era as Santos Dumont's aviation adventures so it is highly possible Santos Dumont was one of the factors, but certainly not the only reason, behind the rise of the wristwatch, especially given the incredible adulation aviators received in those days.


Some facts about Cartier and early wristwatches

 By: SJX : June 8th, 2010-08:00

Hi Marcelo,

As I wrote in my earlier post, wristwatches in the late 19th century were predominantly for ladies as jewellery, rather than functional objects. The first ever Cartier wristwatch dates to 1888 and it was a ladies' watch on a bracelet.

Santos Dumont's watch was the first made for a civilian user and the first was of course a special order for Santos Dumont. So strictly speaking the Santos Dumont was the first pilot's wristwatch.

Some notable points about the Santos Dumont and earlier wristwatches,

- The GP watches for the Kasierliche Marine was a government order to equip military personnel and the watches were not sold to officers;

- Early wristwatches were made for women, including Patek, Cartier etc;

- If the watches from Constant Girard were the first men's military wristwatches, then the Santos Dumont was the first civilian men's watch, or custom civilian men's watch to be precise, and;

- The Santos Dumont was square - it was the world's first form wristwatch.

Thanks to Christopher Kilaniotis at Cartier for his thoughts on this.


This message has been edited by SJX on 2010-06-09 00:41:25

And an additional interesting point of information...

 By: SJX : June 9th, 2010-00:40

The Santos Dumont was the first wristwatch with integrated lugs.

Other early wristwatches were often pocket watches with wire lugs soldered on or in some sort of leather wrist bracelet as below.

Early wristwatch

Credit: National Maritime Museum, UK

Thanks for Mehdi Sqalli at Cartier for this perspective.


This message has been edited by SJX on 2010-06-09 00:41:51

Very nice!

 By: Martin Green : June 9th, 2010-00:50

From when dates this Pocket-Wristwatch?


Mid 1880s. [nt]

 By: SJX : June 9th, 2010-00:53

Thank you... ::))

 By: MiniCooper : June 10th, 2010-12:24

Sorry for not commenting your post before, SJX...

 By: marcelo : June 10th, 2010-18:38

And thanks for bringing info directly from Cartier. smile

Nice to have the confirmation that Santos Dumont’s watch was the first made for a civilian user.

I want to thank you and the others who replied, helping to make this post and Editor’s Pick. smile



Three Santos Dumont models to illustrate the topic

 By: Geo : June 12th, 2010-03:05

Over the years there have been quite a few variations of the Santos Dumont watch.
An IMHO stunning version was the platinum model, from 1997, with salmon dial and Breguet hands,
created in a limited edition of 90 pieces, for the 90th anniversary of the Santos Dumont watch.

Pictured here are from left to right, platinum Santos Dumont, from the Collection Privée series,
pink gold Santos Dumont from 2004, with special order dial,
Santos Dumont 1913, yellow gold re-issue, of 100 pc, released in 2004, for the 100th. anniversary of the Santos,
Collection Privée Cartier Paris,

New this year, is of course the Santos Dumont Squelette, with the open worked dial and new 'in house' movement.
I hope SJX will post one of his photos of this watch, so you can see the differences.


Great comparison Geo

 By: SJX : June 12th, 2010-09:51

and here are some photos of the Santos Dumont skeleton.


This message has been edited by SJX on 2010-06-12 10:14:56

Nice illustration, Geo.

 By: marcelo : June 12th, 2010-15:43

I'm not a fan of big watches, but the pink gold is really beautiful.


Hi Marcello

 By: Geo : June 12th, 2010-22:56
These models here are pretty small.
The current Santos Dumont here pictured in the middle, in pink gold is 44.5 x 35.9
and the Santos Dumont Squelette, SJX posted is about that same size.

I meant it was big compared to the other pictured over the scale, Geo.

 By: marcelo : June 13th, 2010-13:35

But I think 44.5 x 35.9 would feel quite right on my wrist smile


Mar celo

Breathtakingly beautiful!

 By: Martin Green : June 14th, 2010-00:00

Excellent picture as always Geo! Beautiful trio!