The Complete History of Cartier August 5, 2019 – Posted in: Jewelry Blog

The great fashion and jewelry design houses, Cartier included, weren’t always big multinational affairs. Almost all of them, in fact, started with one man and a set of skills that would create history.

The vast majority of the great names in jewelry have their origins in the training rooms of the master craftsmen who went before them. The natural ability they already had was developed, honed and perfected, until they were among the very best in their trade.

Even of all the great houses, though, few have attained the heights of Cartier. The brand is known the world over for producing the best the jewelry industry has to offer.

But the company has much of its origins not in jewelry, but in the craft of watchmaking.

The Origins of Cartier

Louis-François Cartier

Louis-François Cartier

The story starts in the early 19th century. Louis-François Cartier was born in Paris, in 1819.

As a young man, he became an apprentice under master watchmaker Adolphe Picard, and worked in Picard’s small store on Rue Montorgueil. In 1847, Cartier bought the store from his employer and set about transforming the business.

The store was modest by most standards, but Cartier was determined to do more both as a watchmaker and a dealer in quality jewelry. What he didn’t know was that, within a year, the political turmoil engulfing France would offer him an opportunity to expand the business much quicker than he’d ever dreamed.

Beginnings of The Cartier Brand 1847 – 1848

Uprisnig in Paris

After Louis-François Cartier assumed control of his former employer’s business, he had the idea of adding jewelry pieces to expand his available collection beyond that of just timepieces. He bought what he could afford from makers both in France and elsewhere, concentrating only on the very finest jewelry he could find.

The uprising in Paris which came in 1848 saw the working classes rise up to challenge the rich who had plundered France for centuries. It made the life of the jewelry dealers like Cartier very difficult. When people are eating rats to survive, the market for diamonds is not in the best shape. But the business worked through the problems and managed – just – to come out of the other side.

From that point, there was no stopping Louis-François Cartier.

The Early Years 1848 – 1870

As an apprentice, Louis-François had seen his employer’s business struggle to become even moderately successful. Following his takeover in 1847, and the 1848 Revolution, the rise of the Cartier star was very much in the ascendancy, albeit on a pretty shallow arc. Cartier would use the profits from buying and selling bought in jewelry to finance the purchase of ever-better pieces. However, for the next 20 years, growth was modest. By this time, Louis-François’ son, Alfred, had also started working in the business.

The plan was always for Alfred to take over the running of the store. Alfred was much more business-oriented than his father and wanted to grow the business quickly. As it turned out, the pace of growth was helped by the most unforeseen of circumstances.

Ultimately, though, it would be Alfred’s business acumen which would put the name of Cartier into the royal houses of Europe and beyond.

The Cartier Revolution 1870-1899

In 1870, Paris – and Cartier’s world – changed. France had, over the last 100 years, become a nation of revolution. 1870 brought yet another uprising in the capital, known as the Paris Commune.

The Commune was a Socialist revolution, and the new rulers waged war on the aristocracy. In fear of their lives, the elite looked for a way out. Unable to access their wealth due to bank access being restricted, they turned to whatever assets they had in their hands. This, for the most part, meant their jewelry.

Alfred Cartier, seizing the opportunity which had suddenly presented itself, offered the aristocrats who came through his door just cents on the dollar for their finest pieces. Desperate to raise the money needed to flee the violence affecting the bourgeoisie, they handed over their best pieces. Soon Cartier had, almost overnight, built one of the finest jewelry collections in France for a fraction of its actual worth. Although the Commune ended within months, by 1871, the future success of the Cartier business was no longer in any doubt. The aftermath of the Paris Commune finally made France a republic once and for all.  People were, once again, free to spend their money. And Alfred was free to market his new collection to those who could afford it.

Over the next 20 years, Cartier became the go-to choice for anybody who was anybody. Not only were Cartier receiving requests to supply completed pieces, but more and more requests were also arriving for bespoke jewelry. As success grew, so did the need to find larger premises. Throughout the next 20 years, the business moved several times. Eventually, a showroom was found in theRue de La Paix in 1899.

The Rue de la Paix and The Death of Louis-François Cartier 1899-1904

Cartier-at-Rue-de-la-Paix

By the turn of the 20th century, Paris was beginning to come alive, with the great jewelry houses we know today all starting to thrive. The downside to this, of course, is that it means competition is fierce. Alfred recognized this and, with Louis-François now all but retired from the business, he set about defining Cartier as a brand above all others.

The move to Rue de La Paix became a greater success than even Alfred could have ever imagined. With the reputation of Cartier catching the eye of the rich and noble, including a great many of the world’s royal houses, other jewelers took note. Within a short time, the Rue de la Paix had become the single most important jewelry area in Paris, if not the world.

Upon Louis-François’s death in 1904, Alfred wanted to extend the reach and influence of the Cartier brand out of Paris and into other major cities.

Cartier’s Golden Period 1904-1920

In true family firm spirit, Alfred introduced his three sons, Louis, Pierre and Jacques, to the Cartier business. All brought their individual skills to the company. Together, they created a brand which is still at the very top of its trade 100 years later.

