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A Stainless Steal: The Cartier Santos De Cartier Skeleton

Cartier is one of the most important watch manufactures of the last 100 years. Not only have they produced numerous iconic designs like the Tank, Crash, and Panthère—which have proven to be timeless—but they also practically invented the men’s wristwatch. Prior to Louis Cartier designing the Santos wristwatch for his aviator friend Alberto Santos Dumont in 1904, there had never been a purpose-built wristwatch. If you wanted a watch on your wrist, you modified pocket watches. With the Santos Cartier created the first wristwatch, sports watch, and aviators watch and changed horology forever in one fell swoop. 

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The Santos model lives on as the Santos De Cartier, and recently—2018—the watch line received a full revamp with new models and some modern design improvements. This update included the watch we have here, the Santos De Cartier Skeleton reference WHSA0015 in stainless steel. To me, this is the most luxurious and extreme embodiment of the Santos ethos. The addition of the skeleton dial simultaneously makes the watch more technical and elegant. While that seems like it shouldn’t be possible from a design perspective, Cartier makes it look easy. 

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Cartier ensured the watch retained its stylish aesthetic by being very thoughtful about how it introduced the updates to the new generation of Santos. The skeleton variant especially was implemented very purposefully. Consider that on most skeleton dials, the approach is to remove the dial and parts of the movement to expose as much as possible for your viewing pleaser. Instead of taking from something that existed, Cartier decided to go the extra mile with this timepiece designing the caliber 9611 MC for the specific purpose of being skeletonized. This allowed them to have total control of the bridge shape and placement, optimizing the visual experience from all angles.

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The finishing on the movement/dial gives off a utilitarian first impression but reveals refinement upon closer inspection—much like the watch as a whole. The bridges are vertically brushed on top with sharp reflective edges there to add a touch of elegance. The bridges are also shaped like roman numerals adding a legibility advantage not often found on skeleton dial watches. This is one of the main benefits of designing the movement to be a skeleton from the jump. Visually stunning, the in-house 70-hour manually wound movement allows you to have your skeleton dial cake and tell the time easily too. 

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The case is where we see the most visual connection to the original Santos. Cartier knows better than to change an iconic design too much. Measuring 39.8mm wide and 9.08mm thick, this is, of course, bigger than the original but is well-sized by modern standards. With the white dial variant of this watch, I would select the medium size case, but Cartier made the right choice going with the large case size with this model. The skeleton dial tones down the watch’s visual impact, and the large sizing gives all the elements room to breathe. Larger case size aside, you still have the rounded square case and bezel with the exposed screws that make this timepiece immediately recognizable as a Santos. 

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While the overall design remains constant, Cartier has made some improvements that modernize the watch. The case has some excellent finishing and uses the contrast of brushed and polished surfaces excellently. The case curves beautifully to the lugs and has bold, sharp beveling. The bezel now follows the case shape better and protrudes slightly to meet the bracelet making for a more integrated look. While the bracelet visually plays second fiddle to the dial and case, it is really well executed. The brushed links contrast with the polished screws beautifully, and the links flow and move as one giving off a stainless steel snake vibe.

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Despite how perfectly integrated the case and bracelet are, they’re actually effortless to separate. The bracelet utilizes what Cartier calls the quick switch and “SmartLink” bracelet system. With no tools, one can resize or swap out the bracelet—to the leather strap that’s included—all with the simple push of some thoughtfully concealed buttons. This functionality couldn’t be easier to use and is the best implementation of a bracelet adjustment and removal system I’ve seen. It’s also a great example of bringing a classic design into the future without compromising the traditional aesthetics. 

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This is a really underappreciated timepiece in my opinion, and I think it provides excellent value in its category. The Santos De Cartier Skeleton is one of the best modern options for a go anywhere, do anything ultra-luxury wristwatch. It has loads of history behind it, and the design couldn’t be more elegant while also having sports watch durability. Its skeleton dial adds an offbeat flavor that makes it stand out from the crowd but doesn’t diminish the watch’s refined appearance. It’s also not a copycat watch like so many other stainless steel integrated sports watches not named Nautilus or Royal Oak. In fact, those watches are a bit derivative of the Santos and cost multiples more.  I’ll leave you with this, if you spotted two people, one with a Nautilus and the other with this Santos De Cartier on their wrist, which person would you be more interested in talking to?

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