HANDS-ON: The Cartier Santos Dumont Skeleton Micro-Rotor once again proves the brand is more than just a pretty face

HANDS-ON: The Cartier Santos Dumont Skeleton Micro-Rotor once again proves the brand is more than just a pretty face

Zach Blass

It may come as a bit of a surprise, but I often compare Rolex and Cartier due to a strong commonality. Yes, they are very different brands with very different products. But an element I believe they do share is a very key point. Watch enthusiasts often point out that Rolex practises incremental updates. The Oyster Perpetual framework is so timeless and respected there is no need to fix what is not broken. Cartier, at its core, shares this practice. The brand has always had an innate eye for handsome, timeless, classic, yet forward-thinking design. And therefore much of their catalogue, held against references from a century ago, shares much of the same design albeit incorporating small shifts in millimetres, modern calibres, and modern materials and manufacturing. But, like Rolex, there are moments where Cartier has fun and pushes their own boundaries. Often Cartier is thought of as a brand that makes simply good looking watches, their watchmaking prowess overlooked and underappreciated. With previous highlights like the Masse Mystérieuse and now this Cartier Santos Dumont Skeleton Micro-Rotor, the Maison makes it abundantly clear they are fully capable of making watches that are both highly attractive and highly technical.

The case

When it comes to Cartier cases, one thing I really respect about the brand is their perspective on sizing. The diameters of their watches throughout their catalogue have a very wide range, but within lines like the Santos Dumont they stand in defiance of modern perspectives with what they label small, medium, and large. They stay true to a classic sense, within the Santos Dumont lineup 27.5mm (D) x 38mm (L2L) labelled small, 31.4mm (D) x 43.5mm (L2L) labelled as large, and 33.9mm (D) x 46.6mm (L2L) labelled as extra-large. From today’s point of view, most men would consider 34mm or less rather tiny in diameter and smaller-wristed men like myself find ourselves grateful when other manufacturers size down their lug-to-lug measurements under 47mm.

Cartier Santos Dumont Skeleton Micro-Rotor

The Cartier Santos Dumont Skeleton Micro-Rotor finds itself in the “large” size with a 31.4mm diameter, 8mm thickness, and 43.5mm lug-to-lug measurement. The smaller stature, at least by today’s standards, offers a heightened elegance and presence – it does not require a big form to have a big impact. With their designs being so recognisable, I have always felt that when their watches such as the Santos de Cartier, Tank, or even the Santos Dumont reach their “extra-large” size something feels lost. It is not supposed to look domineering on the wrist. In terms of how it wears, I feel it wears like a Datejust 36 in terms of wrist-presence. Its finish is largely comprised of satin brushing on its top and case sides, with mirror-polished Bs (bezel and bevelling) to add accents of heightened sophistication.  Now, the placement of the bezel screws is not merely an aesthetic choice. It is a functional placement as well. With the skeleton dial, legibility can potentially be compromised. And, if you are like me, I am very anal about hand alignment and ensuring when I set the time, the hours and minutes hands perfectly line up with indexes. As I mentioned in my introduction of this collection: “The bezel screws are situated in a manner that they do, in fact, also indicate where you would need to align your hour hand for 1′, 2′, 4′, 5′, 7′, 8′, 10′, and 11′. Very clever.”

The dial

Cartier Santos Dumont Skeleton Micro-Rotor

While there is no outer minutes track on the watch, where the skeletonised bridges extend out to the dial, they also help indicate points that serve as hour indexes – with lacquer-filled squares at 12′, 3′, 6′, and 9′. So, with a reference clock, if you wait till any given fifth minute of an hour, you can perfectly set your watch in sync. Speaking of lacquer, the lines are quite fine, but throughout the straight-lined bridges you will notice sunken channels that are filled with a dark navy blue-grey lacquer. Across all bridges, however, you will see rich satiation to their topside and fine chamfers executed at their edges. Tilting and turning the watch to various angles, the finishing really comes alive as the rich brushing and bevelling each engage with light. The dial/movement is certainly striking throughout, the most eye-catching element is, perhaps, the large micro-rotor at the 7’/8′ position of Dumont’s Demoiselle. Keep in mind, the genesis of this watch is sporty being one of the first, if not the first, pilot’s wristwatches – designed for its namesake, the famed pilot Albert Santos Dumont.

