SINGAPORE (July 2): In the 1987 movie Wall Street, Michael Douglas’ character Gordon Gekko famously wore a solid yellow gold Santos de Cartier watch. While Gekko was a symbol of 1980s corporate greed, there was no doubt he also projected an image of power, success and excess.

Today, 31 years later, that image has fallen out of favour. Conspicuous consumption has been replaced by conscious consumption. And Cartier, too, has moved with the times.

At the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) 2018, it revealed the new Santos, a collection of 12 timepieces with refined proportions, updated engines and useful features. In short, it is a watch that feels right for the men and women of today

“Today, the expression is more about modernity and elegance,” offers Jerome Metzger, regional managing director, Cartier South East Asia & Oceania, whom I meet at the Cartier boutique in Ngee Ann City. A dedicated Santos exhibition ran at the boutique from May 28 to June 10.

“[The wearer] is a well-travelled, confident person,” he says. He or she is also likely to be a busy, multifaceted individual who flits seamlessly from venue to venue, occasion to occasion, and continent to continent.

Such an individual would appreciate the two new innovations on the bracelet: QuickSwitch and SmartLinks, both of which have patents pending.

The QuickSwitch system allows wearers to swap a bracelet for a leather strap quickly and easily, without the need for tools. All they have to do is push a tab between the lugs to unfasten the bracelet/strap, and click a new one in place.

With SmartLinks, wearers are able to adjust the length of the bracelet, again without the use of any tools. They can use any small, pointed object that is available: a paperclip, toothpick or pen. Just push a button on the link to pop the pin out, remove the pin(s) and desired number of links, and refasten the bracelet.

Metzger: Today, the expression is more about modernity and elegance​

Forty years young
 “It’s not a major innovation in terms of watchmaking,” admits Metzger, “but it is a major innovation for the Santos.” Indeed. Considering that this year marks the 40th anniversary of the first Santos of the modern era — where the square case of the 1904 original was fitted with a steel bracelet — it seems apt that the bracelet is being rejuvenated.

Metzger says the new systems mean that owners can tailor their watches to suit any occasion.

“In Singapore, I think it’s great to have a metal bracelet during the day, to fight the heat and humidity, while it’s always a pleasure in the evening to wear a leather strap because it’s more elegant. You can also have different coloured straps to match your outfit.”

By comparison, the 2004 edition, known as the Santos 100, is more brazen, with a thicker case and stronger lines. With the release of the 2018 version, the Santos 100 has been discontinued.

In a society where gender roles are shifting, and a generation has embraced Millennial Pink as its defining hue, hardboiled masculinity almost seems out of place. In response, the 2018 Santos sports a thinner case with curvier bezels. It also has a softer, less obtrusive, less “look-at-me” aesthetic.

Full disclosure: I am the owner of a Santos 100, as is Metzger. He was drawn to the watch’s design and mechanics; I was captivated by its design and history. And what a history that is.

As pocket watches were the norm at the turn of the 20th century, Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos (left) turned to his friend Louis Cartier (right) for a solution. In 1904, Cartier came up with a watch that could be worn on the wrist by means of a leather strap and a small buckle. ​

First among equals
At the turn of the 20th century, pocket watches were the norm. However, they were impractical for situations that involved driving or steering. Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos faced such a dilemma. During the early years of aviation, piloting mechanisms were manual. How could he check the time while keeping both hands on the aircraft controls?

He turned to his friend Louis Cartier, who in 1904 came up with a solution: a watch that could be worn on the wrist by means of a leather strap and a small buckle. Cartier named the watch after his friend and the Santos-Dumont went down in history as not only the first pilot’s watch but also the first men’s wristwatch. (Wristwatches were already in existence then, but they were mainly worn by aristocratic or wealthy women).

Santos-Dumont himself was known for his flamboyant personality, and was somewhat of a celebrity among Europe’s fashionable set. It was largely thanks to him that the idea of men’s wristwatches caught on, at least on the continent.

Fast forward to 1978, when Cartier updated the Santos with a striking two-tone (stainless steel and yellow gold) case paired with a stainless steel bracelet. As ubiquitous as steel watches are today, in the 1970s they were considered revolutionary. In fact, it took a while for the watch-buying public to accept the idea that a watch could be hewn from a non-precious, utilitarian metal.

For the Santos, however, utilitarianism had been encoded in its DNA from the start. The watch was created out of necessity, a fact celebrated by the eight exposed, functional screws on its bezel. On the steel bracelet of the 1978 edition, each link bore a pair of screws, extending this leitmotif.

Cartier retained the square case with rounded corners, railway minute track and Roman numerals of the original. These motifs became part of the watch’s signature design code and helped catapult the brand into the global consciousness thanks to their instant recognisability.

New guise
It is easy to spot a Santos, as in movies such as Wall Street, The Punisher (1989) and Clear and Present Danger (1994). This made the business of updating the design a challenge, as is the case whenever an icon undergoes reinvention.

Metzger says the brand “updated the design with new proportions and redesigned the bezel in order to create a seamless line between the case and the bracelet. [It] also significantly improved the comfort, functionality and performance of the watch.

