The word ‘jewel’ makes the heart beat a little faster. Great jewels have always epitomized beauty, love — illicit or sanctified —romance, danger and mystery. And no one knew better how to cash in on this mystique than the firm of Cartier, for years the go-to jewelers for discreet, elegant razzle-dazzle. Its customers were kings, princes, maharajas and the whole of ‘society’. The iconic panther brooch it created for the Duchess of Windsor sold for $7 million (in 2010).
When Francesca Cartier Brickell, searching for a special bottle of champagne in her Cartier grandfather’s cellar, spotted a battered leather trunk in one corner, she opened it to find bundles of letters, each tied and neatly labeled. It was, she realized, the story of her family: her grandfather had been the fourth generation to work for the business before it was sold in 1970. It is mainly on these that her book is based.
Like many American books, it’s too long for its subject, being packed with the sort of obscure detail fascinating to family members but less enthralling to others. I could have done instead with more direct quotes, and more anecdotes about the women who bought these amazing jewels — Grace Kelly’s huge diamond solitaire engagement ring was one — and wore them so flamboyantly.
Having said that, the story of the family’s rise from simple artisans to originators, creators, super salesmen and friends to the rich and famous is extraordinary. It rests largely on the shoulders of three brothers, Louis, Pierre and Jacques Cartier.
The first step was taken by their grand- father, Louis-François, born in 1819, the eldest of the seven children of a metal worker father and washerwoman mother. To raise the family a notch on the social scale, his father had managed to get him apprenticed to a jeweler in Paris, jewelers then being considered middle-class. After years of hard work came the opportunity for a leap forward and upward, grasped by Louis-François. In 1847 he was able to buy the shop he worked in when his boss moved to larger premises in a more fashionable part of town. Aged 27, he was now the owner of his own business.
Six years later, Louis-François himself moved to the more upmarket Palais-Royal district. With the beautiful Empress Eugenie presiding over a glittering court — often smothered in diamonds herself — the fine jewelery trade received a welcome boost. When she visited his showroom in 1859, it was the ultimate accolade. But Cartier’s rise halted abruptly with France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. What helped save the firm was the son Alfred’s sale on commission of the famous courtesan Giulia Barucci’s fortune in gems, given to her by numerous wealthy lovers. (On her first meeting with the Prince of Wales, she arrived 45 minutes late, but assuaged his annoyance by turning and letting her dress — her sole covering — slide slowly to the floor. It was enough.)
What really turned the firm into Cartier as we know it were Alfred’s three sons, Louis, Pierre and Jacques. Louis, who married the daughter of the great couturier Worth, would lunch most days at the nearby restaurant of Maxim’s, where the famous cocottes were the stars. They would turn up dressed to kill and smothered in jewels — often Cartier’s — not only in an attempt to outdo their rivals but to proclaim the wealth of their lovers, and thus the price of their own favors. ‘I always have a beauty sitting by the window, in view of the pavement,’ said Maxim’s proprietor.
In 1902 Pierre opened a showroom in London, soon to receive the Royal Warrant. Then, in the middle of the first world war, the famous Cartier Tank Watch was born (previously, men had used strapless pocket watches). It was quickly taken up, not only by dandies such as Boni de Castellane, the epicene, free-spending marquis who married a New York heiress and painted his toenails pink, but men as varied as Duke Ellington, Rudolph Valentino and President Kennedy — who declared that the Cartier Tank was ‘France’s greatest gift to America since the Statue of Liberty’.
The inevitable next move was to America, where the ladies of the Gilded Age, for whom too much was barely enough, gobbled up Cartier’s strings of pearls, elegant tiaras and écharpes — ‘sashes’ of glittering gems worn from shoulder to waist — often wearing all of these at the same time. Then Cartier gambled financially on the notorious blue Hope Diamond, said to carry a curse, and the fate of the firm hung in the balance. Would anyone be wealthy, or brave, enough to buy it?
When the immensely rich Mrs Evalyn Walsh McLean hit town, Pierre gave her the Hope, set in a necklace, suggesting she try it on at home. Once on her dressing table, he guessed correctly, she would not be able to part with it. But she was so recalcitrant about paying that the Cartiers eventually had to go to the law. Finally, after having the Hope blessed in church to remove any curse, Evalyn paid up. Most of the Cartiers’ profit went in legal fees; as to the curse, though Evalyn believed the Hope was now her good luck talisman, her marriage crumbled, her son was killed in a car accident and her daughter committed suicide.
Fast forward to the 1930s — for me the true Age of Cartier. It started badly with the Great Depression (‘80 percent of our orders were canceled,’ wailed Pierre) but, accelerating into the curve, Cartier gave lavish parties, attended by top clients and stage stars, where most of the guests wore their jewels — some bought on tick — and others vowed to acquire some. None more so than the jewel-mad Barbara Hutton, the original Poor Little Rich Girl, whose relationship with Cartier lasted longer than that with any of her seven husbands. Even her first wedding, in 1933, brought in enough business to boost profits for the year.
Astutely, the third brother, Jacques, guessed that the Depression would not have spread to the maharajas, for whom being festooned in fabulous jewels was part of a way of life. A return to India meant that trade picked up there.
At home, where things were tighter, the brothers unobtrusively bought up the best of the semi-precious stones, such as topaz, so that when they had enough they could create a collection around them. When the 70-year-old celebrity interior designer Elsie de Wolfe (later Lady Mendl, famous for standing on her head and sometimes cartwheeling into parties) bought an aquamarine and diamond tiara from Cartier, she dyed her white hair pale blue to match. By the time other jewelers had realized that topaz, amethyst or aquamarine were now the gems du jour, the best stones had gone and it was too late to catch up.
Jacques’s forays in India, bringing back many gemstones, had set another trend, later known as ‘tutti frutti’ for its mingling of rubies, emeralds, sapphires and diamonds into brilliant necklaces and brooches, for which Daisy Fellowes, the hugely rich socialite, trendsetter and devourer of other women’s husbands, was their best advertisement.
But it was to Wallis Simpson that Cartier owed much of its all-pervasive influence in England. At one time, almost every list of exclusive wedding presents included a Cartier cigarette case, brooch, powder compact, cufflinks or clip. (My own research for one book unearthed the unusual aftermath of such a gift: when Artur Rubinstein married, he slipped away from his wedding dinner to bed an old flame — who had just presented his new bride with a Cartier ruby and diamond brooch.)
When the Prince of Wales became besotted with Wallis Simpson, she insisted that all trace of his long-term mistress Freda Dudley Ward be eradicated. So the prince, who had formerly bought from Boucheron, switched to Cartier; Wallis wore their diamond bracelet at her wedding. After World War Two — during which Goering was Cartier’s best customer, keeping a bowl of jewels in his rooms at the Paris Ritz — Wallis, now Duchess of Windsor, remained faithful, eventually owning, among her bracelets, clips, necklaces and brooches, no fewer than 12 big-cat jewels.
As time passed, it became harder to make money from expensive, time-consuming original creations, and with the ending of the Raj, the custom from India dwindled. In short, the basis of the luxury world had changed, and in 1974 the business was finally sold.
What had made Cartier the go-to jeweler for so many of the rich for so many years? To my mind, the best description of its distinctive style came from a would-be designer who took five years to have his work finally approved as ‘truly Cartier’. It was, he said, ‘the symmetry, the Art Deco aspect mixed in with understated French elegance. That was what made Cartier so special’.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the US edition here.