HISTORY OF AVIATOR AND PILOT WATCH. PART ONE: THE UNEXPECTED SANTOS BY CARTIER
Who was the first man flying an airplane? It depends on what we name an airplane: if an airplane is a device which flies and it’s heavier than the air, then American Wright brothers Orville and Wilbur were the first ones who in Kitty Hawk (NC) back in 1903 achieved the feat.
If an airplane, instead, is a device heavier than the air that takes off by itself from the ground, flies and lands, then the Franco-Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont was the one who made the first flight in paris back in 1906.
The difference is that Wright’s Flyer I flew because it was launched by using a catapult. And the difference of course also depends on who you ask: for a European the flight of Santos-Dumont is undoubtedly the starting point, while for an American the Wright brothers were the pioneers. For the rules set at the time by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, Santos-Dumont is the first man who flew on board a device that fulfilled what precisely those rules set.
Whoever the inventor is according to technical or geographical point of view, we may agree that the first pilot or aviator watch is the one that at that very moment one or the other carried in his pocket. Not to mention that several decades before both flights, humans flew balloons, and the "pilots" of those balloons wore pocket watches. But we have to set a starting point, so we’ll just talk about airplane pilots.
So back in Paris in 1906, let’s figure out that our hero Alberto Santos-Dumont after his successful flight went to Maxxim's or any other fancy restaurant to celebrate his achievement with some pals, and among them, the jeweler and watchmaker Louis Cartier. At some point the aviator told him that it was difficult checking his watch while handling the airplane controls ... et voilá, Cartier created the first ever aviator watch: the Cartier Santos, paying tribute to his pilot friend.
It was simply a wristwatch. Some decades before Patek Philippe made wristwatches, but they were exclusively used by the ladies: gentlemen used only pocket watches, so the Cartier Santos developed by Louis Cartier along with movements maker Edmond Jäger was basically a wristwatch with a leather strap to be checked with the hands on the aircraft flight controls.
The Cartier Santos became almost as famous as Santos-Dumont: the celebrity of Alberto made his Cartier a success since 1911 (when it went on sale), and became a "must have" for every elegant Parisian gentleman (and from any other place) who wanted to be fashionable, at a time when novelties and technology developed quickly.
Meanwhile, Santos-Dumont continued developing his aircrafts and making exhibitions all over Europe. His N.19 was in 1908 the first ever airplane on sale, with a wooden frame, open fuselage and a choose of three different engines. It was delivered in two weeks and by 1909 reached 120 km/h.
Thus, Alberto's aircraft and Louis' wristwatch were a great success that anticipated the future success of aviation.
Shortly after, aviators like Louis Blériot, Henri Farman or Roland Garros achieved great success, by flying across the English Channel to name just one. And shortly after too, WW1 started, which would have a dramatic importance in the development of aviation, and of course also in the pilot and aviator watches. We will talk about this in the following chapters.
Today more than 100 years later, the updated Santos by Cartier is still on sale: you can find it made of yellow, white or pink gold, platinum, stainless steel, carbon fiber, ceramics...
We may say that its squared shape is no longer fashionable: before WW2, aviator watches (and most of the rest) followed the round shape, since the specifications of the Ministry of Armament of the 3rd Reich set the specifications for observer’s watches (B-Uhren), of which we will speak extensively.
Even so, a Cartier is always a Cartier, and although few today relate it to aviation, it is fair to recognize that this classic-looking watch was the first pilot's watch as we know today that category of watches.