The strap

When discussing the case earlier, one thing I withheld until this particular section is the subtle camber of the case. The Santos Dumont Skeleton Micro-Rotor, like all Santos Dumont watches, does a great job of hugging and wrapping around the wrist. But, I cannot attribute this wonderful feel in fit solely to the case. It is also hugely in part due to the strap. The stainless-steel model we are largely focusing on, like the other two within the collection, comes with two straps. For the steel model, you receive both grey and blue alligator leather straps that pair well with the tones of the case and dial. They are also each quick-change straps, with underside tabs that can be pulled simply with your thumb to remove and swap with ease at your leisure. And here is where the tangent comes back full circle. The quick change portion of the strap on the underside is framed with a padded material that influences the ability of the strap to flex down. While the idea that the strap cannot flex straight down normally gives me anxiety, here the limit of the angle at which the strap can flex down is perfect by my standard and helps the fit of the strap to the case – offering a sense of integrated design. Effectively, the strap continues the subtle camber of the case, only bending downwards once you extend past the case. This ultimately creates the wrist-hugging effect I personally find very pleasant.

The movement

Cartier Santos Dumont Skeleton Micro-Rotor

As a true skeleton watch, the components have nowhere to hide – everything from the gear works to the balance wheel are on fully display. So, while a two-hander, the watch always feels alive with moving components in view. The Cartier automatic skeleton 9629 MC calibre took two years to develop, a clear challenge being the need to keep the calibre thin enough to maintain the watch’s slimline look and replicating Dumont’s Demoiselle in the right manner that it can best function as an efficient micro-rotor to wind the watch. Its 44 hours of power reserve is certainly not breaking any records, but, considering it is an automatic, its run time can always be prolonged if worn or at least placed on a winder.

The limited edition

Cartier Santos Dumont Skeleton Micro-Rotor

While I wish the stainless-steel model, and even the rose-gold model, had received the lacquered case treatment, unfortunately for buyers it is strictly limited to the 150-piece limited edition in yellow gold. As an owner of the 2022 Watches & Wonders Santos Dumont novelty with beige lacquer over its rose gold case, I am certainly biased in my fondness for the lacquered cases. It is just something you do not really see other brands do, and the manner in which Cartier does it just exhibits their mastery in aesthetics and design. Something I did not know, however, until I visited the manufacture after the 2023 edition of Watches & Wonders is the fact the lacquering, both on the case and in the movements (for all three models), is actually performed by their artisans/watchmakers within their esteemed Métiers d’ Art facility. Therefore, they have to be strategic and careful about what they place within the queue of this small group of highly talented artisans who are keeping methods and traditions at risk of becoming extinct alive. Understandably, the lacquering also adds cost to the final retail price. So, perhaps it is best Cartier left the steel model un-lacquered.

The verdict

Cartier Santos Dumont Skeleton Micro-Rotor

Skeleton watches can feel overly technical in appearance at times and, as a result, only speak to the gearhead base of collectors. The Cartier Santos Dumont Skeleton Micro-Rotor, however, excels by not sacrificing any of the Cartier-class while delving into this more technical look. It still is very much a Cartier watch in look and feel – almost like the designers of today collaborated with the original designers of the Santos Dumont. It is a wonderful tribute to Albert Santos Dumont and the history of the collection, along with being a testament of the know-how of Cartier today. To be both custodians of the past, while also being fresh and innovative, is a very difficult thing. So power to Cartier for being the gold-standard of this tricky balancing act.

Cartier Santos Dumont Skeleton Micro-Rotor pricing and availability:

The Cartier Santos Dumont Skeleton Micro-Rotor collection is now available for inquiries. Price: €27,900 (stainless steel), Upon Request (precious metal)

Brand Cartier
Model Santos-Dumont Skeleton Micro-Rotor
Case Dimensions 31.4mm (D) x 8mm (T) x 43.5mm (L2L)
Case Material Stainless steel, rose gold, or navy-lacquered yellow gold
Water Resistance 30m
Dial Skeleton, with case-tone matching and lacquered bridges
Crystal Sapphire crystal and caseback
Bracelet/Strap Alligator-skin leather strap with case matching ardillon buckle
Stainless steel: Grey and blue leather straps
Rose gold: Burgundy and brown leather straps
Yellow gold: Blue and dark blue leather straps
Movement Cartier automatic skeleton 9629 MC
Power Reserve 44 hours
Functions Hours, minutes
Availability Available now for inquires, navy-lacquered yellow gold model limited to 150 pcs.
Price €27,900 (stainless steel), Upon Request (precious metal)