Unlike many such arrangements, the three brothers were all very close. Louis was undoubtedly the driving force, but all three made their own mark. The biggest asset for Louis and for the company was his insistence on perfection. If he didn’t think a piece was up to the standard required, it simply never saw the light of day. Although all the major houses had very strict quality control, this was different. Never before had such strict rules been in place, and it set Cartier apart from the rest.

This was a key factor in the expansion overseas. Louis knew that he could sell the Cartier brand abroad without fear of concerns about quality and the costs to both profits and the company’s reputation for poor quality products.

Over four decades, Cartier produced some of the best pieces the world had ever seen. As well as the now-famous tutti frutti necklaces and bracelets, the company produced the Maharaja of Patiala’s necklace containing almost 3,000 diamonds. Although such pieces had appeared before, the Cartier craftsmen, under Louis’ strict eye, had managed to up the stakes enormously.

But Louis wasn’t just a strict taskmaster. He also designed the first wristwatch, thereby replacing the pocket watch as the standard men’s timepiece. The company also introduced platinum to the world of jewelry. Difficult to work with, Louis oversaw the creation of special hard platinum for use in setting jewelry. Lighter and stronger than both gold and silver, Cartier truly revolutionized the industry.

The First Expansion Period 1920 – 1940

Cartier on 5th Ave New York
Cartier on 5th Avenue New York Circa 1920

Whilst Louis was creating his masterpieces, Pierre had big plans for the business. As WW1 was drawing to a close, he told his brothers that they could “…start French luxury in New York”. The US had seen huge economic growth from the late 19th into the early 20th century. Pierre was astute enough to be able to see exactly how the brothers could exploit this.

With a London office already thriving, in 1917 Pierre famously bought a 5th Avenue townhouse. The price was $100 and a string of pearls. This became the company headquarters in New York, and still might be the best deal they ever did. From being a little known French jeweler, Cartier made the single biggest purchase that put them on the front pages of every US newspaper.

Cartier News Clipping in Evening Star 1911
The Cartier Suit in The Evening Star 1911

The Hope Diamond was – and maybe still is – the most famous diamond in the world. Soon after opening the New York branch, Pierre bought the diamond, which was believed to be cursed. Previous owners had suffered dreadful deaths including a beheading and being a feast for wild dogs. Pierre had no intention of seeing if the curse was true, however. He quickly sold the diamond on to NY socialite Evelyn Walsh McLean.

A clause was included in the sale which stated that “Should any fatality occur to the family of Edward B. McLean within six months, the said Hope diamond is agreed to be exchanged for jewelry of equal value”. The sale itself, though, wasn’t straightforward. Pierre had to sue the McLeans for the $180,000 agreed price.

Although no longer the owner, Pierre knew Mrs. Walsh’s extravagant and often notorious lifestyle would attach the Cartier name to the Hope diamond for many years. And so it proved to be. Despite owning the diamond for only a very short time, the two were inseparable. By the time WW2 was on the horizon, the Cartier brand was at the very peak of the jewelry industry.

Post-War and the Sale of Cartier 1945 – 1964

Unlike many companies, Cartier had managed to ride out the Great Depression of the 1930s. They achieved this by doing more business in the Far East than in the US and other affected countries. After the war had ended, the company had continued to expand globally. Their reputation for quality and reliability meant that Cartier jewels and watches were amongst the most sought after anywhere.

However, despite this continued success, Pierre was now charged with running the business alone. Louis and Jacques had both died within months of each other in 1942, aged just 67 and 58, respectively. The company remained family-owned, with the children of the three brothers running the Paris, London and New York branches of the business. Upon Pierre’s death in 1964, the decision was taken to sell each branch separately.

Although the Cartier brand was still the premier name in jewelry and watches, it no longer had any connection to the family. From 1847 until 1964, a Cartier had always led the company, but no more. In 1972, a consortium led by WW2 French Resistance hero, Robert Hocq, set about buying back all the various branches of Cartier. The company remains, to this day, a single entity. Although not led by the Cartier family it is, once again, whole. Hocq, himself, never got to see the expansion which followed, having been tragically killed in an automobile accident in 1979.

Cartier now operates 200 stores in 125 different countries. Not bad for an apprentice watchmaker in Revolutionary France.

Examples of Cartier Jewelry

Cartier has created among the finest jewelry in history. Here are a few examples from our curated collection of some of their jewelry. Many of them are available for purchase from our collection. You can also feel free to browse our collection of Cartier Engagement Rings.

Contact us if you’re interested in any of the Cartier jewelry pieces shown below:

Antique Cartier Clips in Box
Cartier Clips. Circa 1920. Available for Purchase
An Example of American Cartier Jewelry
Cartier Panther Ring. Circa 1970. Available for Purchase
1.14-carat Cartier Engagement Ring. Available for Purchase
Cartier Marquise Diamond Ring
Cartier Marquise Ring. Sold
Cartier-Diamond Watch-Artistic
Antique Cartier Watch. Sold
Cartier Nail Bracelet
Cartier Nail Bracelet
Vintage Cartier Earrings
Vintage Cartier Earrings. Sold
Cartier Bamboo Earrings
Cartier Bamboo Earrings. Sold