In 2018, Cartier redesigned the long-running “Santos de Cartier” and delivered something approaching the perfect all-around watch. And in 2021, that Santos still does it all; a sports watch and a dress watch; a modern watch and a vintage homage; a bracelet watch that converts to a strap; an affordable watch that looks twice its price. Today’s Cartier Santos is the best product for the money – at any price – from a Richemont Group luxury watch brand.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are in Paris in 1904. Wrist watches aren’t a thing. And neither, for the most part, are aviators. But Brazil’s Alberto Santos-Dumont is committed to flying at a time when the endeavor requires the kind of nerve that customarily gets men of this era committed to institutions. Louis Cartier, at the peak of his powers, has been commissioned to design a functional pilot’s watch – the world’s first – for his friend. But unlike the contemporary Wright brothers in America, Santos-Dumont is determined to fly without wings.

Cartier’s challenge is to create a pilot’s watch for a dirigible captain. In a time when the future form of air travel remains in flux, enormous rigid airships compete with fixed-wing aircraft to claim the mantle of safety and reliability. And in 1904, the body of evidence suggests that heavier-than-air machines are prodigious killers of men; at least airships can stay aloft when the fragile internal combustion engines of the day fail. Santos-Dumont, like his German counterpart, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, envisions a network of airships spanning continents and oceans. But the craft are a handful – literally – to fly.

Cartier resolves to craft a watch that can be wielded and read without resort to pockets or fingers. Santos-Dumont requires both hands to operate the levers and wheels of his mammoth machines – almost like a flying locomotive. A wrist-mounted watch on a leather band becomes the solution. In the process, Cartier – the man and the brand – creates both the first Cartier wristwatch and the first “pilot’s” watch of any kind.

Fast forward to 2018, and the Cartier Santos model line required a colossal makeover. While the massive 2004 Santos 100 series sold well in the go-go 2000s, tastes changed in the intervening fourteen years, and Cartier’s wristwatch lineup had exploded following roughly 20 years of investment in mechanical watchmaking. Cartier’s original wristwatch needed a comeback, and deft design did for the Santos what “Pulp Fiction” did for John Travolta.

The current Cartier Santos is a pleasure to inspect, adjust, set, and wear. At roughly 40mm wide and only 9.4mm thick, this is a compact platform for a modern men’s sports watch. Even lug-to-lug, it’s under 48mm, and the integration of the bracelet creates the impression of a seamless band around the wrist. Even wrists as small as 14cm are welcome to play.

While the original Santos de Cartier was equipped with a strap – and in 1909, the world’s first deployant clasp – this generation of Cartier’s aviator was designed from the outset with an integrated bracelet.

But there’s no need to commit to a strap or links; the Santos “Large” gives you both. Each steel watch is delivered with both a full steel bracelet and a leather strap with a deployant clasp. The Cartier “QuickSwitch” lug triggers are a descendant of the system launched on the 2002 Cartier Roadster, and swapping with this system requires less than fifteen seconds. While this type of arrangement is rare, it’s not unprecedented.

Cartier’s SmartLink, however, is an original. With nothing more than a fingernail’s pressure, the removable links of the Santos bracelet can be removed or reassembled. For something composed of innumerable miniscule moving parts, the SmartLink bracelet feels preternaturally solid. Given Cartier’s scale, the importance of the Santos re-launch, and the product-testing gauntlet SmartLink certainly faced before market, I would wager that this modular link system cost more to engineer, validate, and manufacture than any entire Greubel Forsey model, ever.

Aesthetically, Cartier resolved to keep what worked from the prior 114 years and retire the elephantine proportions of the Santos 100. A compact case with a bit of lug-to-lug camber sits smartly on the wrist. The Santos’ signature raised bezel now dips along with the lug profiles at six and twelve with flow reminiscent of a waterfall; the iconic “bolt” motif remains as an echo of 1904, but the industrial-grade hardware of the Santos 100 is gone. A slim case and bezel structure sports well-judged applications of satin and polished steel.

Several dials have been offered since the 2018 Santos reboot, but three standard choices confront the buyer. The first is a classical silver stamped-guilloche cadran with black Roman numerals and solid blue broadsword hands. The second launched in 2019, and it pairs a gradient metallic blue fade with luminescent hands and polished metal applique Romans. Finally, a 2020 update added a fully luminescent – hands and dial – options in black with white print. A skeleton dial can be had, but that watch is priced exorbitantly and is manual wind; it’s too different to compare to the standard Santos.

Mechanically speaking, Cartier met and exceeded expectations. Given the fortune spent on the brand’s La Chaux-de-Fonds manufacture since 2000, an in-house caliber was a given. The Cartier 1847 MC is a drop-in surrogate for the ETA 2892-A2, so its 42-hour power reserve, automatic winding, and quick-set/stop-seconds feature profile do not excite.

But Cartier quietly included formidable antimagnetic resistance courtesy of a paramagnetic ring. Cartier representatives have been quoted attributing 1,200 gauss resistance to this system; Rolex’s Milgauss is named after its stated resilience of mille – 1,000 – gauss. While the current Rolex Milgauss almost certainly exceeds this level, seeing this redoubtable figure attributed to a sports-casual Cartier is startling. 100-meter water resistance means that the original pilot’s watch is equally appropriate for seaplane pilots.

If ever Cartier’s reputation as a vendor of jewelry and female accouterments has served to bury the merits of a standout mechanical watch, that time is now. But look beyond the obvious, and reap the rewards; there’s a hidden gem within the fire engine-red walls of Cartier’s corporate labyrinth. In an era when watch collectors are Googling the price of redundant organs to buy integrated-bracelet steel sports watches, one of the best is available for the taking.

For prices starting at $6,500, big pilots, small pilots, and armchair aviators can own Richemont’s finest pilot’s watch – the first pilot’s watch. Cartier’s first wristwatch, the Santos, remains its – and its parent company’s – finest.