LuxeBook speaks with Francesca Cartier Brickell, a descendant of the illustrious Cartier family, about her book The Cartiers, her
family’s business, its rich and famous clients and its connections with India.
When Francesca Cartier Brickell discovered in her great grandfather, Jean Jacques Cartier’s cellar a battered old trunk full of century-old letters, she decided to research her illustrious family’s business history, which began in 1847, when Louis-François Cartier, her great-great great grandfather, founded the firm in Paris. Her grandfather Jean-Jacques was the last of the family to manage and own a branch of the jewellery firm.
Over the years, Cartier has become one of the world’s most revered jewellery brands, and Francesca has written a detailed account of her ten-year research on the family in a book titled The Cartiers.
She was in India, at the recently concluded Jaipur Literature Festival, and later in Mumbai to speak about her book and her family’s connection with India and how our country inspired the greatest jewellers of the world.
How did your great-grandfather Jacques describe his several trips to India?
Though they took him away from home and family for months at a time, Jacques loved his visits to India. He was fascinated by its history and culture and even tried to learn Hindi with the help of a language book and the ship’s crew on the way there.
He was awed by India — everything from the architecture to the fabrics, to the colours had an enormous effect on him. For example, he talked about the Indian sunlight, how it was so different from the English light and how all the colours were that much more vivid and all-consuming. For me, it was one thing
to read his words, but during my visit to India, I truly grasped why he had been so bowled over by it all. Such a feast for the senses, an explosion of colour and life.
As he travelled through the country, Jacques wrote extensive travel diaries, some of which I have based my travels on as I wanted to revisit many of the places for myself. In Baroda, for example, Jacques talked about meeting the Gaekwad and Maharani in 1911 and described how he was asked to come up with designs for the resetting of the crown jewels. He spent days furiously sketching in the palace before the local court jewellers grew jealous at his presence and made him leave without securing the commission! The Maharani (whom he described as a superior woman) still managed to quietly give him some of her jewels to remodel. For me, it was wonderful to visit Laxmi Vilas Palace a century later and share some of Jacques’ sketches with the gracious Maharani Radhikaraje who lives there now.
How did India impact Jacques’s designs and business?
I would say there were three main ways. Firstly, the clients: Indian clients, specifically the Maharajas, gave the Cartiers some of their biggest commissions. Pieces like the Patiala necklace of almost 3,000 diamonds or the Maharaja of Kapurthala’s spectacular emerald turban ornament or the Maharaja of
Nawanagar’s incredibly rare coloured diamond necklace were truly extraordinary at the time and are legendary even today.
Secondly, the gems. My great grandfather would travel to India regularly to buy gemstones. India, being the gem-capital of the world, had some of the best gemstones available anywhere on the planet. Thanks to Jacques’ trips, Cartier soon gained a reputation as having some of the highest quality rubies, sapphires
and emeralds in the market.
Thirdly, and this was a by-product of Jacques’ trips rather than an
early motivation: the inspiration that Cartier would derive from India. The colours inspired Cartier’s Hindou jewels (later known as the Tutti Frutti jewels), while Indian carvings and motifs fed into designs on everything from tiaras to cigarette cases.
The Cartiers went through two world wars and the Great Depression. How did the company adapt to changing times?
In so many ways the fact that the Cartiers were pragmatic was key to their continued success and longevity. They were always innovating. In the depth of the 1930s depression, for example, Pierre Cartier started a $5 and $10 department in America. It didn’t make the firm big margins, but it did keep customers coming. When those clients had serious money to spend again, they would come back to the place they trusted and knew.
After the Second World War, when jewellery tax was a devastating 125 per cent in London, my grandfather Jean-Jacques Cartier concentrated on more practical items like watches. Before that, watches sold in London were made in France but as times changed, he changed the way things were done and started making watches in London at the Wright & Davies workshop in Farringdon. I am probably biased but I love the bespoke watch models produced in Cartier London during my grandfather’s period – from the JJC models, the Crash Watch,the Tank Oblique, the Maxi-Oval (one of which sold at Bonhams about a year ago for £60,000!), not to mention the incredibly rare Pebble watch and the experimental Double-strap.
How did the family decide to exit the business?
