Books

Getting to know the Cartiers

Francesca Cartier Brickell and her book The Cartiers: The Untold Story of the Family Behind the Jewelry Empire

Francesca Cartier Brickell and her book The Cartiers: The Untold Story of the Family Behind the Jewelry Empire   | Photo Credit: Jonathan James Wilson

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Discovering lost correspondence between four generations of her ancestors led Francesca Cartier Brickell to record their history in her new book, The Cartiers: The Untold Story of the Family Behind the Jewelry Empire

From starting out as an apprentice to a minor Parisian jeweller, Louis-François Cartier spent two-and-a-half decades building his business. His humble beginnings as a metalworker’s son could not be further from the glamour associated with the family name now. The brand counts royalty like Queen Elizabeth of England and Princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly, as patrons. Actor Elizabeth Taylor received her iconic ruby and diamond set while she was in the pool! There are no less takers for the jewellery maker’s work today. At a Christie’s auction in June this year, Cartier pieces may have accounted for only 5% of the lots, but brought in a quarter of the $109 million value.

This is where Francesca Cartier Brickell begins her book, The Cartiers: The Untold Story of the Family Behind the Jewelry Empire. A search for more Champagne at her grandfather Jean-Jacques Cartier’s 90th birthday had led to a treasure that has defined her life’s work for more than a decade now. In the cellar, instead of the bubbly, she found a battered old trunk, covered in faded stickers from Parisian railway stations and exotic Eastern hotels. “Inside were hundreds of long-lost family letters and documents, everything from birth certificates to love letters to jewellery designs to old war telegrams. They essentially told the story of four generations of Cartiers, and the evolution of the jewellery business the family had founded back in 1847,” she says.

A selection of letters, telegrams and designs from the Cartiers

A selection of letters, telegrams and designs from the Cartiers   | Photo Credit: Jonathan James Wilson

The narrative is interspersed with quotes from corresponding letters, and Jean-Jacques’ recollections. Of course, there are over 100 photographs of the family, sketches, and the jewels they created. She writes about how Louis-François and the firm survived “revolution, a disastrous economy, a coup d’etat and fire” all within a dozen years. Most remarkable were his marketing techniques: he courted the elite — like Princesse Mathilde Bonaparte, niece of Emperor Napoleon. He well knew that even a visit to the store by such patrons would pique interest.

His son, Alfred, took the Cartier name across the Channel to London, laying the foundation to expand. His three sons — Louis-Joseph, Pierre-Camille and Jacques-Theodule — took care of the Paris, New York and London branches respectively. Louis-Joseph’s innate need to experiment led to Cartier coming out with their first men’s wristwatch in 1911. His strategic arranged marriage — to the granddaughter of designer Charles Frederick Worth — was not to his liking, but he agreed, for the sake of securing the family business. It worked. “When American banker JP Morgan heard that the granddaughter of his late friend Charles was to marry Louis, he called for the groom-to-be, promised him his future custom, and bought $50,000 of jewels on the spot,” says Brickell, to illustrate the point.

1922/Three Cartier brothers with their father. From left to right: Pierre, Louis, Alfred, and Jacques

1922/Three Cartier brothers with their father. From left to right: Pierre, Louis, Alfred, and Jacques   | Photo Credit: Cartier Family Archives

Pierre got the Americas (and an American wife), where he handled transactions such as the “cursed” Hope diamond, and sold to heiress Evalyn Walsh MacLean for $1,80,000. One of his most prized deals was exchanging a pearl necklace worth more than a million dollars at the time, for a townhouse on Fifth Avenue, New York, which remains the firm’s American headquarters even today. Jacques’ mandate included Britain and the colonies, leading to a clientele of maharajas who kept the firm afloat during the Great Depression. On the family front, he pleaded with his prospective father-in-law to win the hand of Nelly, who was as Protestant as he was Catholic. This is striking, as in his younger days, he was a deeply spiritual, and would have taken his vows as a priest, if not for the call of familial duty.

The book also covers later generations, including Brickell’s grandfather (Jacques’s son), who kept Cartier in the family until 1962, when Louis’ son, Claude sold the New York firm without informing anyone. Jean-Jacques recalls, “The three brothers had a covenant that if one of them ever wanted to sell his branch, he must first offer it to the others.” He was the last to sign over his London operations, in 1974. While the luxury maison is now owned by Switzerland-based Richemont, Brickell took on the role of an independent researcher, choosing to tell the “human story, with their weaknesses, talents, anxieties, loves, losses and dreams”. After a launch at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London last week, she will be travelling to America this month, and will be speaking at Jaipur Literary Festival at the end of January.

Edited excerpts from Brickell’s exclusive email interview with Weekend.

What was the kind of research that went into the book?

