By the time you read this edition of our head to head series you’ll have already decided that there’s room in your lifestyle for the classic square Cartier bi-metal watch on a bracelet. And why wouldn’t you? Bi-metal watches, which combine gold and steel elements, are absolutely back on trend and it was Cartier who practically invented (or at least popularised) the look with these two strikingly similar models.
Both of these watches can trace their story back to the early days of Cartier. Along the way they enjoyed a revival in the 1980s and both are now enjoying another wave of popularity among watch fans for whom the Cartier name, the 1930s, the 1980s, plus a touch of gold and glamour are the perfect package on the wrist.
Two similar looking watches from the same manufacturer, with similar price points and spec. But each has a very individual story to tell and that’s where I’m going to look for their differences in helping you decide which one to favour when you buy.
First off, let’s get the word ‘iconic’ out of the way. It is so overused in the world of watches. But in the case of the Santos and Panthère it is pretty much appropriate. One of the things that fascinates me about Cartier watches is how enduring their designs have been. Whilst these watches were arguably the defining watches of the 1980s, they’re still on-trend today and pretty much unchanged in the form we can see them in here.
Santos was developed in 1904 for the Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont.
The case was inspired by a square pocket watch Cartier had produced, but that highly legible dial design speaks directly to the art deco style that would define the 1920s and 30s.
It’s said the screws that secure the glass were intended to recall the legs of Gustave Eiffel’s tower. In 1978 the watch was redesigned with the addition of an integrated bracelet and the use of a part-gold case and bracelet went on to influence watch designs well into the 1980s and beyond. Indeed, the Santos bracelet might be as recognisable as the watch itself.
The history of the Cartier Panthère began with Jeanne Toussaint, the legendary creative director. Toussaint, a Parisian style icon, became acquainted with the jeweller Louis Cartier and soon gained the nickname of "La Panthère".
The Panthère name and motif has adorned luxurious jewellery and classic timepieces by Cartier. Indeed the recent refresh of the range was received with wild acclaim. Back in 1980s, under the inventive leadership of Alain-Dominique Perrin, Cartier took a new creative direction in response to the quartz crisis of the time and a novel and modern timepiece was born.
Having borrowed styling cues from the Santos such as the square dial, visible screws on the bezel and integrated lugs that blend into the bracelet strap, its re-naming as Panthère was, according to Cartier, due to the supple articulated link bracelet mimicking the movement of a panther as it slinks through the jungle.
That super comfortable slinky bracelet and screw down bezel lend the Panthère an allure that retains a high degree of elegance. To my eye the Panthère is an unashamedly feminine watch, but not a girly one. Still bold, still sophisticated, this the a perfect ‘sling-on’ watch for every day, yet one with more than enough gold accents to take it easily into the evening.
At 29mm x 40mm the Santos is a little larger than the Panthère, and wears bigger too. Both watches have a satisfying heft to them, which is surprising and gratifying in relatively small pieces like these. Those extra millimetres make the Santos a strong contender for unisex wear. And the screws along the full length of the bracelet give the it a slightly more robust, purposeful look.
Verdict. A split decision. More people could wear the Santos due to the fact that men will enjoy it too. But the bracelet on the Panthère wins out for all day morning-coffee-to-cocktail-evening duties.
We should say a few brief words about the movements in these watches. They’re both driven by quartz. So what you’re getting here is reliability, a very passable degree of accuracy and peace of mind when it comes to servicing. Sure, quartz doesn’t appeal to purists, but given that these modern iterations of Santos and Panthère were conceived in the 1980s when the watch industry was grappling with the development of quartz, it might be seen as entirely fitting that they are authentic to the time.
Verdict. A draw.
The first high-fashion, luxury, affordable quartz watch? The virtual birth of bimetal as ‘a thing.’ Influential in a way that few watches have ever been since. Appealing to modernist sensibilities and retro-aware millennials alike. Is there another watch with more all-round appeal of the Cartier Panthère or Santos? I daresay there may be one or two, but these Cartier are one of the very first you’d think of.
Picking a winner between two watches that are actually near-identical was never going to be easy. Truly, this head-to-head can only be decided on your wrist and in the beauty you’d rather behold.
So I’ll leave it up to you, other than to say that size matters and details matter. Perhaps the back story matters to you too? (It does to me). In the end what you’re choosing between here are two pieces of horological jewellery and experience tells me that that is a very personal decision.