France in the 1800s was a difficult period to start a jewellery brand. Fresh out of a revolution and in the midst of another, with the economy in disrepair and Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup d’état just around the corner, Louis-François Cartier took over his master Adolphe Picard’s Parisian workshop, founding Cartier. Fortunately for Cartier, trade grew with the rise of the Second Empire, and from its 1847 beginnings to six years later in 1953, the business managed to generate enough private clientele to require the upsizing of its workshop. A further six years later, and Cartier opens its first boutique.
In 1914, the Panther became Cartier's motif, inspiring the brand's design for many decades to come
Alfred Cartier, Louis-François’ son, took over from his father and continued to grow the business, opening in the prestigious rue de la Paix in Paris’ jewellery district. He entrusted his own sons Pierre and Jacques to open boutiques in London and New York respectively, while he left the operation of the Paris business to his third son, Louis. Louis’ eye for detail and fervour for innovation saw the business grow faster than ever, becoming one of the defining jewellery houses in France. It was Louis Cartier, through his drive to innovate, that introduced platinum to the world of jewellery. The brand’s reputation earned the respect of royalty, with Kind Edward VII proclaiming Cartier as ‘Jeweller of Kings, King of Jewellers.’
The trend-setting nature of Cartier continued into the 20th century, with Louis creating a wrist-worn watch for his friend and aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont in 1904, introducing the now famous blue sapphire cabochon set into the crown. It was not the first time a wristwatch had ever been created, but such was the influence of Cartier (and of Santos-Dumont, a celebrity of the time), that Cartier’s wristwatch became highly fashionable almost overnight. This came in the same decade as the creation of one of Cartier’s most famous pieces of jewellery, the heart of which was the 45-carat ‘Hope’ diamond. Loaned to Washington Post heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean for a weekend, her infatuation with it led to Cartier’s first big transaction.
Iconic creation follows iconic creation, and the 1912 ‘Mysterious Clock’ wowed audiences with its floating hands and invisible mechanism. Two years later came the introduction of the Panther as the brand’s motif, inspiring Cartier design for many decades to come. Not long after that comes yet another design legend: the Trinity ring. Woven from three strands of yellow gold, rose gold and platinum, its like had never been seen before, and it continues to serve as an icon of Cartier.
This was a tumultuous time, however, with World War One ravaging Europe, and Louis Cartier was enlisted to fight on the Western Front. His creative mind continued to seek inspiration, which it found in the form of the Renault FT tanks he saw on the front line. The angular shapes and prominent tracks of these war machines found their way into the Tank watch of 1918, a design far ahead of its time. But Cartier’s watches weren’t all style and no substance; a 1932 commission for the Pacha of Marrakech inspired the creation of a waterproof and knock-proof timepiece the Pacha could wear while swimming.
It was a sad day in 1942, when after such a prosperous career, Louis Cartier died. The forward-thinking design of Cartier jewellery that had made the brand famous was in good hands, however, managed by the exquisitely elegant Jeanne Toussaint. From there, and with the 1972 appointment of Managing Director Alain Dominique Perrin, Cartier has gone from strength to strength, revitalising classic watch designs and introducing new ones, such as the Roadster, Ballon Bleu and the hugely popular Tank Française. To those not in the know, Cartier is a jeweller with a line of watches on the side; to those who understand, Cartier is the essence of watchmaking as it stands today.
The Cartier Santos, created in 1904, enabled aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont to check the time while flying