London-based Francesca Cartier Brickell’s 'The Cartiers: The Untold Story of a Jewellery Empire' chronicles the tale of the family as well as the firm’s most iconic jewellery. Here she talks about the early years of the company.
The House of Cartier was founded in 1847, in Paris, by Louis-Francois Cartier. In the early decades of the 1900s, his grandsons – Louis, Pierre and Jacques – combined their unique talents to establish Cartier as the world’s leading jewellery firm. London-based Francesca Cartier Brickell’s The Cartiers: The Untold Story of a Jewellery Empire chronicles the tale of the family as well as the firm’s most iconic jewellery, which was favoured by magnates, movie stars, and kings and queens. Besides India’s many Maharajas, Cartier’s clients included Clark Gable, Jackie Onassis, the Vanderbilts and King Farouk of Egypt. According to Cartier Brickell, India was “enormously significant” for Cartier, which is now owned by Switzerland-based luxury goods company Richemont SA, in the early decades of the 20th century, both in terms of inspiration and business. Cartier Brickell, a direct descendant of the Cartier family, began work on the book after discovering a trunk full of letters at her late grandfather Jean-Jacques’ home in France. Here, she talks about the early years of Cartier, the Hope Diamond, and the ‘Hindou jewels’. Excerpts:
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A lot of people look at Cartier as this global brand, but back in the 1840s, the Cartiers were a small family firm, almost like a startup. When and how did the move into the big league happen?
It is easy to assume that the Cartier name has always been synonymous with luxury but the firm’s founder, my great-great-great-grandfather, Louis-Francois Cartier, actually came from a poor working-class family. It took him -- and then his son and then his grandsons -- years of hard work, dedication and even strategic marriages before they were able to push their family name into the limelight. Really, it was under the third generation –Louis, Pierre and Jacques – that the firm moved into the big league internationally. The three brothers had grown up above the family shop in Paris and shared a common dream to turn it into “the leading jewellery firm in the world”. It was with this in mind that they decided to split the world between them – divide and conquer –with each taking responsibility for different countries. Louis (the eldest) stayed in Paris, Pierre (the middle brother) opened a New York branch, and Jacques (the youngest, and my great-grandfather) would end up running the London branch.
Francesca Cartier Brickell.
Where in India did your research for the book take you?
I followed my great-grandfather’s footsteps around India, staying in the same places where possible and meeting the descendants of many of those he had met – from gem dealers to clients. For example, some of Cartier’s most important Indian clients back in the first half of the 20th century included the Maharajas of Patiala, Kapurthala and Baroda and I was lucky enough to meet members of those families today and share stories, images and diaries of our ancestors. What struck me was, despite the incredible demographic and economic changes that India has been through in the intervening century, how in some ways little had changed between his descriptions of the country and what I found. For example, he described arriving in Mumbai by sea and seeing a haze covering the city which he described like a ‘veiled woman’ and when I arrived (by taxi from the airport rather than boat), I knew exactly what he had meant.
Louis and Pierre had their special talents – they had vision, business acumen and foresight. But Jacques Cartier appears to have been the most charismatic, a veritable adventurer with a great knowledge of gemstones.
All three of the brothers were charismatic and had their own unique talents – and fortunately those talents were complementary. So while Louis was a creative genius, coming up with creations like the first wristwatch for men, early art deco jewels or the almost magical mystery clocks, Pierre was a master salesman, knowing exactly how best to entice each client while never appearing as if he was selling at all. Jacques was more rounded – he was something of an artist like Louis and a businessman like Pierre -- but as you say, he was the gemstone expert. His many trips to India buying gems enabled the Cartiers to build a reputation as the jewellery house with some of the best gems in the world.
The Cartiers never advertised back in the day. How did they crack New York and get its wealthy people to buy their wares?
Yes, Louis particularly – so my grandfather told me – didn’t believe in advertising, as he worried that it might demean the Maison among royal clients to be seen to advertise in papers or magazines. So, instead, the brothers tended to focus more on word of mouth. One way to get people talking about them – at least in the early years of the 20th century in New York – was to sell some seriously large, important or even notorious gems. The Hope Diamond fitted the bill on all counts: A 45-carat blue and supposedly cursed diamond. When Pierre Cartier managed to sell it to social heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean, Cartier’s name in America went from relative obscurity to being the talk of the town. From a business perspective, the sale didn’t actually end up making Cartier a financial profit (especially after legal fees – the sale process was far from straight-forward) but this was more than offset by the way it established Cartier’s position in the new world as the jeweller of the biggest gems to the wealthiest Americans. Building on that, in the 1920s, Pierre Cartier came to embrace marketing, working with the pioneering Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, who became subsequently known as the father of public relations.
How significant was India for the Cartiers, both in terms of inspiration and business?
Enormously significant. When Jacques travelled to India in 1911, it was to meet with the Maharajas and try and gain their future custom. What he wasn’t expecting from his first trip was how he would be inspired by the culture and his new surroundings to create a new style of jewellery for his Western clients. He would sketch what he saw -- from motifs on fabrics to carvings on temples to the outline of buildings. He had such a respect for Indian culture -- he wrote that, in the ten centuries that preceded our era, it was India that reigned supreme in the artistic world. So what ended up happening was a symbiotic relationship: The Maharajas would end up asking Cartier to reset their jewels in a more European fashion, while back in the West, Cartier would be creating Eastern-inspired jewels for its European and American clients. It was a win-win. Added to that were the gems that Jacques was able to bring from India (as the gem-trading capital of the world) and you begin to have an idea how significant the country was for Cartier. But not only that – if it wasn’t for the ongoing custom of significant Indian clients during the years of the Great Depression, Cartier may not have even survived. After all many of their most important traditional clients suddenly saw their vast fortunes shrink to nothing: The Maharajas meanwhile, unaffected by the Crash over in the West, gave the Cartiers some of their largest ever commissions.
Jacques buying gems.
Louis Cartier designed the first-ever men’s wristwatch for Alberto Santos-Dumont. Where and how did they meet?
Apparently, it was during an evening spent at the fashionable Parisian restaurant Maxims that Santos first told his friend Louis the difficulty he was having checking his pocket watch while flying (he couldn’t risk taking his hands off the controls). It was as a result of this meeting that Louis would come up with the first wristwatch for men: The Santos. Alberto Santos-Dumont was a famous Brazilian aviator who lived in Paris and was quite a character. He enjoyed popping out for a night on the town in one of his flying machines and tying it to a lamppost while he popped into the nearest bar or restaurant for a glass of champagne! Louis, who also loved flying (and was a member of the main Parisian flying club of the time) became friends with Santos and would join him for dinner at the aviator’s house (where waiters had to be agile, climbing step-ladders to serve the guests seated on very high chairs at a very high table!). The men got along well: both determined to push the boundaries of what had gone before, whether that be in the art of jewelry and timekeeping, or flying.
Which among the famous classic Cartier jewellery is your favourite piece and why?
Ahh well, this changes all the time! I do love the Indian-style pieces though, including those that have subsequently become known as the ‘tutti-frutti’ jewels but which Jacques called his ‘Hindou jewels.’ In these ones, carved sapphires, rubies and emeralds were combined in a glorious explosion of colour, and the inspiration came directly from Jacques’ trips to India: “Out there everything is flooded with the wonderful Indian sunlight”, he explained. “One does not see as in the English light, he is only conscious that here is a blaze of red, and there of green or yellow. It is all like an impressionistic painting. Nothing is clearly defined, and there is but one vivid impression of undreamed gorgeousness and wealth”.
Francesca Cartier Brickell will be speaking at the Jaipur Literary Fest on January 24.
First Published: IST