Today we start a series exploring the various jewelry houses that have become household names and legends in the jewelry arts. Their designs, innovations and sheer beauty put them head and shoulders above other jewelers of their time. Many of these iconic businesses still exist today. Some do not. We start off our series with the Maison de Cartier (House of Cartier).
The Rise of The House of Cartier
In 1847, a man by the name of Louis-François Cartier set up shop in Paris as a jewelry shop owner. The shop did not create any of their merchandise, but instead stocked luxury goods crafted by other names of the time, like Lalique Fossin, Delamarre. Times were tough, however. The king had abdicated the throne (French King, that is) and the second empire had yet to be established. Financially, the country was in turmoil and beyond that, competition in the jewelry arts industry was intense. Beating the odds and the cards stacked against him, by 1856 Louis-François’ little shop began to flourish.
As luck would have it, Princess Mathilde, second cousin of Napoleon III and, shortly thereafter, the Empress Eugenie, stumbled upon his shop and liked what they saw. Being a purveyor to the imperial family has many perks, one of which is almost instant exposure to the royal and wealthy elite. As a result of that patronage, Cartier was able to expand by moving his shop to a more desirable part of town, Boulevard des Italians in 1859. And while successful, they were not yet known for a particular style or originality of design, as Monsieur Cartier was not designing anything himself, but instead reselling the works of others.
Three Brothers Cartier
But that too was about to change. First, there was a change at the helm. Louis-François’ son, Alfred, took the reins in 1874. And then later, it was Alfred’s sons, Louis, Pierre and Jaques who took over for their father and really started the rise to what we know Cartier to be today. With Alfred at the helm, he was joined by his son, Louis as the moved again, this time to rue de la Paix.
In 1904, Louis’ friend, Alberto Santos-Dumont, a Brazilian aviator, complained that the use of a pocket watch while flying was a huge hassle. Cartier then designed a flat wristwatch with a distinctive square bezel. This watch was liked by not only Santos-Dumont but also many other customers, thus the “Santos” was born. This was their first men’s wristwatch but the one that set them on the path to the Cartier name becoming synonymous with great wristwatches.
The Santos was not the only iconic piece to be created at that time. Alfred was responsible for some of the company’s most celebrated designs, like the mystery clocks (a type of clock with a transparent dial and so named because its mechanism is hidden), fashionable wristwatches and exotic orientalist Art Deco designs, including the colorful “Tutti Frutti” jewels.
Growing The Business
As the three brothers took over the brand, two other locations were opened. To be considered fashionable, you had to have a shop in New York city, at that time, and so in 1909, Pierre was shipped off to the US to open their storefront, and the later move it to 653 Fifth Avenue. The move was most notable for the previous ownership of the building and the price paid, as they moved into the former Plant Mansion and Pierre acquired the mansion from the Plants in exchange for $100 in cash and a double-stranded natural pearl necklace valued at the time at $1 million.
Iconic theme after iconic theme was created at the hands of Charles Jacqueau, who joined Louis in 1909 for the rest of his life, and Jeanne Toussaint, who was Director of Fine Jewellery from 1933. Pieces like the Cartier Panther, The Cartier Enamel Clock, Cartier Duchess of Windsor Panther Brooch (featured in our post on Retro-Modern jewelry), and Cartier Belle Époque Garland Style Diamond Tiara and Stomacher, circa 1908.
After the death of Pierre in 1964, Jean-Jacques (Jacques’s son), Claude (Louis’s son), and Marionne Claudelle (Pierre’s daughter) — who respectively headed the affiliates in London, New York and Paris — sold the businesses. Innovation continued as pieces like the Love Bracelet, Tank watch, Juste Un Clou Bracelets and the Trinity collection were designed and embraced by jewelry and fashion lovers around the world.
Now, as of 2012, Cartier is owned, through Richemont, by the South African Rupert family and 24-year-old who is the granddaughter of Pierre, Elle Pagels. They have more than 200 stores in 125 countries, with three Temples (Historical Maison) world-wide:
- Paris – 13, Rue de la Paix
- London – 175-177 New Bond Street
- New York – 653 Fifth Avenue
For a much deeper look at the jewelry house and its history, we recommend the following:
Do you own any jewelry by Cartier? We’d love to see it and hear all about it in the comments below!