Reading through the letters was an enormous job in itself, as they were in both French and English, and many had hard-to-decipher handwriting. I talked about them at length with my grandfather, and spent many hours recording his memoirs. I travelled all over the world, tracking down as many people linked with the firm of old as I could, to try to fill in the picture and triangulate the story, because I knew only part of the history was in the trunk.

Where did your travels take you?

In India, I followed my great grandfather Jacques Cartier’s footsteps. On his trips to meet the maharajas, he would sketch royal jewels in order that he might come up with new designs for remounting them in a more western fashion. It was a moment of real excitement to see the jewels that matched the sketches, such as a stunning diamond aigrette that he’d seen in the palace of Baroda. In Sri Lanka, I visited sapphire mines; in London, Paris and New York, I met many elderly designers and craftsmen who’d worked under my family. It was surprisingly moving.

Did anything surprise you?

How the Cartier women played such a critical role in the growth of the business. Strategic marriages helped keep the firm afloat in the difficult early days, and later helped it to expand. Another interesting discovery was just how important a market India was. The Great Depression was terrible for luxury brands, and one of the reasons Cartier survived when their western clients reined in spending was because of commissions from the maharajas.

What was your writing process?

I spent a long time researching. But I was also bringing up two young children, so I had other distractions as well. In fact, I often took them with me on research holidays. But a couple of years ago, I came to realise that I could be turning over stones forever — each time I made a new discovery, it just opened up a whole new avenue of research possibilities. I needed to get on with the writing or this story would never make it out into the world.

What do you plan to do now that the book is out?

I plan to travel and speak to people who are interested in the book. I also hope to meet those who can add to the history, but I do want to spend more time with my children too. They have been very patient with me during the all-consuming book-writing process and are looking forward to having their mother back!

Francesca’s favourites

Cartier Indian-inspired Tutti Frutti designs, with a Cartier Art Deco Tutti Frutti brooch (a rock crystal vase holding flowers with diamond stalks, carved emerald leaves and ruby and sapphire buds).

Cartier Indian-inspired Tutti Frutti designs, with a Cartier Art Deco Tutti Frutti brooch (a rock crystal vase holding flowers with diamond stalks, carved emerald leaves and ruby and sapphire buds).   | Photo Credit: Jonathan James Wilson

Tutti Frutti: At the time they were made (in the 1920s and 30s), my great-grandfather Jacques called them the Hindou jewels. He had a true admiration and respect for India. When he travelled around, he obviously saw a different environment to the one he was used to — the colour, the vibrancy, unimaginable mixing of colours and shapes. It was this that he wanted to convey to a Western audience. So he mixed together carved rubies, sapphires and emeralds that he had bought in India into bracelets, necklaces and bandeaus. The result was a bold combination of colours that was really quite ground-breaking for the time. It became hugely popular with trend-setters like Daisy Fellowes in the West, and still breaks records at auctions today.

An Art Deco Diamond Bandeau

An Art Deco Diamond Bandeau   | Photo Credit: LA Collection Privée

Art Deco: After the First World War, women became more independent and the geometric, symmetrical shapes of Cartier’s diamond art deco jewels — in contrast to the more romantic flowing lines of Belle Epoque jewellery — suited their new, more assertive stance. The sautoir necklaces, long diamond earrings and bandeau tiaras were also designed to work with the post-war fashions. Instead of heavy corsets and large hair up-dos that had been de rigueur in the early 20th century, there was a trend towards longer, looser silhouettes and short, cropped haircuts. It has been interesting to look at the changing jewellery alongside the history of fashion trends: the Cartier brothers were always innovating, but as Louis once remarked, the jeweller is “the slave of the dressmaker for does he not create for the dressed and not the undressed woman”.

The Patiala necklace, reconstructed by Cartier in 1925 on show at the V&A Museum for the opening of the Maharaja Exhibition on October 6, 2009 in London, England

The Patiala necklace, reconstructed by Cartier in 1925 on show at the V&A Museum for the opening of the Maharaja Exhibition on October 6, 2009 in London, England   | Photo Credit: Marco Secchi

Maharaja connect: Some of the jewels Cartier made for the Indian Maharajas must rank among some of the most exquisite pieces of all time. From the Maharaja of Patiala’s diamond necklace (containing 2930 diamonds!) to the Maharaja of Kapurthala’s emerald turban ornament (with a 117.4-carat carved hexagonal emerald at its centre) to the Maharaja of Nawanagar’s necklace (containing the most superb cascade of coloured diamonds perhaps ever assembled), they were quite extraordinary.

The Cartiers: The Untold Story of the Family Behind the Jewelry Empire will be available in India from January 2020 at ₹799 (Penguin Random House India).

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Printable version | Jan 29, 2020 1:47:31 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/getting-to-know-the-cartiers/article30213889.ece

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