A Family Affair: Talking about ‘The Cartiers’ with Francesca Cartier Brickell

A member of the founding family of one of the greatest jewellery empires in the world that takes us in a very personal way through its history is a unique thing. Francesca Cartier Brickell did just that when she lost herself into the personal archives of her grand-father, Jean-Jacques Cartier, who was in charge of the London branch of the family firm, before it was sold in the 1970s. It let to an extraordinary journey, as she traveled the world and connected the dots into what would become ‘The Cartiers,’ a book that gives an unprecedented personal insight in how Cartier became the jeweller of choice for the rich and famous as well as a synonym for luxury and craftsmanship. We, at Troisanneaux, had the honor of talking with Francesca extensively and ask her a few questions, that provide us with even more insight into the extraordinary history of our favorite brand.

The author of ‘The Cartiers’; Francesca Cartier Brickell Credits: Jonathan James Wilson

When you told us about your new book over a year ago, we were thrilled that a member of the Cartier family might share family stories. Your ancestors were responsible for Cartier London, but will you – or might there be other family members who – write about the New York years?

Well, it’s true that my grandfather, Jean-Jacques Cartier ran the London branch, as did his father Jacques before him. However, my decade-long research journey) – and the book – spans the entire family firm, from nineteenth-century Paris, right through the opulence of St Petersburg palaces, jazz-age New York, India of the Raj, the World Wars and into London’s swinging sixties until the firm was sold in the 1970s. While I had my grandfather’s memoirs – and the book is peppered with our conversations – I also interviewed hundreds of people (family and descendants of employees or clients) connected with the three branches. I also pored through countless letters, often written from Paris or New York. My aim – instead of basing the story in one place – was to use the letters, diaries, and interviews to identify where the main action was at any one time, whether that was New York, Paris, London, or even Palm Beach, St Moritz, Sri Lanka, India or the Persian Gulf.

America was the place to be in the booming 1920s: the image of the new moneyed elite in their diamonds and furs throwing fabulous Great-Gatsby style parties was not just a seductive backdrop in Cartier’s history, but also a fundamentally important one for their balance sheet. Whereas in the early 20th century, the engines of Cartier’s growth were in Europe, after the devastation of WW1, that all changed: “ The development of Cartier in America … will be a matter of life or death for us”, Pierre Cartier (the brother in charge of the New York branch) wrote to his brother during the war, and through the decade to come, his words would ring true.

The infamous Hope Diamond, sold by Pierre to American heiress, Evalyn MacLean in 1912 Credit: Smithsonian Institution

So The Cartiers dives head-first into Cartier New York in the 1920s, covering all types of stories to bring that period to life for the reader. There was Cartier’s sale of Catherine the Great’s pearls to a coarse motor mechanic made-good wanting to impress his daughter’s well-connected in-laws; and Marjorie Merriweather Post’s penchant for carved emeralds which she wore all together in her “little cottage by the sea” (a.k.a. Palm Beach’s Mar-El-Lago). There was the secret journey made by the Polar Star diamond in the hands of cross-dressing aristocrat (and self-proclaimed killer of Rasputin) Felix Yusupov, all the way from revolutionary Russia to Pierre’s Fifth Avenue office; and there were the almost mythical Thiers pearls that required not only a ‘pearl mother’ to bring them back to life, but also a change in French law so they could leave their permanent home in Paris’ Louvre museum and find a new one in Cartier New York.

Hopefully, through stories like those, as well as personal insights into Pierre Cartier and his family, the reader will feel they understand the New York side of the business as well as Paris or London. And of course, it’s not just the 1920s. I used that as an example, but I could have taken the start of the 1930s chapter where the Great Crash and ensuing Depression hit America first and hit it hardest. With expensive jewels no longer affordable for most – or appropriate when so many people were queuing in bread lines – I looked at how Pierre dealt with the reversal of fortunes. Put simply, he refused to give up and never stopped innovating: forward-thinking ideas included even introducing a $5 department, which was distinguished from the main offering by pale blue cardboard gift boxes instead of red leather ones.

Pierre Cartier, one of the three brothers who ran Cartier New York

What was the most extraordinary event in Cartier’s history as a family firm?

For me, perhaps the most extraordinary thing was the bond between the three Cartier brothers – Louis, Pierre, and Jacques – and the way the firm survived multiple cataclysmic world-shaking events. It’s interesting to experience this coronavirus lockdown now – at least we’re in lockdown in France – as it struck such a chord with the letters that I read between the family during the war years. I’m not suggesting that what we’re going through is comparable at all to that scale of devastation and loss, but there are some similarities. Take the letters during the first world war- there was a real fear there that the business they had just taken to a global stage might not be able to survive. “’Business is very bad” was the word back from all the branches as they desperately strategized how to keep the firm alive.

The three Cartier brothers, with their father Alfred, in 1922. From left to right: Pierre, Louis, Alfred and Jacques.

