It’s often easy to forget that the great design houses that we all admire so much have their roots in much smaller enterprises. Today, many high-end jewelry, fashion and perfume houses have emerged from other, longer-established relationships, but it hasn’t always been the case. Most, like Cartier, started as retailers or small-scale designers and manufacturers, and produced such high quality merchandise that word spread quickly.
The trade of Louis-François Cartier was, in fact, watchmaking, and it was his skill in this field that made the family name synonymous with the quality for which they are renowned. It was Cartier who began the trend of number-stamping items he produced, and this became the chosen method for identifying not just Cartier watches, but a wide range of exclusive and unique pieces by many designers.
Born in Paris in 1819, and having served his apprenticeship under master watchmaker Adolphe Picard, Cartier eventually took over his employer’s modest store in 1847, and set about turning his passion for watchmaking into a successful and thriving business. In order to increase the appeal of the store to a wider range of clients, Cartier advertised “imaginative jewelry, fashion and novelty items” alongside the core watchmaking business.
Although most of the Cartier range of non-timepieces were bought in from other manufacturers, Louis-François was a very astute businessman, and had an excellent eye for quality and saleability. His discerning approach to the lines he stocked soon made him a firm favorite with the aristocracy of Europe and beyond, and it is these connections which provided both the funds and the incentive to move the store from Rue Montorgueil to a succession of ever more illustrious addresses until finally settling – under the auspices of Alfred, Louis-François’ son – at the present location on Rue de la Paix in 1899.
The influence of the Cartier name and the clientele it was attracting encouraged other jewelers to move to the area, and soon the Cartier store was at the very heart of the world’s most exclusive center of jewelry craftsmen and haute couture fashion houses.
All through the period, Louis-François worked to define the Cartier style, something which would set his creations apart from the many jewelry houses now competing for the money of the European nobility. French jewelry making had always been centered around being “fancy”. Elaborate gold working, enamel insets and precious stones were the order of the day, and Cartier set about combining all three into his designs. His style was unmistakable, and the demand for more and more Cartier pieces grew quickly.
Before Cartier was designing his own pieces, he was outsourcing the final design and manufacture to others, based on his own outline. It was the move to Rue de la Paix, and the ever expanding list of important clients, which brought the realization that more control over the process from beginning to end was needed. At this time, Cartier was also supplying many other jewelry houses with unique pieces, and demand was becoming in danger of outstripping the ability to supply.
This expansion was undertaken by Alfred, who oversaw the creation of stores in New York and London which operated as separate and unique businesses, although Louis-François maintained a controlling eye on the business until a few years before his death in 1904. The Cartier brand remained entirely family owned until 1964, when the various international parts of the business were sold off as individual concerns. In 1972, a consortium bought all the different separate companies, and brought them back under a single organization with the aim of re-establishing the Cartier name as the leader of high-end jewelry.
From fairly humble beginnings in a modest Paris street, the Cartier name is, once again, the name in jewelry. Style, elegance and quality are all brought together to create the finest pieces available today. All thanks to a watchmaker’s apprentice.
- Louis-François Cartier (Founder)
- Alfred (Son of Louis Cartier)
- Pierre, Louis J., and Jacques Cartier
Click here to view our signed collection, including a few rare vintage Cartier jewelry pieces.