The Adventurous History of the Wristwatch

Tuesday January 30, 2018 Written by Smith

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Cartier may be synonymous with luxury jewels – but they are also credited with inventing the modern wristwatch. It all began with Louis Cartier kicking back one day with his mate Alberto Santos-Dumont, a pilot who designed and built his own flying machines. The story goes that Alberto happened to grumble about how annoying it was to check his pocket watch while flying. For Louis, the cogs started turning and he wound up designing the ‘Santos’ watch so that his pioneering friend could strap it to his wrist when he took to the air.

The perils of DIY plane-building

It’s one thing to devise innovative ideas on firm ground, but another altogether to strap yourself on to an experimental machine and test out once and for all whether your idea, well, flies. Such was the adventurous spirit of Alberto. He started out designing and flying hot air balloons and dirigibles (similar to what we know as blimps), before inventing one of the world’s first successful airships.

He got his big break back in 1900 when a wealthy oil magnate declared he’d give 100,000 francs to anybody who could fly a machine from the Parc Saint Cloud to the Eiffel Tower and back in less than 30 minutes. So Alberto got busy. His first attempt was a kind of blimp contraption that – to cut a long story short – ended with him literally left hanging from the roof of the Trocadero Hotel. He got started on a new, larger machine straight away. It wound up in some trees.

Third time lucky, the ‘Santos-Dumont no. 6’ took flight and reached the finish line in 29 minutes, 30 seconds. Imagine: something like a blimp, with a kind of gondola hanging underneath it, attached by ropes, and with a basket at the front. It looked something like this…

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When you have to fix your engine whilst it's failing, mid-air

But like any great action-adventure, the victory wasn’t without its own life-and-death stakes. Once he’d rounded the Eiffel Tower and was on the home straight, the engine failed and Alberto had to climb over the gondola rail mid-air, sans safety harness, to restart it. It worked, and he didn’t plummet to an untimely death. Instead, he won the prize, gave half of it to his tech crew and the other half to the poor of Paris, and went on to become quite the man of the moment, with many considering his design to be the first truly successful airship.

Talk about a win-win situation: Alberto got his wish – to tell the time in the skies with ease – and his friend Louis landed an idea which saw him embark on exclusive production of the world’s first ever wristwatches, considered to be a triumph of craftsmanship.

Louis Cartier went on to refine the design, producing the famous ‘Tank’ watch worn by the likes of Clarke Gable, Keith Richards, Yves St Laurent and many more discerning men throughout history. Of course, that wasn’t the end of the innovations. The famous jeweller would go on to create hundreds of significant, wearable items, many of which you can see at Cartier: The Exhibition, at the National Gallery of Australia from March 30. Click here for tickets and information.

The National Gallery of Australia is a supporter of Smith Journal.