Forever linked to Cartier’s iconic men’s watch, Santos=Dumont has an image as something of a pampered playboy, heir to a Brazilian coffee dynasty, who played around with the belle époque equivalent of fast cars...
He may have been rich, living in Paris and with a taste for the finer things in life but Santos=Dumont was a serious aviation pioneer and needs to be considered alongside the Wright brothers as one of the fathers of powered flight.
Describing himself as a “Sportsman of the Air”, at the age of 24 he designed and flew his first balloon. As air-traffic control did not exist, he would often fly around the streets of Paris at roof-level - before setting down at a fashionable outdoor café.
Santos-Dumont achieved one of the highpoints of his career in 1901 when he won the 100,000-franc prize for a 7-mile flight with his airship from the Paris suburb of St. Cloud to the Eiffel Tower and back in less than half an hour. The generous aeronaut presented one-quarter of the purse to his crew and the rest to the poor people of Paris.
While celebrating, he mentioned to Louis Cartier how difficult it had been to consult his pocket watch while flying. This led Cartier to create the ‘Santos’ wristwatch in 1904 and Alberto never took off without wearing it.
In 1905, after winning numerous prizes for his airships, Santos=Dumont focused on fixed-wing aircraft. In 1906 he won the prize for the first powered flight in Europe. Unlike the Wright brothers who used either launch rails or catapults for their 1903-1905 flights, Santos=Dumont’s aeroplanes took off under their own power. Under the French rules that stipulated this powered take-off, Santos=Dumont had achieved the first powered flight anywhere in the world.
Alberto Santos=Dumont’s international fame was one of the main factors to convince men that wearing a wristwatch was OK - prior to this, wristwatches had been a feminine accessory.
With the aviation exploits of Alberto being accompanied by a wristwatch, the celebrity endorsement culture along with the pilot’s watch, were created at a stroke – both of which continue to sell watches to this day.
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