It usually takes two things for a watch to become an icon: a delightful story and an even better design. Cartier excels in the latter, as is proven by the masses who have lusted after its timeless trinkets for years. However, when it comes to the Santos de Cartier, there is quite a tale to tell. Along with an instantly recognisable face, it is the reason we’re still talking about it more than a century after its birth.

The story begins in 1904 when Brazilian inventor and aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont decided that fishing out a pocket watch shouldn’t be on his list of priorities while trying to control a rudimentary flying machine. He turned to his jeweller friend Louis Cartier for help, who set about designing a timepiece for the wrist. Audaciously deciding on a square case in a time dominated by round ones, and featuring a pronounced bezel that left its rivets exposed, Cartier created the first men’s wristwatch (and the first pilot’s watch) in the world.

You would think that such a novelty would be an instant hit with the rich and stylish, but it would be another seven years before Louis Cartier revisited the idea for the public. During this period, wristwatches were still considered jewellery for women, so it was only after Cartier’s first unofficial brand ambassador gained greater worldwide acclaim – with feats like being the first person to be filmed flying a plane while wearing his special watch – that the Santos-Dumont design took off.

(Related: The most eye-catching timepieces of the season)

In 1911, it became the initial mass- produced men’s watch – offered in gold and platinum. It took a few more decades and the unexpected success of the new luxury sports watch category in the late 1970s for Cartier to give stainless steel a shot.

And the Santos de Cartier was the perfect candidate to stand up to the raging popularity of the Royal Oak and the Nautilus. Like them, Cartier’s design wasn’t round, had exposed screws and looked superb with a metal bracelet. In 1978, it unveiled the Santos de Cartier in bi-metallic gold and steel with the signature rivets extending into its brand-new bracelet.

Santos de Cartier
The limited edition Cartier Santos-Dumont Extra Large watches.

But even the best designs need tweaking to suit changing consumer tastes. In 1987, the collection was redesigned to have curvier edges and more comfortable dimensions. It also adopted a new name: the Santos de Cartier Galbee. The brand also fitted many Galbee models with quartz movements, following the quartz revolution in the 1970s and early 1980s.

The Santos continued to evolve through various colourways, complications and sizes. Some even deviated from the formula with TV-shaped cases, sharp-edged bezels and even the removal of exposed screws. However, on the 100th anniversary of the first watch in 2004, the signature look was back – and bigger – in the Santos 100. With a 41mm diameter for the large model, a thicker bezel, modern case materials like black PVD-coated steel and titanium, and a return to mechanical movements, the Santos 100 was a watch for a new generation. And then it went quiet.

(Related: Luxury fashion brands are making watches worth taking seriously)

It seemed the brand saw no need to build on a collection that was doing well on autopilot. But with no new watches to meet unwavering demand, Cartier knew it was time to give the people what they wanted. In 2018, the Santos de Cartier made its comeback with 13 new references.

Accompanying a sleeker look were innovations like new automatic in-house movements, a patented QuickSwitch system that allows for easy swapping between the watch’s straps and bracelets and SmartLink technology that enables you to adjust the bracelet length without tools. A year later, Cartier overhauled the entry-level Santos-Dumont collection, fitting it with high-efficiency quartz movements and a dressy aesthetic that recalls the aviator’s original watch.

Santos de Cartier
Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont.

This year, the collection welcomes five new models including – for the first time – the option of diamond-set bezels for the steel versions. Two limited editions celebrate Alberto Santos-Dumont’s flying machines: the platinum Monte-Carlo, limited to 100 pieces, and the pink gold and steel No19, with a production of 500 pieces. Both feature Arabic numerals – uncommon for a Santos – and have an engraving of the corresponding aircraft on the caseback.

Even if Cartier decided that this would be the last Santos for a decade, we’re confident it will remain relevant until its next reincarnation. Such is the enduring legacy of one of the most important world-firsts in watchmaking.

(Related: These are Rolex’s new releases for 2021)