A Family Affair Part II: Talking about the Cartier family with Francesca Cartier Brickell

After Part I, we now dive even deeper into the family history of the Cartiers, as well as look at why their story is so fascinating for so many people around the globe, both industry insiders as well as collectors and clients.

What was the most surprising piece of information you uncovered in researching The Cartiers?

It’s hard to pick one as there were so many unexpected discoveries along the 10-year research journey way but one of the more shocking ones was finding how Louis Cartier, the brother who later ran Cartier Paris (see this video), was forced into an arranged marriage for the good of the family business. I uncovered letters that exposed the depth of the anger and frustration surrounding this, and the hushed-up secrets: Alfred Cartier (Louis’ father) had been firm with his eldest son, insisting that he marry the wealthy, well-connected 16-year-old Andrée-Caroline Worth, even though Louis knew they wouldn’t get along. Louis had begged him to call off the wedding, and Alfred had not only refused but forcefully ‘shaken him by the arm’. That had surprised me: my grandfather had always talked of Alfred as a gentle loving grandfather to him but as I later realized, he had known him as an older man, not as a younger, more ambitious one. In the end, Louis had agreed to go ahead with the marriage on the condition that he could divorce Andrée-Caroline after ten years if still unhappy. Divorce was a big ask for a Catholic family but Alfred, keen that his son get on with the union, had conceded.

For me, finding those secret letters over a century later was fascinating because I came to understand – in a vivid and concrete way – the sheer depth of ambition within the family to build a successful firm. It struck me as very extreme but Alfred clearly knew what he was doing from a business perspective. That marriage was the making of Cartier; the enormous dowry Andrée-Caroline brought to the table meant that Cartier was able to move into more prestigious premises (13 rue de la Paix, where it remains today) and create higher-quality jewels, while the connections from her family (her grand-father Charles Frederick had founded Worth, the world-famous couture Maison) opened the doors to some of the best clients in the world. J.P. Morgan, for example, was good friends with Charles-Frederick but had never even heard of Cartier. When the marriage was announced, he summoned Louis Cartier, declaring that any grandchild of Worth was a friend of his, and bought $50,000 of jewels on the spot. He also promised the Cartiers his ongoing custom, and we’re talking enormous business: the Morgans bought freely, everything from winged tiaras to mystery clocks.

You clearly did immense research for this book. Did you have a sense that your book would be picked up so well, not only by Cartier lovers but those who are interested in the history of jewelry houses in general?

I had no idea! It’s a funny thing researching something intensely on your own for such a long time. I found it fascinating and each tiny discovery drove me deeper into the past, even obscure details like researching how the father of Louis-Francois Cartier (the firm’s founder) spent years trapped on a disease-filled prison ship during the Napoleonic wars, terrified he wouldn’t make it out alive (in which case Louis- Francois would never have been born and I wouldn’t be here either!); or discovering that Cartier was once known as Cartier Gillion, or investigating why so many early Cartier London boxes were green, not red. And yet, on the other hand, I was living in my own world so I didn’t know what of this would be of interest to others, objectively. I sometimes wondered if it might just be me and a few jewelry historian friends that read the book, but later, standing on stage to present it in sold-out lecture theatres in England and America, as well as in front of thousands of people at India’s glorious Jaipur Literature Festival earlier this year, well they were such special moments for me because I could see how people from different walks of life connected with the subject.

You mentioned Cartier lovers, and those interested in jewelry history, but the wonderful thing is that the readership has stretched even beyond that. I have been bowled over by the different types of reviews: while those like The Economist and Bloomberg focused more on the family business angle, others like the Wall Street Journal and Business Standard highlighted the lessons that remain relevant today – mottos like ‘Never Copy, Only Create’ (see this video). Meanwhile, fashion magazines like Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar have picked up on glamorous clients and jewels.

The Princess of Jaipur presenting the Cartiers at Jaipur Literature Festival

And yet, across all these media, it’s been clear that, at its heart, The Cartiers is a human story. Yes, it encompasses the jewels, watches, clocks and objets d’art because they are fundamental to the family history, but that was not my primary focus. Instead, my aim was to tell the story of that family over four generations struggling to build and then sustain a business against an ever-changing backdrop of world events. Happily, that seems to have resonated. Some readers have kindly taken the time to tell me that, for them, it reads more like a novel and that they felt sad when it ended, and they had to say goodbye to the characters. Others say they look at Cartier jewelry in a new light, with a greater admiration for the craftsmanship the pieces represent, now that they understand more of the people behind their creation. I think my grandfather would have appreciated hearing that. For him, those employees who worked for him were like an extended family and while he was a demanding boss, he had great admiration for their work.

What is your favorite vintage Cartier watch and why?

This changes all the time! There are so many wonderful and varied models – from the elegant Tank Cintrée to the unusual bell-shaped Cartier Cloche, to the jumping hour Tank à guichets or the Tank Chinois or the Tank Basculante – and I’m still learning about vintage design variations all the time, so I don’t have a single “grail watch” as they say.

