The Beckertime Rivalry Series: The Rolex Datejust Versus the Cartier Santos
This edition of our ‘Rivalry’ series is between two watches you may not have considered putting into battle against each other too often before. However, the Rolex Datejust squaring up to the Cartier Santos isn’t as ill-judged a match-up as you may think.
Firstly, in terms of brand recognition, this is very much ‘The Crown’ versus the ‘King of Jewelers’. Both have extraordinary reputations for creating only the very finest products, and their names are spoken with reverence in elite circles.
Secondly, the models we have selected from each fall easily into the everyday luxury timepiece category—fulfilling that sporty dress watch duty which leaves them amongst the most versatile in the entire industry.
And thirdly, both have been set up to appeal to as wide a cross section of the watch-buying public as possible. There are different size, metal, bezel and dial options available with either piece, giving clients the opportunity to use the watches as the perfect display of their own personality and character.
So, below we attempt to make a sensible comparison between this pair of casual heavyweights, and see which is the best choice for you.
A Quick History…
The respective backstories of these two are particularly well known, so we’ll just give you the concise versions here.
Starting with the Datejust, the watch came into being to commemorate Rolex’s first 40-years in the business. It also happened to be the same year the Second World War ended, 1945, so it was an especially poignant celebration.
By this time, Rolex had already completely transformed the image of the wristwatch with two of the most significant horological inventions in history; the waterproof Oyster case in 1926 and the Perpetual automatic movement in 1931. Between them, they had proved to a dubious public that a wristwatch could be just as robust and as reliable as a pocket watch, and both breakthroughs made their way onto the debut Datejust, along with one other.
When the ref. 4467 was unveiled in Geneva it was the first waterproof, self-winding watch in the world to have a date function. What’s more, the original 36mm piece, cast in yellow gold with a cream dial, sat on the first bracelet Rolex had ever made in-house. The ornate band had an intricate five-link arrangement and was called, fittingly enough, the Jubilee.
That initial reference went on to be nicknamed the ‘Big Bubbleback’ because of the exaggerated curvature of its case, needed to accommodate the early and relatively basic movement. During the 1950s, advances to the mechanics meant the model slimmed down significantly and it also gained a lens over its date display. Called the Cyclops, it magnified the numerals underneath by 2.5 times.
However, even though the Datejust’s flagship status only lasted a little over a decade before the Day-Date put in its first appearance, the model has gone through nothing but the most sympathetic evolution over the last 77-years (and counting). Today’s version is merely the result of a ceaseless progression from the first, where its internal technology is still at the cutting-edge but its aesthetics have stayed virtually untouched. As with almost everything Rolex unleashed in the ‘40s and ‘50s, they got the Datejust right from the outset, and were left with little to do to improve it.
It is still the best-selling watch from the world’s most important watchmaker, and more often than not the first Rolex bought at the start of a lifelong obsession.
Cartier’s iconic Santos had actually been around for more than 40-years by the time the Datejust put in its appearance. In fact, the model is generally held up as the first example in what is now overwhelmingly the most popular genre of timepiece; the tool watch.
It is also the only time Cartier has ever named one of its creations after someone—that someone being the famed Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont.
He it was who, in 1904, commissioned his great friend, Louis Cartier, grandson of brand founder, Louis-François, to build him a watch he could wear while piloting his lighter than air dirigible. He had found his usual pocket watch was too unwieldy in the tight confines of the cockpit, requiring him to take both hands off the controls to operate. Cartier’s solution was a flat, square-bezeled wristwatch with an easily readable, Art Deco-esque dial, not unlike a larger pocket watch the manufacture had made previously.
But this being Cartier, the watch was a long way from being a merely utilitarian instrument. Rather, it was shot through with the sort of high style flourishes which has made the brand the behemoth it is today.
The Roman numeral hour markers, for example, were laid out to mimic Baron Haussmann’s radial design of Paris’s centre-ville. Likewise, the screws, fixed around the inner flange of the bezel and securing the crystal in place, were fashioned after the shape of the Eiffel Tower’s legs.
The end result was named the Cartier Santos-Dumont.
Although it wouldn’t be released commercially until 1911, it became an instant success, helped along by the flamboyant personality of its celebrity patron.
