The story of the Cartier jewellery empire is a fascinating journey that begun with Louis-François Cartier. Born in 1819, he took up an apprenticeship in the jewellery trade as soon as he left school. Working under Bernard Picard, a fabricant or maker of jewels, Louis-François worked hard to hone his skills and learn as much as he could. In 1847 he jumped at the opportunity to purchase the Rue Montorgueil workshop from his employer, thus setting into motion the creation of what would become the iconic house of Cartier.
Initially Cartier would sell to other workshops and jewellers, although Louis-François would have preferred to sell directly to customers, he had to focus on establishing the name within the trade first. It would be six years after founding Cartier before Louis-François would move into an area where he could finally deal with his customers directly. In 1856 Princess Mathilde Bonaparte asked Louis-François to repair a necklace for her, which resulted in numerous purchases in the years to come, along with his first royal warrant.
Louis-François realised the importance of networking and the opportunities it could present, a philosophy he instilled in his son, Alfred, as well as the motto to always “be very kind”, which would prove to be significant in the Cartier family going forward. Alfred joined Louis-François in the business and worked closely with his father to expand the brand's reach and reputation, proving himself to be competent and a great addition to the team, he eventually took over the reins in 1873.
Alfred married Alice Griffeuille, who was the youngest daughter of the late metal dealer Joseph Griffeuille. The union offered a sizable dowry for Alfred as well the connections that come with being married to someone of wealth. Alfred and Alice had four children, three sons Louis, Pierre and Jacques, and a daughter Suzanne. These three sons would be the future of Cartier.
In the late 1890s, the boys, then aged 18, 15 and 9, would sit over a world map and carefully divide it into three regions: Europe, the Americas and Great Britain. As Louis was the eldest, he assigned an area to each brother, pledging their allegiance to each other as well as the Cartier name. Indeed, they were all aware that one day they would inherit the family business, and their goal was to transform Cartier into an International jewellery powerhouse. Louis would be responsible for Europe which included the original Cartier Paris store, Pierre would take Cartier across to America and Jacques would open a Cartier store in London.
As they came of age, each son brought their unique talents and perspectives to the brand, Louis was the creative inspiration, Pierre was a born networker and Jacques became a gemstone expert. Together they made Cartier into a global success.
Louis agreed to marry Andrée-Caroline Worth, who was the granddaughter of Charles Frederick Worth, one of the world’s leading couturiers at the time. The match would boost Louis’ social status, clientele, and finances, but sadly Andrée was very troubled, and the marriage would not be a happy one. As things deteriorated, Louis would spend more time at Parisian nightclubs socialising with courtesans and the men that they attracted. These men would often end up becoming good clients of Cartier, buying jewellery for both their lovers and their wives. Louis even had to develop a special filing system for these clients after an embarrassing mix up between a gift for a lover with a gift for a wife. Louis would later remarry in 1924.
Pierre fell in love with an American socialite, named Elma Rumsey, after she escaped a tremendous downpour by taking cover in the Cartier store. Their union would prove to be beneficial when Pierre decided to open the Cartier branch in New York. He famously traded a double strand of natural pearls for real estate property on 5th avenue that would become the home of Cartier New York.
Jacques had originally aspired to become a Catholic priest, but that had all changed when he met the heiress, Nelly Harjes. Her father worked with J.P Morgan and the Cartiers were very pleased with the match. However, Nelly’s father was very protective over Nelly following her divorce from an abusive husband, and Nelly’s brother Herman didn’t help matters by insisting that the Cartiers were simply shopkeepers and not worthy of the Harjes family. Eventually Nelly’s father agreed that if Jacques could go a year without seeing Nelly, and they still wanted to be together after that, he would give his blessing. Fortunately, Jacques had a very busy year ahead visiting India and England, which kept him suitably distracted. The pair were happily married in 1912, and in 1919, Nelly gave birth to the first boy of his generation to carry on the family name. Something all three brothers would celebrate.
The three Cartier brothers would take the brand to every corner of the globe, visiting clients and seeking out potential new business, touring mines and attending pearl dives, invited to Maharaj’s palaces and stone dealers in remote areas. They would successfully guide the business through revolutions, wars and depressions. Their wealthy clients would include the Romanovs’ to the British royals, wealthy tycoons and fortunate heirs, as well as celebrities and movie stars. They even developed a secret code system for telegraphing each other, ensuring any potential competitors would be unable to decipher what plans Cartier had next. Together they created branches of skilled employees who were exceptionally loyal, the Cartier Empire was successful largely because of the family it encased. “Never copy, always create” was the motto that defined Cartier amongst others,” Everything comes from what came before”, they drew inspiration from everything, including history, architecture and nature. New staff in the workshop would spend years training, indeed until they could finally recognise and capture the true Cartier essence.
Sadly Jacques passed away in 1941, and Louis followed less than 10 months later. It was an incredibly tough time for remaining brother Pierre. While he managed the businesses best he could, with Jacques son Jean-Jacques managing the London branch with success, Louis’ son Claude did not possess the drive and ambition needed for the New York office. He would be the first one to sell a Cartier branch to an outsider, an act that disappointed the family as they had always been proud of the business being run by family. Eventually the Cartier Paris branch was sold, and finally Cartier London. The end of an era.
Cartier remains one of the most prestigious names in luxury jewellery and watches to this day. Its rich history is a testament to generations of skilled artisans who have dedicated themselves to creating timeless pieces that embody elegance and style. The exquisite pieces created under the three brothers encompasses some of the best jewellery, watches, clocks, and accessories ever produced.
Dawsons are honoured to be offering a spectacular 1930s Cartier Kashmir sapphire and diamond flower brooch, in our upcoming Jewellery, Watches & Silver auction on the 21st of September. Designed as a single bloom of cherry blossom, this brooch features a cushion shaped Kashmir sapphire with an estimated weight of 7 carats, the petals are highlighted with old-cut diamonds with an estimated total weight of 16 carats, and the piece is signed ‘Cartier London’.
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