As with many family firms, it wasn’t a straightforward decision taken by one person. There were many people involved across multiple countries over a decade.
How did you choose the pieces you have written about in the book?
I like the stories behind the jewels. For me, that is what brings them to life. For example, the Romanov emeralds. I loved the idea that these same emeralds had seen so much over the years – how they had glittered under the light of an opulent St. Petersburg ball before the Russian revolution forced them to be smuggled out of the country. After they were sold in exile to Cartier, they were remodelled as a long sautoir necklace: the jazz-age had replaced the Belle Epoque and they would be snapped up by a 1920s heiress in America.
Later, when the Great Depression struck, they were sold again and shipped over to England. This time, another wealthy American remodelled it into a chunky necklace by Cartier London. Later, they found their way to Tangiers but only after they had been transformed into an elegant headdress by designer Lucien Lassachagne and salesman André Denet in Cartier Paris.
I wanted to highlight that wow ‘if only they could talk’ aspect to these emeralds. No single person would ever witness that much history.
But, for other Spotlights, it was different. For the Tank watch Spotlight, I wanted to share the original inspiration behind such an iconic object, worn by everyone from Andy Warhol to Princess Diana, and explain how the Cartiers managed to popularise it at a time when the fashion for men was for pocket watches (wristwatches were seen as feminine so it was no easy feat).
For the big cat jewels, I wanted to share my grandfather’s take on the inspiration behind the idea of a panther and highlight those iconic clients who wore them (like the Duchess of Windsor) and those responsible for linking the image with Cartier(such as the formidable artistic designer, Jeanne Toussaint who was also known as ‘Pan Pan’ for her love for big cats).
What was the biggest challenge in telling the Cartier story?
Just the breadth. There were four generations to cover, starting in the early nineteenth century; plenty of characters acting in multiple countries through over a century of groundbreaking world events. I tried to not only understand who my ancestors were as people but also who their employees, suppliers, clients and friends were too. And because I wanted them to come to life for the reader, I did a lot of background research. Even for a minor character who appears briefly, I dug up their birth certificates, found out whom they married, if they had fought in one of the wars perhaps, what they did in retirement and, where possible, I tried to speak to their descendants to add more personal colour.
The other challenge was to understand the social context in which they lived and acted… each part was fascinating in its own way—one month I would be knee-deep in the history of 19th century Paris, courtesans, royal weddings, wars and sieges; the next I would be over in the palaces of St Petersburg with the Romanovs, and then I’d be there in the trenches of the Great War and then dancing with the flappers in jazz-age America. It was a lot of work but it never got dull!
What does luxury mean to you?
For me, luxury means something that is beautifully made with real care and attention. One of the sayings at Cartier was “the best is good enough”. My grandfather felt that the click that a cigarette box made when it was shut had to be just right -satisfyingly audible; and the back of a jewel had to look as good as the front – it didn’t matter that no one else would see it, he had to know it was made perfectly. That for me epitomises luxury.
What is your favourite vintage Cartier piece?
There are so many that I couldn’t choose just one, from the Trinity Ring to the Tank Watch to the Tutti Frutti jewels. Of course, there’s the Patiala necklace which also had a 235-carat pale yellow De Beers diamond.
I also love the mystery clocks. Their dials are made from transparent crystal and the inner workings are not visible. They caused a sensation when they were first made in the 1910s because no one could fathom how they worked. Even the salesman wasn’t told the secret so their sense of wonder could be passed to the client in its purest form. It took the Cartier workshop a full year to make the first one and the banker J.P. Morgan bought an early model. Later on, the Maharaja of Nawanagar, who was friends with Jacques Cartier, bought a very rare figurine mystery clocks (these had an ancient artefact incorporated into the designs. They were works of art within works of art: they have been compared to Faberge’s eggs). The Maharaja of Nawanagar’s clock was one of the most fabulous of them all, incorporating a gem-studded jade elephant supporting a coral, onyx, pearl and rock-crystal pagoda clock.
Finally, there is also a fabulous pendant brooch made with carved Indian emeralds that were bought by American heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post and currently resides in her former residence, Hillwood Museum in Washington, where I gave a book lecture last November. She was a great collector and was a
client of Cartier for many decades.