But the popularity of square watches would fluctuate, until the coming of WWII saw a major trend towards round models from a purely functional standpoint; they were much less likely to snag on the sleeve of a tunic during the heat of battle. Even after the war, round-cased models became the norm, leaving the Santos and its right-angles a distinct but well received oddity.
It continued in its original form right up until the 1970s when the incredible success of Gerald Genta’s luxury sports watches, the AP Royal Oak and Patek Nautilus, with their gently rounded square shapes, motivated Cartier to revamp their own piece.
The Santos de Cartier arrived in 1978 and along with the new name, the brand replaced the former leather strap with a Genta-inspired integrated bracelet. In addition, just as with the other two watches taking the world by storm, Cartier decided to issue it in steel, where it had been a purely precious metal piece previously.
Other variations were to follow. The Santos Galbée arrived in 1987, with a more wrist-hugging form and mostly quartz movements. The Galbée XL followed in 2005, the largest example to date at 32mm x 45mm.
Since then, the Santos has maintained its elite status, ranking alongside that other Cartier masterpiece, the Tank, as one of the most desired and recognizable watches in horology.
Today’s collection consists of 35 models, and is split between the Santos de Cartier series and a more affordable, mainly quartz powered line released in 2019, the Santos-Dumont range. And, just as with the Datejust, their timeless designs are perfect illustrations of early 20th century chic from one of the most illustrious names in fashion.
Rolex Datejust versus the Cartier Santos: Basic Details
For the purposes of this showdown, we are going to pit the Datejust against both the Cartier de Santos and Santos-Dumont models. Here’s a quick rundown of their basics.
The Rolex Datejust series
Materials:—904L Stainless Steel/Rolesor/18k gold (yellow, white, Everose)
Functions:—Time with Running Seconds. Date
Dial:—Huge Variety of Colors and Styles
Crystal:—Sapphire with Cyclops Magnifying Lens
Movement:—Rolex Manufacture Cal. 2236/Cal. 3235
Bracelet:— Oyster/Jubilee/President Bracelet
The Santos de Cartier /Santos-Dumont Series’
Materials:—Stainless Steel/Black Steel/Two-Tone/Platinum/18k Gold (yellow, white, rose)
Functions:—Time with Running Seconds/Time-And-Date/Chronograph
Dial:—Silver/Blue/White/Rose Gold/Yellow Gold
Movement:—Manufacture Caliber 1847MC/430MC/1904CHMC/9611MC/9619MC
Bracelet:—Color Matched Leather Strap/Metal Bracelet
Rolex Datejust versus the Cartier Santos: Looks
If you are choosing between these two based on their looks alone, then your choice really comes down to whether you like square watches, or prefer what has become the archetypal blueprint for what shape a watch is supposed to be for the last 70-years.
The Datejust is simply the classic form for a timepiece; a softly rounded tonneau case with gentle curves in all the right places. The point of it is, it’s the literal blank canvas, a framework on which to hang the exhaustive compendium of different elements offered by Rolex until you have created for yourself the ideal match. In that way, the actual shape is a secondary consideration and it is the various bells and whistles that make the watch what it is.
With the Santos, the shape itself is a talking point, with square cased watches still a novelty in the industry. So much so, in fact, that it having far fewer options than the Datejust seems less important. Whichever version of the Santos you choose, it will certainly get noticed.
What both share is a dedication to not letting style get in the way of legibility. These are watches to be worn everyday, and so need to offer their wearers convenience as well as elegance. Each has a perfectly readable dial in whatever form that takes, with the Rolex offering just a little more with the inclusion of the Cyclops lens—handy for those of us with faltering eyesight.
But in the end, we are talking about two beautifully designed pieces, with bags of personality.
Rolex Datejust versus the Cartier Santos: Options
This is where something of a gap opens up. As we’ve alluded to, the Datejust arrives like a cake fresh out of the oven waiting for its decoration to make it your own. And there is a lot of icing to choose from.
At my rough count, the number of different Datejust models available is somewhere in the 700 range across the three largest sizes, with a further 300 or so versions of the Lady-Datejust. That’s how many combinations have been made of the various metal, size, bracelet, dial, bezel and hour markers available.
