Richemont’s biggest brand, Cartier, is best known for the consistency with which it nails the essence of luxury — here’s a prime example — but another, arguably even more fun side is when this beast of a company takes a more playful approach. Why? Because it tends to be a rather special blend of entertaining details, fascinating history, and artisanship. A case in point is this watch, the Watches & Wonders 2023 novelty Cartier Santos-Dumont Micro-Rotor.
A tribute to pioneering Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont and his 1907 aircraft, the Demoiselle, the Santos is remarkably special because it is among the oldest watch collections ever in continuous production. When Santos asked Louis Cartier to create a wristwatch he could wear while flying his early planes, the 1904 Cartier Santos became one of those wristwatches that helped popularize the genre among men who at the time considered wristwatches women’s jewelry. The Santos watch is a year older than Rolex itself, another brand that played a defining role in making the wristwatch more common and accepted.
The star of the show certainly is the miniature and stylized reproduction of the Demoiselle over the solid platinum micro-rotor that replenishes the 44-hour power reserve of the Cartier Santos-Dumont Micro-Rotor watch, but there is so much to be discovered. Cartier has embraced lubrication-free watch movement components at a relatively early stage and has experimented with a great variety of outlandish mechanical movement developments — just think of the vacuum-sealed ID2 from over a decade ago that relied, according to the brand, on not silicon but “carbon crystal” movement parts. Today, you have to look closer at the image directly above and discover a special wheel at the bottom center: Those special spokes hint at Cartier using UV-LiGA or similar technologies for more advanced component geometry, along with a similarly complex escapement wheel near the top center.
On the wrist, the Cartier Santos-Dumont Micro-Rotor (reference CRWHSA0032 in stainless steel, as seen here) wears small, but not petite. It measures 31mm-wide but, as always, that measurement should be taken with a grain of salt with square-cased watches. The polished bezel adds to the presence of the watch, as do the relatively long lugs and almost ridiculously large crown with the trademark Cartier cabochon sticking out like the pommel on an over-decorated sword of an 18th-century royal. It’s gaudy, borderline tacky, but also an essential element of Cartier watches.
The case measures just 8.8mm-thick, which is not ultra-thin by any stretch of the imagination but slender enough to allow the Santos-Dumont watch to offer dressy proportions and a tendency to crawl under a cuff or sleeve. On a personal note, as impressive as many of the complicated and complex-looking watches of the past few decades were, many measured twice as thick (and nearly twice as wide, sometimes), it is great to see a watch with elegant dimensions sport a complex look. This watch is tiny when compared to some of the cool but huge watches we had gotten used to seeing since the dawn of the new millennium. We need not even look that far: This Cartier Santos Skeleton from 2018 was a beast on the wrist in comparison, even though it had a less complicated and less refined movement.
The caseback view is as stunning as the front, with a tiny maze of bridges and jewels showing the way of the going train, i.e., the series of wheels that connect the mainspring barrel with the escapement and ultimately the balance wheel which is tucked into the corner of the square movement. It is a seemingly random architecture when compared to some others from the last few decades where brands strived for absolute perfection and symmetry. The Santos case might look complex with all the various surface treatments and the many tiny screw-heads sticking out but on the Cartier Santos-Dumont Micro-Rotor, it actually serves as a straight-forward frame for a very busy-looking movement.
The dial, although we can hardly call it that, is actually the dial-side plate of the movement that carries a number of jewels in some places and drilled holes in others to reveal jewels installed in plates at a lower tier of the 9629MC Cartier caliber. The dial has strips of various widths cut into the metal and then filled with black lacquer, these serve as the hour markers at 9, 10, 11, 12, 3, 4, 5, and 6 o’clock. For the rest, some guesswork will be required which is a bit of a shame because it appears as though Cartier’s design team could have added at least some little dots or other creative solutions so that the Santos-Dumont Micro-Rotor watch carried a full set of hour markers.
We’ll close on another fascinating detail of the Cartier Santos-Dumont Micro-Rotor which is the fact that it is a regular production model in stainless steel and rose gold, only the yellow-gold version is limited to 150 pieces. And while €27,900 including taxes (roughly $30,000 once the lower sales taxes are taken into consideration) is a huge amount of money, it is at least what one would expect for a fully open-worked Cartier with as many bespoke details and a handful of cutting-edge movement components as we are seeing here.
Again, the Cartier Santos-Dumont Micro-Rotor watch (CRWHSA0032) is priced at €27,900 including taxes and should be available starting this summer. You can learn more at the brand’s website.