One of the most talked-about timepieces at major Genevan watch fair Watches & Wonders in January, the Santos-Dumont Skeleton by Cartier features a micro-rotor in the shape of a lightweight plane. This accent is a tribute to Alberto Santos-Dumont, the Brazilian aviator for whom Louis Cartier designed the first Santos-Dumont wristwatch.
It is a whimsical, meaningful, and refined addition to the timepiece’s skeletonised form. But the motif could have been binned — if Cartier’s image, style and heritage director Pierre Rainero had not listened to his intuition.
In an interview with The Peak at Watches & Wonders, the 65-year-old Frenchman, smartly dressed as always in a suit and dark-rimmed glasses, shared that he had doubts when the plane motif was first proposed by one of the designers in his team. “At the beginning, when we were discussing the design, I said, ‘Are you sure it should have this?’ I thought it might be a bit too obvious.”
His doubts were erased, however, when he saw how the design would be elegantly incorporated into the movement, such that the movement would be the first thing a viewer would notice rather than the plane itself. Said Rainero, “Our brains can be too full — you have the intellectual part and the reptilian one, you know? The reptilian part is sensitive to emotions and sensations, and you have to trust your emotions.”
And when it comes to Cartier creations, who better to listen to their instincts than someone who has overseen all the French luxury brand’s contemporary designs — as well as its communications, strategic matters, and heritage department — for the past 20 years? (Rainero took on the role of image, style and heritage director in 2003, but his career with Cartier actually began in 1983 as its international advertising director.) Here, he gives us his insider perspective on the brand’s latest key timepieces.
Cartier has been focusing on reinventing its classic designs. This year, Cartier brought back the Tank Normale under the Cartier Prive limited-edition collection. Why this Tank?
I pushed for it a lot myself. (Laughs) We started [the Cartier Prive collection in 2017] with the principle of revisiting the great classics of Cartier, like the Cloche, the Tonneau, and the Tank Cintree. I thought about the Tank Normale because when I first joined Cartier in the 80s, the Tank Normale was available as part of the main range, but I missed the opportunity to buy one.
That watch was different from this one; it was totally polished, and not equipped with a metal bracelet. So I thought that at one point we should revisit the Tank Normale.
What makes the Tank Normale special to you?
Firstly, it’s to my taste, so that’s something personal. Also, I like its square shape and the balance of the volume with that square. Then, there is the fact that the Tank Normale was actually the first design of a Tank in 1917. To me, the Tank is like the final evolution in the search for a pure form. If you start with the Santos in 1904, the Tonneau in 1906, the Tortue in 1912, and then the Tank in 1917, you see the evolution in the search for purity in the shapes.
We like how the Baignoire Mini bangle sees the oval-shaped watch placed on a slim bangle instead of its usual strap.
I tried it on just now. The size of the bangle and the volume of the watch are a bit small for me, but it is a shape that I could wear. It was an idea from the [watch-design] studio. There are links between our various studios.
In jewellery, Cartier is very well-known for its bracelets, like the Juste un Clou, Love bracelet, and Clash bracelets. So on the watch side, they thought about creating a bracelet like this. This watch is like a piece of jewellery.
The Santos collection welcomes additions with green dials this year.
Those are one of my favourites, because green is my favourite colour. I usually wear the Large model, but for this one I’ve been trying the Medium, because I think it is elegant, especially with the green dial. But I think I still prefer how the Large looks and fits on my wrist. The ideal situation would be to have both. (Laughs)
An exceptional offering this year is the Santos-Dumont Skeleton, with its plane-shaped micro-rotor.
It is incredible. Do you know why we use the skeleton concept so much at Cartier? First of all, it’s about transparency, which is in line with our history with designs like mystery clocks (classic clocks with hands that look like they are floating between two pieces of glass).
It also illustrates our philosophy in terms of how, aesthetically, something functional can be transformed. The movement is designed to serve the aesthetic we want: We don’t just accept a movement as it is. We transform it so it can be seen.
We like how the plane micro-rotor pays tribute to the Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont, for whom the first Santos-Dumont wristwatch was made in 1904.
The idea came from someone in the studio. At the beginning, when we were discussing the design, I said, “Are you sure it should have this?” I thought it might be a bit too obvious. But I then realised that the design works because the plane is not centrally placed, so it’s not the first thing you see. The first thing you see is the movement, which is well-built, and it’s only on the second look that you see that it’s a plane. I like that the plane adds a layer of discovery and surprise.
Our brains can be too full — you have the intellectual part and the reptilian one, you know? The reptilian part is sensitive to emotions and sensations, and you have to trust your emotions.
The Clash Unlimited bracelet watches look very balanced, even though they possess many different shapes and colours.
This is a good example of how we work with the objective of creating something totally new, using Cartier’s philosophy and vocabulary. When you look at the different elements that compose the design, everything is linked to the historical creations of Cartier — the beads, the Clous de Paris pyramids, the way we play with volumes.
And when you touch the bracelet, you discover that the beads are mobile, not fixed. So it’s all very Cartier, but the result is something that looks totally different.
Tell us about the new violet gold used in the Clash Unlimited.
It’s the result of many years of research. Developing new coloured golds is very difficult because of technical reasons. We found that this specific violet shade could match other colours of gold very well. We used it in the Clash Unlimited first because its design made it logical for us to use that nuance of colour.
What are the challenges of reimagining old shapes versus creating entirely new ones?
Both are equally challenging. When you create a totally new shape, it has to be distinctive and bring something that doesn’t already exist into the right balance and the right proportions. And then, when working on an existing shape, it’s a question of respect, because you don’t want to betray the original philosophy behind that design. So there’s another type of stress.
Which design has been notably challenging to update?
When we worked on the Santos (the current version, which was launched in 2018), we saw so many different prototypes and ideas. The main change in this model was the bezel, which is no longer like that of the Santos-Dumont, where there is a linear square with round edges, but instead has two extended ends that flow into the bracelet.
It was a change, but that design element was appropriate because the watch came on a bracelet instead of a strap.
How do you stay true to the spirit of Cartier’s heritage designs without compromising the creativity of your team?
When we work on an existing shape, we think of what is essential to the shape that makes it a Santos or a Tank — which parts we can play with and which parts should stay the same. But even if we have certain ideas at the beginning, we ask the designers to feel free.
In the end, it’s the design prototype that will convince us. The worst thing in the creative process is to give the answer within the brief: When you write a brief and it is so narrow that it contains the solution, this is terrible. The brief must be open to allow creation to take place.