The name Cartier is synonymous with beautiful objects of quality and style. Although Cartier is perhaps better known for fine jewelry, their signed wristwatches have made a huge impression on the global watch market and have become increasingly collectable over the years. Many of the fabulous watches can be regarded as pieces of jewelry in their own right and Cartier watches and jewelry have become renowned throughout the world.
Founded in Paris in1847, by Louis-Francois Cartier, the firm known as Cartier quickly became recognized for its exemplary workmanship and taste. Louis-Francois Cartier began his esteemed career at 28, after an apprenticeship with master watchmaker Adolphe Picard resulted in Cartier taking over the master’s workshop, 29 rue Montorgueil, Paris. He expanded the premises, and built his reputation on knowing how to satisfy the most extravagant of desires. By 1853 Louis Francois was able to move his business to the more fashionable Palais-Royal district at 5 Rue Neuve des petits Champs. He became a favorite of Princess Mathilde, the cousin of Napoleon III, whose patronage opened the door to Parisian society.
In 1874 Alfred Cartier took over the company from his father Louis Francois. In 1898 the Cartier firm made a final move in Paris and they still remain at 13 Rue de La Paix, in the heart of Parisian elegance and luxury. The rue de la Paix was one of Paris’s most expensive streets, and offered everything an elegant wealthy woman may wish to purchase. Cartier set a trend by moving to the rue de la Paix and other jewelers followed suit by relocating to the rue de la Paix and nearby Place Vendome. That area of Paris soon became the center of international jewelry. As the brand became increasingly well-known, Cartier expanded their empire, opening a London branch in 1902 and in a New York branch in 1909.
Alfred Cartier entrusted his three sons to manage the Maison de Cartier. The eldest son Louis directed the shop in Paris. Alfred Cartier’s younger sons Pierre and Jacque left on voyages to explore the world. They later established themselves in other areas, Pierre in New York, and Jacques in London. Businessman, jeweler and collector, Louis Cartier was handsome, distinguished and elegant. He proved popular among the Parisian women and was well thought of by the aristocracy, which he used to increase Cartier’s list of distinguished clientele. One of his most important clients was the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, who once described Louis Cartier as "the jeweler of Kings, the King among jewelers".
Among Louis Cartier’s most important and lasting innovations was introducing the combination of platinum and diamonds to create garland style jewelry. Cartier wove the platinum into extremely fine threads in order to bring out the sparkle of the diamonds, making platinum a legitimate and irreplaceable precious metal in jewelry making.
Spurred by the economic prosperity between the wars, Cartier simultaneously created and fulfilled the demand for original and exceptional jewels; many made to order. In addition to attracting the world’s most eminent private clients, the courts of England, Russia, Greece, Spain, Portugal and Siam officially granted Cartier their royal patronage.
From the outset Cartier designed watches that were elegant, small, accurate, and a statement of the times in which they were made. Cartier was unique among wristwatch designers and manufacturers because they owned their own retail outlets and were therefore able to stay abreast of changing fashion trends. Their genius for design often meant they set the fashion themselves, instead of following it.
In 1904, Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont, asked close friend Louis Cartier to design a watch that could be used during his flights, since pocket watches were not suitable. Louis Cartier created for him the Santos wristwatch, the first wrist watch made for men. The Santos first went on sale in 1911, the date of Cartier's first production of wristwatches.
During the early twentieth century any man wearing a wristwatch made a very daring statement, as the classic pocket watch was considered the only timepiece a gentleman should carry. Cartier was a major influence in persuading the Parisian aristocracy to accept the idea of wristwatches for men. The Santos was promoted to show that the adventurous gentleman could wear a wristwatch in all elements of his life.
The ability to create many unique wristwatches was of great advantage to Cartier because customers were able to select from various designs, or order custom made pieces. Because the shops only sold their own brand they had no competition from other jewelers in store. Cartier’s wristwatches were fast becoming the status symbol of the rich, and people became eager to purchase all the unique models that were being manufactured.
Cartier’s timepieces were taken to a new level by Maurice Couet, a designer who in 1913 introduced the famous Mystery clock, the hands of which appear to float magically on faces of rock crystal. The "Tank" wristwatch introduced in 1917 during the First World War was Cartier's most famous model. Louis Cartier was inspired by the tough new war machines the Americans introduced to Europe, and the subsequent tank design, a rugged yet beautiful watch, became a classic.
Throughout the First World War Cartier continued to produce inventive and original designs. Cartier introduced many innovations into the jewelry market. Primarily known for their work with diamonds, the firm designed lavish pieces, often incorporating other stones in new and unusual settings for contrast and color. Sylvie Raulet writes about the atmosphere in Paris after WWI in “Art Deco Jewelry” (Rizzoli): “After the First World War, all the arts participated in an unprecedented cultural revolution. The Golden Twenties witnessed an exceptional alliance of taste, talent and money.” The Cartier firm reached dizzying heights of Art Deco splendor. Louis Cartier’s fascination with exotic motifs led to the creation of diamond, ruby and platinum earrings from which hung jade roundels carved with elephants, and a gold and enamel bangle with two carved-coral chimera heads facing each other in the center. Cartier designs also incorporated Far Eastern, Indian and Egyptian themes – influenced by the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922. The Cartier firm, as well as other leading jewelers of the era “renounced flora and fauna for the play of geometric shapes, juxtaposed or superimposed on one another.”
In the inter war years two more branches of Cartier were opened in fashionable beach resorts, Cartier Cannes in 1935 and Cartier Monte Carlo in 1938. While France was occupied by German troops during WWII, Cartier interpreted the national symbol of a caged bird into jewelry designs. When the Nazi regime was finally extinguished and Paris was free once again Cartier created the “freed bird brooch” as a tribute to liberation. The symbolic brooch consisted of a small singing bird made with gems of blue, red, and white representing the French national colors, mounted on top of a gold cage.
Louis and Jaques Cartier both died in 1942. Their brother Pierre became the president of Cartier International in 1945 and from then on stayed almost entirely in the shop in Paris until he retired to Geneva in 1947. In the late 1940's Cartier London was run by Jean-Jaques Cartier, while the New York branch was headed by Claude Cartier. In 1962 Claude Cartier sold Cartier New York but remained president of the company until 1963.
By 1968 Cartier had evolved from a family business into an enormous multinational organization. In 1972 Joseph Kanoui led a financial syndicate which bought control of Cartier Paris. Robert Hocq became president of the company. He once again united the three branches of Cartier and took over the management of the London and New York branches in a move to re-establish Cartier's image of prestige and importance. In 1983 Cartier launched a campaign to buy back its historical pieces to create a collection that is witness to an exceptional heritage and legendary status.