The house of Cartier was founded in Paris in 1847 by Louis-François Cartier (1819-1904). It was not, however, until the third generation of jewellers, lead by eldest brother Louis (1875-1942) with the support of the younger two, Pierre (1878-1965) and Jacques (1884-1942), that the company would break the mould with their own distinctive style, which they would reinvent throughout the twentieth century keeping them at the forefront of jewellery design. Louis joined the firm in 1898, just before the store moved to its fourth and final Paris location at 13 Rue de la Paix. Shortly thereafter, in 1906 Jacques took charge of the London location first on New Burlington Street and then New Bond Street, and in 1909 Pierre did the same in New York on Fifth Avenue, each at the most illustrious addresses available, establishing the Cartier name at the fore of the international jewellery market.
The three brothers came into the business on the cusp of a period of unprecedented economic growth. A keen business man as well as an aesthete, Louis was largely responsible for encouraging his designers toward invention of new modes, the first of which is now aptly termed the ‘garland’ style. Inspired by the art and architecture of late eighteenth century France, Louis encouraged his designers to go out into the streets of Paris and sketch the floral and foliate swags and bows found on Louis XVI period buildings and decorative arts. The result was lavish and feminine jewellery, primarily executed in platinum—the working of which was a new technical innovation which allowed for more delicate designs than the previously relied upon gold and silver—and diamonds—available in abundance after the discoveries in South Africa in the later part of the nineteenth century.
The next design revolution in jewellery behind which Cartier was a key driving force was the Art Deco style. This new taste, based on a post-war desire for minimalism, was broadly characterized by clean lines and bold colour combinations, principally black and white combined with primary colours, and a fascination with the exotic. Cartier excelled at both, but especially at the latter, most notably with Chinese, Indian and Egyptian inspired designs. Of particular interest is their penchant for integrating authentic artefacts from these cultures—ancient Egyptian scarabs, Qing dynasty jade and coral figures, carved Mughal emeralds—to magnificent effect, which appealed to Cartier’s ever-expanding elite clientele.
The firm of Cartier also were successful purveyors of luxury fancy goods, in particular jewelled cosmetic cases and smoking accessories, both of which became highly fashionable in the first decades of the twentieth century. As both cosmetics and smoking became more socially acceptable, Louis Cartier siezed the commercial opportunity, directing his designers, ‘We must make it our business to build up an inventory that responds to the mood of the public by producing articles which have a useful function but which are also decorated in the Cartier style.’ Early on this push was manifest in engine-turned enamel cases inspired by their distinguished Russian contemporary Fabergé, and then in the Art Deco and later Retro modes.
Due to the impeccable quality of both Cartier design and manufacture, the firm has unsurprisingly counted among its clientele the most important people of the twentieth century and into the present day. Royalty, including the Queen Alexandra, the Queen Mother and Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, the King of Siam, Princess Anastasia of Greece, Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, King Farouk of Egypt, and numerous sheiks and maharajas; barons of industry, such as the Vanderbilts, Astors, Goulds, Mcleans; movie stars, most notably Elizabeth Taylor who received from Richard Burton a 69.42 carat diamond purchased from Cartier, now known as the ‘Burton-Taylor’ diamond. Due to their timeless style, Cartier is set to remain fixed as one of the pre-eminent jewellery firms in the world.
Hans Nadelhoffer, Cartier, London: Thames and Hudson, 2007.
Judy Rudoe, Cartier: 1900-1939, London: British Museum Press, 1997.