I do love my Cartier Tank, it’s so classic and timeless and works just as well with jeans as a dress. But I also like the more unusual watches too, especially the Cartier London ones from the 1960s. There’s obviously the Crash but there’s also one my grandfather only made two examples of, shortly before he sold the London business in the early 1970s. It was a ‘driving watch’ where the case was set on the diagonal, the idea being that with one’s hands on the steering wheel of a car, the 12 would be pointing up (rather than to the left). It has roman numerals, unlike the 1930s Tank Asymmetrique one or even the Cartier London 1960s Tank Oblique. It is particularly beautiful, I think. You can see it too in this video I did on Cartier Watches recently, which also shows many other vintage watches made under my ancestors.

Shape form watches became the signature of Cartier

I also like the unisex Cartier Reversos in the 1960s/70s and the hunting watches of the 1930s, as my grandfather used to talk me about those – such neat clever designs that perfectly combined that magic mix of form and function that was so fundamental to Cartier’s timepieces. And then for evening wear, I love the older diamond bracelet watches: I have one with no clasp where the platinum and diamond strap is stretchy, it’s such a modern design for a watch that is over 100 years old – and it still keeps time too!

At the time the three Cartier branches – London, Paris and New York – were working individually, each of them had its own style, still recognizably Cartier. But it was London that released the most daring dials and watches. What, in your opinion, explains this?

That’s an interesting question. One thing it’s important to consider is that the years after WW2 were very difficult for luxury businesses in England: the purchase tax on jewelry rose to a debilitating 125%, I mean that’s inconceivable today! Prior to the war, through the glamorous 1930s, Cartier London had been making phenomenal necklaces and head-dresses for British high society and Indian Maharajas. Famous jewels like the Duchess of Windsor’s emerald engagement ring (gifted before her husband abdicated for love), or the Maharaja of Nawanagar’s 1931 coloured diamond necklace (the jewel that Jacques Cartier admitted to his son he was most proud of creating) or the 1936 Halo tiara that King George VI bought for his wife (more recently front and centre of the world’s stage when the Duchess of Cambridge borrowed it from the Queen for her wedding to Prince William in 2011) have since become legendary.

The authors grandfather, Jean-Jacques Cartier in the 1950’s

But by 1945, when my grandfather Jean-Jacques Cartier took over Cartier London, a period of austerity had befallen the nation that would last years (England was basically bankrupted by the War effort). Struggling to sell large jewellery in such a difficult market, Jean-Jacques turned his attention more to practical objects – like watches and cigarette cases. He expanded the Wright & Davies workshop in Farringdon (whereas the English Art Works above the New Bond Street showroom focused on jewels, Wright & Davies focused on gold objects). He worked closely with Jaeger Lecoultre, the same Swiss movement maker his family had long used, known as the “watchmaker’s watchmaker.” And yet what it’s important to understand of this period was that Jean-Jacques was an artist at heart. He followed the Cartier creed he had been taught by his father: “Never Copy, Only Create” (see this video). So watches for him shouldn’t be more of the same, he was always sketching, thinking about new shapes, innovative designs. Many of these were a reaction to the times, the rebellious swinging sixties when there was a movement to break with convention.

Of course, watch innovation in this period wasn’t limited to London. Cartier Paris developed the Oval (now known as the Baignoire) in the 1950s plus the “mini” models in the 1960s, like the Mini Tank Louis Cartier – but as you say, London was perhaps most daring in its watch designs. As well as the more classic Tanks and the JJC models, there was the Half Tank, the Tank Oblique, the Maxi-Oval, plus the rare Cartier Pebble watch and the experimental Double‐strap in the early 1970s. My grandfather told me that sometimes only, say, half a dozen watches, or even just a couple, would be made at once. And they were often just made for order, so while the London showroom would always try and keep one men’s and one ladies’ classic JJC model in stock at any one time, a customer wanting something a bit different might have to wait several months for their chosen design to be handmade from scratch.

Perhaps the most famous watch design of the 1960s is the Cartier Crash watch. My grandfather told me the story behind it: the Oval was proving popular so he thought of using that as a base for a new design: he suggested to Rupert Emmerson, his head watch designer, that they adjust the shape by “by pinching the ends at a point and putting a kink in the middle” so it looked like it had been in a crash. It was unconventional for Cartier to create something asymmetrical like that but the 1960s were unconventional times and Jean-Jacques understood that there were a generation out there who wanted something very different, far more daring, than what their parents had worn. It wasn’t for everyone though: Stewart Granger who had an early model, is said to have decided after a few days that it was rather too avant-garde for his tastes and decided to exchange it for a more classic model. Back then (the first one was made in 1967), the Crash cost c.$1000 (c. $7,500 today) but these days they can go for over $100,000, popular with both vintage watch collectors and modern-day celebrities (the rapper Kanye West owns one). I watched one model soar through the estimate at an auction recently and thought to myself how amazed my grandfather would have been to see that…

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).

1 thought on “A Family Affair Part II: Talking about the Cartier family with Francesca Cartier Brickell

  1. Dear George, some great insights here. Especially concerning the deciphering of the myths around the conception of the design of the Crash. I will be buying the book. Seems like a very interesting read. Best, wouter from wristicons

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