The Cartiers

The Untold Story of the Family Behind the Jewelry Empire

Buy
  • Share

Copy and paste the below script into your own website or blog to embed this book.

“An enchanting jewel of a book.”—Douglas Smith, author of Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy

The captivating story of the family behind the Cartier empire and the three brothers who turned their grandfather’s humble Parisian jewelry store into a global luxury icon—as told by a great-granddaughter with exclusive access to long-lost family archives

The Cartiers is the revealing tale of a jewelry dynasty—four generations, from revolutionary France to the 1970s. At its heart are the three Cartier brothers whose motto was “Never copy, only create” and who made their family firm internationally famous in the early days of the twentieth century, thanks to their unique and complementary talents: Louis, the visionary designer who created the first men’s wristwatch to help an aviator friend tell the time without taking his hands off the controls of his flying machine; Pierre, the master dealmaker who bought the New York headquarters on Fifth Avenue for a double-stranded natural pearl necklace; and Jacques, the globe-trotting gemstone expert whose travels to India gave Cartier access to the world’s best rubies, emeralds, and sapphires, inspiring the celebrated Tutti Frutti jewelry.

Francesca Cartier Brickell, whose great-grandfather was the youngest of the brothers, has traveled the world researching her family’s history, tracking down those connected with her ancestors and discovering long-lost pieces of the puzzle along the way. Now she reveals never-before-told dramas, romances, intrigues, betrayals, and more.

The Cartiers also offers a behind-the-scenes look at the firm’s most iconic jewelry—the notoriously cursed Hope Diamond, the Romanov emeralds, the classic panther pieces—and the long line of stars from the worlds of fashion, film, and royalty who wore them, from Indian maharajas and Russian grand duchesses to Wallis Simpson, Coco Chanel, and Elizabeth Taylor.

Published in the two-hundredth anniversary year of the birth of the dynasty’s founder, Louis-François Cartier, this book is a magnificent, definitive, epic social history shown through the deeply personal lens of one legendary family.

Under the Cover

An excerpt from The Cartiers

1

Father and Son: Louis‑François and Alfred (1819–1897)

Living History

The auction room was buzzing. From five continents, jewelry lovers, collectors, and dealers had come to play their part in what Town & Country had billed “the jewellery sale of the century.” Photographers lined the back wall, a large team manned the phones, and as the clock struck 10:00 a.m. on June 19, 2019, the first of five Christie’s auctioneers took the stage at his podium in New York’s Rockefeller Center for what would be an epic twelve-hour event. “It’s not every day,” The Financial Times enthused, “that a vast number of museum-quality jewels hailing from a single, world-famous collection finds its way under the hammer.” Belonging to Sheikh Hamad Al Thani, the 388 lots up for sale in the Maharajas & Mughal Magnificence auction spanned five centuries and some of the most extravagant rulers in history. “An Aladdin’s cave of treasures,” Forbes had called them, if only one could “find a lamp with a genie to help finance a bid.”

Many of the Cartier pieces came up in the afternoon session. Lot number 228, a 1922 bejeweled belt-buckle brooch made for the Marchioness of Cholmondeley, was always expected to garner significant interest. With its enormous 38.71 octagonal emerald centerpiece surrounded by diamonds, sapphires, and more emeralds, it was typical of Cartier’s Eastern-inspired Art Deco creations of the period. Bidding started at $400,000. Rising initially in increments of $20,000 and then leaps of $50,000, it didn’t take long for the digital ticker on the screen behind the auctioneer to surpass the jewel’s $500,000–700,000 estimate. When the hammer finally came down, the price of over one and a half million dollars drew gasps and a round of spontaneous applause from the audience.

It wasn’t the only Cartier piece to be fought over that day. From a Belle Epoque diamond and platinum corsage ornament, to a 1930s Tutti Frutti brooch, a rare graduated natural pearl necklace and a maharaja’s ruby and pearl choker, there were twenty-one Cartier pieces in the sale. Eight of them reached over one million dollars. One exceeded ten million dollars. In total, the number of Cartier lots accounted for just 5 percent of the overall number but ended up contributing a quarter of the final $109 million value. A staggering result, and yet not altogether surprising.

Through the twenty-first century, antique Cartier pieces have been among the most coveted items of jewelry on the planet. “If you see an old jewel signed Cartier,” one jewelry expert revealed, “you can triple the value. Those pieces are just in a different league.” In 2010, the Duchess of Windsor’s 1950s Cartier onyx and diamond panther became the most expensive bracelet ever sold at Sotheby’s. When Barbara Hutton’s 1933 Cartier jade necklace went under the hammer in Hong Kong four years later, it made history as the highest-valued jadeite jewel of all time. In 2017, Jackie Kennedy’s Cartier 1960s Tank watch sold for triple its estimate, while in the record-breaking 2016 sale of Elizabeth Taylor’s jewels, it was a Cartier necklace that came out on top. With such illustrious worldwide recognition, it’s perhaps hard to imagine that it was ever any other way. But the intense competition and willing parting of millions of dollars for jewels bearing that familiar italicized signature couldn’t be further removed from how Cartier’s founder started out. Exactly two hundred years before the headline-grabbing auction in New York, Louis-François Cartier made his entrance into a very different world.

