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 5 minutes

Cartier Santos: Searching for the Perfect Steel Sports Watch

By Pascal Gehrlein

As a big fan of sports watches with integrated bracelets, it was only a matter of time before the Cartier Santos entered my awareness as a potential addition to my collection. The brand is garnering more and more attention as an affordable and readily available alternative to Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe, and even Rolex. Cartier is also undoubtedly benefiting from the current preference for smaller, vintage models. In particular, I have a soft spot for the pre-2000s Santos models. So, without further ado, join me on my search for the perfect Santos reference and discover what I learned about the French luxury brand and their famous watch model.

Cartier Santos, Referenz 2961
Cartier Santos, ref. 2961

Cartier – a legit watch manufacturer?

Let’s take a little trip back to 1904, a time when wristwatches weren’t really a big deal, at least not for men. This was the era when scientists and pilots were first experimenting with flight. Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont was one of the pioneers who popularized this dangerous and often deadly activity. The pilot turned to his friend Louis Cartier with a special request: a watch he could wear on his wrist in the cockpit. The timepiece needed to be highly legible and robust – a far cry from the ubiquitous men’s pocket watches or delicate jewelry-like wristwatches that women wore. In response, Cartier made Santos–Dumont a wristwatch mounted on a leather strap, simultaneously creating the first men’s wristwatch and pilot’s watch.

The Cartier Santos, but which era?

Of course, the Santos has changed a lot since 1904, and there are now numerous models that bear the Santos name. I began my search by looking at watches from the 1970s, the advent of the steel sports watches with integrated bracelets that are so popular today. The real trailblazers in this category were the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and Patek Philippe Nautilus designed by Gérald Genta. In 1978, Cartier jumped on the bandwagon, altering the design of the Santos to get a piece of the steel sports watch pie, so to speak. He equipped the Santos with an integrated metal bracelet, which gave it a sportier look, and also released skeletonized and two-tone steel and gold versions.

There have been a number of variations in the years since:

Cartier Santos 100
Cartier Santos 100

The Cartier Santos 100

The Cartier Santos’ successor, the Santos 100, was presented in 2004 in honor of the model’s 100th anniversary, as its name suggests. The watch’s contemporary features include its relatively large case size and use of modern materials such as titanium and carbon. The Cartier Santos 100 is a great choice for those looking for a larger, modern version of the Santos.

Cartier Santos Dumont Bild: Zeitauktion
Cartier Santos Dumont, image: Zeitauktion

The Cartier Santos Dumont

The Cartier Santos Dumont was also introduced in 2004 and is the most similar contemporary model to the original from 1904. Similarities include the rounded bezel edges and blue cabochon adorning the crown. This watch is powered by a quartz movement instead of an automatic one, making it more affordable as an entry-level watch. There are numerous options to choose from in terms of bands and case sizes.

Cartier Santos Galbée, Bild: Zeitauktion
Cartier Santos Galbée, image: Zeitauktion

Cartier Santos Galbée

The Cartier Santos Galbée debuted in 1987 and features more rounded edges and finer contours. The softer lines help the case, bracelet, and bezel sit more comfortably on the wrist. This variant is also somewhat smaller than many others.

It’s also worth checking out the skeletonized versions and the Cartier Santos Ronde, which sets itself apart with its round dial and octagonal case.

The Cartier Santos line is also home to several special editions that are popular with collectors and strictly limited in number. One example is the ref. 2961 with a ghost dial, i.e., a gray dial sans indices.

Cartier Santos Referenz 2961
Cartier Santos ref. 2961

Why the vintage Cartier Santos ref. 2961 from the 1990s?

After careful consideration, I opted for the Cartier Santos ref. 2961 from 1993, the year I was born. One of the most important factors in my decision was the case size. Measuring in at 29 x 41 mm, the watch feels only slightly smaller than a 36-mm Rolex Datejust. I think it’s the perfect size for an 18-19 cm wrist. It also makes for a great unisex watch, which I consider a plus. The overall wrist presence is really made by the stunning bracelet, which keeps the watch from looking too small.

The ref. 2961 could be considered vintage (or neo-vintage being from the 90s), but it’s still a robust, technically-sound watch. Its movement, the caliber 077, for instance, boasts a 38-hour power reserve. Despite my love for vintage timepieces, some modern specs never hurt.

Cartier Santos Referenz 2961
Cartier Santos ref. 2961

I was really after that iconic “Wall Street chic” design from the 1980s, i.e., a two-tone case with a white dial, blue hands, Roman numerals, and a blue cabochon. Plus, the ref. 2961 from the 1990s is readily available on the secondary market, making it easier to search and select the perfect watch. You can get some good deals if you settle for a watch in good condition. For something less mainstream, and if you’re willing to search longer and part with a bit more cash, you may be able to get your hands on a ref. 2961 with the aforementioned ghost dial or burgundy (aka Oxblood) dial.

How does the Cartier Santos wear on the wrist?

This watch is incredibly comfortable to wear. Its curves help it nestle into the wrist, as does the easily-adjustable bracelet with its fine links. The watch is flat and very functional as a dress watch. The only things keeping it from being a great everyday watch are the scratch-prone gold accents, including the bezel. That being said, a bit of wear only adds to a watch’s character over time. The date function, on the other hand, is a major plus for everyday use. Overall, this Santos makes a much more robust impression compared to some more delicate vintage Datejusts, for example.

I think the ref. 2961 is the perfect mix of vintage and modern.

Cartier Santos: Summary

Cartier is gradually making its way to center stage in the watch collecting community. It is likewise increasingly being celebrated in pop culture as a stylish alternative to more traditional brands like Rolex. If you’re a fan of steel sports watches like me, you can’t go wrong with the Cartier Santos. In my opinion, the watch offers enormous recognition value, historic character, and an appealing product range. Best of all, you won’t be searching in vain for an affordable listing – what a treat for a keen watch enthusiast.

About the Author

Pascal Gehrlein

Hi, I'm Pascal. After spending many hours searching for my first luxury watch on Chrono24, I ended up visiting their "Legal details" page and saw their headquarters …

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