Cartier - A brief history (Part 1)

19 Apr 2011

Cartier – A Brief History (Part 1)

We are all familiar with ’les Must de Cartier’,  the phrase coined by President Robert Hocq and General Director Alain Dominique Perrin in 1972 through newspaper, television and magazine advertising.

It was a worldwide marketing phenomenon, a concept which pushed selling Cartier jewellery, selling Cartier watches and gifts such as fine writing pens, to a wider, younger and upwardly mobile worldwide society which had changed since the 1950’s. It set a fashionable and aspirational style and implanted the idea of the ‘must have’, a range of luxury items that were affordable and not just for the titled, wealthy and elite that had previously been Cartier’s main clientele. This was not the first time since the beginning of the business in 1847 that Cartier had been innovative in taking its brand forward.

Founded by Louis-François Cartier (1819-1904) on Rue Montorgueil in Paris, the new company very soon outgrew its location and moved to new space in 1853 and then again in 1859 to more salubrious premises that was suited to its ever growing titled and extremely wealthy clientele. It is during that time while researching inventory and order books that Platinum was first used and it wasn’t until around forty years later that fine jewellers used platinum in the delicate garland style settings of jewellery which became so fashionable and which is still highly sought after today. There are no drawings of the jewellery that survived from that time, only written descriptions. The drawings of orders and stock being made that are in the Cartier archives are from 1900 onwards. The other reason it is difficult to identify early items as being Cartier is that they were not usually marked.

As a rule, the manufacturer’s or master craftsman’s stamp was entered in the state controlled “Garantie” and it was the only indication of who had produced a particular jewel. Cartier had their first stamp in 1846 depicting an ace of hearts contained in the shape of a lozenge. The pieces of Cartier jewellery that were made by them or commissioned by them in the nineteenth century are rarely identifiable, as only impressive pieces such as those exhibited at world fairs were signed.

For technical reasons only, the gold and silver alloy used in Cartier jewellery was based on 14 carat gold, which was in fact illegal. Because of this, jewellers preferred neither to stamp nor sign the orders, which often passed straight from the workshop into the hands of the buyer and in that way they were able to avoid state control. Cartier began signing silver items in the early 1860’s, whereas jewellery was not signed until 1899 when they moved to Rue De La Paix.

What is also interesting is the varied stock that was in the shop such as miniatures, fans, bronze busts, Wedgwood medallions, ivory statues and silverware from as far back as the 18th century, Sèvres porcelain, simple silver objects and pieces such as lighters, cheroot and cigar cutters, smoking accessories, gold bonbonnieres, silver gilt and gold snuffboxes in the Louis XVI style, to the varied bric-a-brac of an antique dealer.

In France, as in other parts of Europe since the Middle Ages three different professional groups formed the guilds who supplied the jewellers shop: the goldsmith who made silver and gold vessels, the joaillier who worked in gemstones and the bijoutier-orfever who manufactured gold and enamel jewellery and snuff boxes. These workshops were scattered all over Paris. They manufactured and supplied all the jewellery for shops.

Until the end of the century and the move to Rue De La Paix, Cartier was primarily a retailer of jewellery, fine antiques and objects d’art brought in from a range of outstanding workshops, manufacturers and dealers. For example it is known that as early as 1887 Cartier bought from Lalique five bird brooches that were sold in the shop. Cartier also developed a friendship with Fabergé, initially through its very grand Russian clients who showed them various items that had been purchased in St. Petersburg and after seeing a private exhibition of jewelled eggs and small items, Cartier went to St. Petersburg and commissioned work from the Fabergé workshops to be sold in the Paris shop.

Much later it was to open its own shop in St. Petersburg. Cartier also had an office across the street from the shop where private business was conducted, brokering private sales of royal jewels as well as taking the stones out of existing pieces in order to sell them loose to clients or have them set in new jewellery. But gradually there became more of an emphasis of demands from clients leading Cartier to repairing and improving jewels and then into designing and manufacturing, having workshops work exclusively for them and by 1917 they set up in house workshops.

As one can see, the early history of Cartier seems rather different from today’s perception of it on the market as a primarily fine jewellery and watch maker who sell Cartier watches and sell Cartier jewellery. The firm traded in a variety of fine objects for the highest market.

In the next article we will look closer at the various types of Cartier jewellery, identifying and collecting Cartier pieces and at the later history of the firm.