The Apprentice

As a child, Louis-François Cartier would have loved a formal education. He longed to study the classics, to delve into the sciences, to learn about great artists. But his immediate future was not up to him. There were seven mouths to feed in the Cartier family, and as the eldest son, he had a responsibility to play his part. After a rudimentary schooling, it was straight out to work. His father, Pierre, had managed to secure for him an apprenticeship in the jewelry trade. It would be hard work for little pay, but professional jewelers were part of the “six marchands de Paris,” a prestigious group of skilled merchants and artisans who were considered middle-class. The prospects for the young Cartier would be far better than if he had followed his father into the metalworking industry.

Every day, Louis-François would walk the twenty minutes from his cramped family home in the Marais area of Paris, along the narrow streets with no sidewalks, toward Les Halles. Here, amid the bustle of the grain exchange and the smells of the oyster market, was where the city’s jewelry craftsmen and specialists were based. His new boss, Monsieur Bernard Picard, a fabricant or maker of jewels, owned a well-established workshop on two upper floors of a large six-story building at 31 Rue Montorgueil, right by the church of Saint-Eustache.

Being a jeweler’s apprentice was no easy undertaking. Workshop managers were renowned for treating their juniors “like the inmates of a kennel.” The boys worked grueling fifteen-hour days for little reward. “We were not spared slaps, boxes on the ears, and kicks,” recalled one of his contemporaries, Alphonse Fouquet, while elsewhere, craftsmen of the master jeweler Fabergé remembered how the most important instrument in an apprentice’s set of tools was the whip: “no pupil has ever learnt without one.” Not everyone lasted the distance, but Louis-François, who had witnessed his father rebuild his life from nothing, was fiercely driven.

A decade before the birth of his eldest son, Pierre, Cartier had been fighting for France in the Napoleonic Wars, when he’d been captured by Wellington’s army. For years he’d been locked up in a disgusting, overcrowded, disease-filled prison hulk in Southampton harbor, wondering if he’d ever make it out alive. When finally freed after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, he’d been twenty-eight years old with not a cent to his name, no prospects, and no living parents. Returning to Paris, he’d found work as a metalworker, married Élisabeth Gerardin (a washerwoman and the daughter of a merchant), and become a father. Now, with his son completing an apprenticeship, Pierre just hoped for a better life for the next generation.

Fortunately, for Louis-François, it was a reasonable time to be joining the jewelry trade. The French aristocrats who had fled the capital during the Revolution and the Napoleonic period had slowly returned under the new Bourbon monarchs, and their presence helped to jump-start renewed demand for luxury goods. Court life was still a pale imitation of the Marie Antoinette era, but there was a trend for smaller, more discreet items of jewelry, and Picard catered to this market. As Louis-François and his fellow workers completed items, they would stamp them with their master’s poinçon, an official maker’s mark certifying the provenance of a jewel. In Picard’s case, it was his initials, BP, separated by the image of a river (a play on the French word rivière, which means both “river” and “diamond necklace”). But if any of the apprentices hoped to have his own stamp anytime soon, it was a distant wish. The chances of progression on that scale were limited. Even when Picard one day retired, he had his eldest son, Adolphe, to take his place.

A few months before his twenty-first birthday, Louis-François, unsure of his future prospects, married his eighteen-year-old sweetheart. Antoinette Guermonprez, known as Adèle, was not originally from Paris. Her father, a table maker, had moved to the capital from Roanne in search of work, and the extended Guermonprez family had joined him, several generations squeezed into one house together, not far from the Cartiers. It was in this Marais neighborhood, on a cold February morning in 1840, that the young couple said their vows in the large Gothic-style Catholic church of Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs. After the wedding, unable to afford their own home, they moved in with Adèle’s parents. They would start their family here. An adored only son, Louis-François Alfred, always known simply as Alfred, was born a year later. And as he turned five years old, he was joined by a little sister, Camille.

Paris in the 1840s was a far from ideal place to be bringing up children, especially for the working class. Overcrowding had become endemic as the new inhabitants from the countryside settled in any space they could find, leaving no room for parks or recreation areas. Overflowing drains and open sewers were hotbeds of disease, and infant mortality rates were high. Louis-François worked hard for Picard, hoping desperately—as his father had done—to be able to offer his children a better future than his past. But for many years, it would be far from certain.

- About the author -

A graduate in English literature from Oxford University, Francesca Cartier Brickell is a direct descendant of the Cartier family. Her great-great-great-grandfather founded Cartier in 1847. Her late grandfather Jean-Jacques Cartier was the last of the family to manage and own a branch of the world-famous jewelry firm. She is a sought-after international lecturer on Cartier’s illustrious history and has given talks for major auction houses, museums, and societies. This book is the result of a decade of the author’s independent research into her family and the business they founded. She lives with her husband and children in London and the South of France.

More from Francesca Cartier Brickell

The Cartiers

The Untold Story of the Family Behind the Jewelry Empire

Buy

The Cartiers

— Published by Ballantine Books —