“The top and bottom parts of the bezel have slightly evolved (to be rounder). We worked on the proportions of the case to improve the comfort. So it now fits any wrist. It caters to the modern lifestyle and ease of movement.

“From a performance point of view, the new Santos has a new in-house movement, with improved accuracy and improved resistance to magnetism because, as you know, we’re surrounded by a lot of magnetic fields. It has new components and an antimagnetic shield that guarantees resistance to the magnetic fields we’re exposed to every day.”

The automatic Calibre 1847 MC — the number is a reference to the brand’s year of founding — which first appeared in the Clé collection in 2015, also powers the new Santos range.

“The other thing is water resistance. The watch is now water-resistant to 100m. In terms of quality, every single watch goes under 200 hours of quality control before exiting the manufacture,” Metzger says.

The collection comes in two sizes, medium (35.6mm diameter) and large (39.8mm). The latter comes with a date window at six o’clock. Both sizes are available in steel, pink gold, yellow gold or bimetallic (steel and yellow gold). You can choose to recreate the late-1970s with the latter, or channel Gordon Gekko with the full yellow-gold version.

For a more avant-garde approach, consider the skeletonised models (large) in either steel or pink gold. These are powered by a different movement, the manual-winding 9611 MC or 9619 MC, respectively.

New ambassador
I still love my Santos 100 and would not trade it for the new one, especially now that the former has been discontinued. I am curious, however, if other Santos owners feel the same way, or if they will add a new Santos to their collection.

Since the new Santos is designed to appeal to the current generation, has there been a positive response? “We cannot share figures, but we have seen both cases in our boutiques and retail partners,” says Metzger. “For some people, it is two different watches, so Santos 100 owners have the opportunity to acquire a new design. On the other hand, we have a lot of new clients because it’s an iconic design.”

Certainly some interest can be attributed to the brand’s new spokesman, Hollywood actor Jake Gyllenhaal. The celebrity-packed launch party held in San Francisco in April helped, too.

Gyllenhaal is not your typical Hollywood leading man in the vein of, say, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Pratt or Dwayne Johnson. He is better known for portraying cult and offbeat characters than for heroic or romantic leads. Think Donnie Darko (2001), Bubble Boy (2001), Jarhead (2005), Brokeback Mountain (2005), Nightcrawler (2014) and Okja (2017).

This quality is what drew Cartier to him. “The maison likes to collaborate with celebrities and artists we are inspired by, based on their talents and work expression. Jake Gyllenhaal represents authenticity, boldness, audacity and a pioneering spirit that is relevant to the current generation.

“The watch is different, so it was important for us to choose someone who is different from the standard ‘heroes’. He was willing to step out of his comfort zone to do different projects, different movies with different directors, and also on stage in the theatre. He’s not your classic Hollywood actor,” Metzger says.

A party like no other
The theme of the launch party, held in San Francisco’s Pier 48 on April 5, was “bold and fearless”.

Breaking with convention — as Louis Cartier did in 1904 — the brand adopted a refreshingly novel concept: the Cartier Social Lab, a three-day series of panels and discussions with speakers including actors Idris Elba and Freida Pinto, chef Daniel de la Falaise, artist/writer/curator Neville Wakefield, architect Yansong Ma, industrial designer Yves Behar and photographer David LaChapelle.

With topics such as Fearless, The Thrill of Invention and Bold Connections, the speakers were invited to share their experiences and ideas that reflected the party’s theme and, by extension, the Santos’ values.

“The idea of the Cartier Social Lab is to gather innovative, creative people and to have this platform where they can have meaningful conversations, share ideas, and create bold connections,” explains Metzger. In essence, it was TED Talks for the party set, with its attendant glitz and glamour.

“The Cartier Social Lab was a very successful format. Most of our customers and partners had already discovered the watch during SIHH, so the idea was to convey the bold and fearless spirit of the watch.

“San Francisco is key in terms of innovation and a pioneering spirit. The party was considered the best party in the city in the last 10 years! It was very experiential, with a part linked to music, a part linked to taste, a part linked to [audiovisuals] with Jake [Gyllenhaal]’s movie. It’s the same spirit as the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards [that was held in Singapore on April 26].”

Metzger attended the party with actor Henry Golding, who plays the lead role in the upcoming film Crazy Rich Asians. “Henry, through his multicultural background and multitalented personality, is bold and keen to explore new horizons. He was a good person to have on board for this occasion,” Metzger says.

While there, Golding attended an audio session curated by Larry Jackson, head of content at Apple Music, and LaChapelle. He also sat in for a session titled “A Bold Future”, hosted by writer/environmentalist Stewart Brand and WIRED magazine founder Kevin Kelly. He was also part of a communal lunch where chef de la Falaise teamed up with artisan perfumer Mandy Aftel to create dishes that married scents and tastes.

The success of the event has spurred Cartier to make the Social Lab a recurring feature. “We would like to continue [with this format],” says Metzger. Here is to more such bold and fearless initiatives from the brand.

Timothy Chiang is a design junkie through and through, believing that everything from a doorknob to the entire building needs to display thoughtful design. He lives for meeting design luminaries.