However, there are some strange omissions. For example, in the current range, there are no full gold models in either 36mm or 41mm, with Rolesor being the closest you can have. Presumably a solid gold men’s dress Rolex is the sole territory of the Day-Date. Similarly, you can’t have a diamond-set bezel in the largest size either, although there are plenty in 36mm and smaller.
Yet that doesn’t narrow the field down significantly. No matter what you want your Datejust to say about you, there is a model to fill the role. The all-time classic two-tone with fluted bezel and champagne dial holds a sort of middle-of-the-road position, from which you can go more flamboyant or understated as you see fit. A steel piece with smooth bezel, grey dial and Oyster bracelet is wonderfully inconspicuous, whereas a mother of pearl face, with gemstone-enhanced bezel and indexes sitting on a Jubilee band is one for the extroverts. The ideal everyman (and woman) watch for more than seven decades won’t be giving that title up in a hurry.
As for the Santos, there is a greater cohesion throughout the collection. Handsets and indexes are all kept identical, even on the chronograph models, and the bezels are all more or less duplicates as well—those eight identifying screws holding the crystal in place are present on every model, including those sprinkled with diamonds.
But the available dial colors are far more limited and there is only one style of metal bracelet on offer, although you can have a leather strap as standard, something the Datejust is lacking in the modern range.
So, a clear win for Rolex, which is to be expected.
Rolex Datejust versus the Cartier Santos: Movements
Every Datejust model is powered by an in-house movement.
The two largest versions are now home to the latest generation of Rolex engine, the Cal. 3235, with its Chronergy escapement and Parachrom Bleu technology. Interestingly, the Cal. 2236 inside the 31mm and Lady-Datejust doesn’t have the Chronergy, but it is the only Rolex movement which uses a silicon hairspring.
But, each one is a Superlative Chronometer, guaranteed to within -2/+2 seconds a day.
With the Santos, Cartier uses a whole succession of different calibers depending on the size and type of the watch, some in-house and some modified from a third-party. The hand-wound Caliber 430 MC, for instance, started life as a Piaget mechanism and was rebranded, and refinished, by Cartier. You will find it in some of the less expensive Santos-Dumont models, whereas the Caliber 1847 MC (inside many of the Santos de Cartier watches) is a homegrown movement. As for the quartz pieces, many of the movements Cartier uses are also made in-house, a hangover from the 1990s when the vast majority of the watches the brand made were quartz-powered. The so-called ‘high autonomy’ calibers offer up to a six-year battery life.
Rolex Datejust versus the Cartier Santos: Price
Here’s a bit of a novelty when it comes to talking about the price of a Rolex. There is a better than average chance that you could actually walk into an AD and purchase a Datejust there and then. Imagine that!
The watch’s all-inclusive status means the brand has never artificially restricted the supply of Datejust models to their retail network in order to drive up demand—something they also totally don’t do with their most popular sports pieces!
What that means to you as the consumer is you might well pay the true MSRP for the watch, rather than two or three times more on the preowned market due to not having the endless patience needed to sit on a waiting list for years. Even in the most poorly stocked authorized dealer, there is usually a Datejust or two sitting in the window to entice you in.
The prices themselves, of course, fluctuate wildly. The least expensive at the moment starts at the $7,000 mark (a smaller size steel example with smooth bezel and plain indexes) and carries on going north until you reach the top-of-the-line $45,000 solid gold pieces, festooned in diamonds.
With the Santos, the presence of quartz-powered models obviously keeps the lower end cheaper than with the Rolex, with one of these entry level watches retailing for around $4,100. At the other extreme, $71,000 will secure you one of the extraordinary rose gold skeletonized Santos de Cartier pieces, with a homegrown manually-wound movement.
So there we have it, Rolex’s most successful name versus Cartier’s iconic world’s first.
Two models, very different in style, but almost equally popular with brand aficionados and both with the same remit—the true luxury watch as an everyday wear.
Your choice will be dictated by your own sensibilities, of course, but each offers so many options there is something literally for everyone. And best of all, you should be able to buy either without any of the usual hoop-jumping.
Featured Photo: BeckerTime’s Archive.