When Louis-François Cartier (1819-1904) opened his small jewellery store in Paris in 1847, he couldn’t have imagined that 170 years later his name would be synonymous worldwide with some of the finest jewellery ever created.
Having taken over the workshop where he had been an apprentice Louis-François set about building a business that expanded on that of the traditional jewellers. Recognising the opportunity that the surging growth in a new middle class offered, he created a jewellery business that catered to their needs as well as their whims. He kept a keen eye on what was fashionable, selling Egyptian revival style jewels, hair ornaments and bandeaus alongside which he stocked porcelain by Wedgwood and Sèvres, silverware, ivory pieces, decorative fans and gentlemen’s accessories. His clients soon included Princess Mathilde and Empress Eugenie as well as many of Paris’ well to do.
His son Alfred (1841-1925) took over the running of the shop in 1874 and organised the participation of the firm in its first International Exhibition in London, thereby exposing them to a new clientele. Whilst little jewellery from this period survives, the Maison’s archives show pieces in the popular archaeological revival style, an array of flora and fauna inspired designs in particular birds and flowers as well as large diamond set pieces that were appealing to a broad range of contemporary tastes.
In 1898 Alfred’s eldest son Louis (1875-1942) joined his father in the business and it was renamed Alfred Cartier et Fils. The following year they moved to number 13 Rue de la Paix, where they remain today, and Louis took over responsibility for the store. In 1902 they opened a branch in London at 4, New Burlington Street but after Jacques (1884-1941) moved to London to run it he decided to move it around the corner to its present location on New Bond Street in 1909. By this time Pierre (1878-1965) had joined his two brothers in the family firm and had travelled to New York where he opened a third branch of Cartier at 712 Fifth Avenue in 1909. The three brothers had taken the approach of ‘divide and conquer’ and whilst they excelled individually it was as a team that they were truly formidable. By 1910 they had several Royal Warrants including King Edward VII, King Carlos of Portugal, the King of Siam and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.
The use of platinum in jewellery became more widespread at the turn of the century and this enabled Cartier to create incredibly fine metal work frames in which to set their diamonds and coloured stones. Their beautiful Garland style jewels set with diamonds and pearls were the height of sophistication at this time but these would soon be superseded by the jewels created under the influence of Eastern exoticism. The designer Charles Jacqueau (1885-1968) joined Cartier in 1909 and, inspired by the Ballet Russes, he studied the art of India, China, Egypt and Japan. The combination of colour, form and design he found was translated into a wide range of jewellery, tempered by a Western aesthetic and craftsmanship. From 1911 until 1935 he would head up a team of eleven designers in Paris creating an exceptional array of jewellery in what would come to be known as the Art Deco style. For many these are the jewels that truly set Cartier apart in terms of creativity, design and workmanship.
Alongside jewellery Cartier were also innovative in watch and clock design, creating one of the earliest wristwatches in 1904 for the aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont after he complained to Louis of the difficulty in using his pocket watch whilst flying. They also made some of the most beautiful and elaborate Mystery Clocks from about 1913 onwards which remain true collector’s items to this day.
In 1917 the New York branch relocated to 653 Fifth Avenue, its current address. Famously the building was exchanged with Mr and Mrs Morton Plant for $100 and a double row pearl necklace worth $1 million. Back in Paris, the Indian Maharajas were commissioning extraordinary jewels during this period, the best known being the Maharaja of Patiala necklace. Jacques brought back many Indian carved gemstones from his travels and these were used in profusion in Cartier jewellery during the 1920’s and 30’s in a style referred to now as Tutti Frutti. Jean Toussaint, who had joined Cartier in 1919 as a handbag and accessories designer, was made Creative Director for jewellery in 1933. Amongst her many achievements she is probably best remembered for turning the panther from an interesting decorative motif into the iconic image that is now synonymous with Cartier. The most famous panther jewel is probably the brooch she designed for the Duchess of Windsor in 1949 featuring the large cat sat proudly atop a huge Kashmir sapphire cabochon weighing over 150cts.
After the deaths of both Louis and Jacques within a year of each other at the beginning of the 1940’s Pierre took sole control of the firm. In 1945 Jacques son Jean-Jacques took over the running of the London branch and Pierre returned to Paris leaving Louis’s son Claude in charge of New York. When Pierre retired he left his daughter Marion to run the Paris branch and so it remained until 1962 when Claude sold Cartier New York. This was followed in 1966 with the sale of Paris and then in 1974 by London. Five years later the firm was ‘reunited’ by a merger between the respective owners and the creation of ‘Cartier World’. Since then the firm has expanded exponentially with branches all over the world, they have produced iconic designs such as the Love bangle and Trilogy ring, bought and sold historic gemstones and continued with their tradition of innovative jewellery and watches.