But the war letters between the brothers are also very tender and moving. Scared for the what the future might bring, in their darkest moments it was their love for one another, their unbreakable bond, that kept them going: “We have many wonderful days to live together.” Pierre wrote encouragingly to Jacques in 1914 when Jacques was worried that his weak lungs weren’t recovering (first he had tuberculosis, then he was gassed at the Front). “Even after our working lives are over, we have days in the Mediterranean to enjoy, as well as games of golf! Jacques, I count on you, and need you, with all the affection of one brother to another.”

Nowadays, many businesses will be worried about how they will make through these trying times and I think it may be helpful to look back at history. At the start of WW2, the message coming from Cartier – “Remaining open in Paris in line with government instructions” – was different to today when most non-essential business have closed but there were some parallels. After recent ‘stay at home’ instructions, many city dwellers headed for the country and, 80 years ago, it was the Basque region that was inundated as thousands of Parisians fled the German army. A young Cartier salesman, Jack Hasey, recalled how in Biarritz, “there was not space in a room, closet or cupboard in the whole city. People were sleeping 3 in a bed in small rooms, on billiard tables and on floors, and this remnant of proud Cartier’s had made a home of the store”. There was obviously no ‘social distancing’ then, but like today, the advice was to stay in as survival took precedence over business: “We can’t go to the village because of the paratroopers,” wrote Pierre Cartier’s daughter Marion. “I can’t dine in the little bistro or walk in the fields. Last night we were told to go to bed fully dressed with shoes on and a gun in our hand. I slept with one eye open”. I mean, being instructed to sleep with a gun in your hand – well that surely takes isolation anxiety to another level: not to mention that Marion was five months pregnant at the time and her husband had been captured by the Germans.

A trip down memory lane, with vintage photographs from the Cartier family archives

To me, what is both amazing and inspiring is how the Cartiers managed to continue their trade through these enormous upheavals (as I discuss more in this video). My generation has been fortunate not to experience that scale of devastation but just being in these uncertain – and for many fearful – times of late gives us at least a sense of what they lived through. It helps put things in perspective, but it has also made me realize how extraordinary it is that the firm not only survived but grew and prospered.

How is the relationship within the Cartier family? Do the branches of the three brothers keep in touch?

Yes, I’m in touch with the different branches of the family, but by the time you get to my generation (six generations after Louis-Francois who founded Cartier in 1847), it is no longer three brothers in three cities, it has become a very large extended family all over the world! What’s wonderful about the book is the way it has connected me with people I didn’t know before who have stumbled across it and read it and subsequently contacted me via my website (www.the-cartiers.com) or social media. It is such a delight when a message from another member of the family somewhere on the other side of the globe pops into my inbox! In the same way, I have come to learn new parts of the history from descendants of the key employees that helped to build Cartier with my family, like Jules Glaenzer in New York, Paul Muffat in Paris or Frederick Mew in London (part of the motivation for the book was the fact that my grandfather wanted to give credit to these mostly unsung heroes in the Cartier story). I was planning to visit a few of the families this spring but obviously all trips are on hold for now with this terrible virus… I just hope everyone stays safe.

Do you consider Cartier to be foremost a jewelry brand or a watchmaker?

Well, that’s not an easy question to answer. Obviously, it depends on the time period you’re considering, as all businesses morph and evolve to an extent. My research focus for The Cartiers is obviously on the period of family ownership. In that timeframe, the firm was hugely innovative in both areas, and I would find it hard, probably impossible, to rank the different innovations. After all, popularising the first men’s wristwatch with the Santos or creating the iconic Tank or the figurine mystery clocks of the 1920s, those achievements are incredible. But so equally were the art deco jewelry pieces of the 1920s, or the Egyptian pieces, or the Tutti Frutti creations of the inter-war period.

‘The Cartiers’ is one of the most interesting books to enjoy during these challenging times. Shot here together with a rare cup and saucer from Cartier’s China collection

In ‘Cartier, The Tank Watch” written by historian Franco Cologni (the 1988 edition), there is a fascinating table that shows the number of watch models made in Cartier Paris by year from 1919 to the late 1960s. The thing that still astonishes me is how few watches were produced over that period: in 1938, to pick a year when business generally had picked up post the Depression, there were only 282 wristwatches made and 31 Tanks, that’s all! And the annual production numbers in the mid-1950s weren’t that different.

So, under the three brothers, the watches may have been secondary to the jewels, but the foundations laid in this time (like the Santos and the Tank – which I discuss more in this video) would still prove fundamental to the business going forward As one example: if you take the Maharajah of Patiala’s 1928 necklace (complete with 2,930 diamonds!), well that was among the most extraordinary jewels the Cartiers created but, however magnificent it was, it was one piece owned by one family. It didn’t have the same ubiquity, reach and impact on popular culture as the iconic Tank watch design, worn by everyone from JFK to Andy Warhol. So which is more important? I think it’s very hard to say.

Francesca Cartier Brickell’s new book, “The Cartiers” is available now via Amazon and leading English language bookstores. You can also follow her journey on Instagram (@creatingcartier) or Twitter (@cescacartier).

In Part II, which we publish next Saturday, we discuss Francesca’s most surprising find while researching The Cartiers, the reception to the book so far, her favourite Cartier watch and why she thinks Cartier London was so innovative in watch production.

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