Perhaps one of the most famous names in jewelry, Cartier had rather humble beginnings during a very turbulent time in French history, which almost ruined the firm, yet eventually set it on the course to fame and fortune.
The story starts in Paris in 1847, when Louis-Francois Cartier bought the watchmakers store where he had apprenticed for a number of years. He had ambitions to make the store into something bigger and better and purchased the best jewelry he could afford to buy to showcase in his store. However, it was a turbulent time in France and trouble was on the streets. After a severe economic downturn in France triggered the French Revolution, King Louis Phillipe abdicated the throne in 1848. Napoleon III took over first setting himself up as President and then declaring himself Emperor and officially establishing the Second Empire in 1852. Needless to say it was a tough time for Cartier and anyone else in the jewelry or luxury business. The store managed to survive the crisis and was on an upward growth trajectory from there, even though it was slow growth. Louis-Francois’ son, Alfred, joined the firm during this challenging time.
Cartier’s Royal Connections
Business was going along quite nicely for the company and by 1856 Cartier was selling to Princess Mathilde, second cousin of Napoleon III, and soon after Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, became a client. Those two clients drew all the right attention to Cartier. Other royals, wealthy bankers and industrialists began to frequent the store. At the time, as was customary, Cartier did not yet design and fabricate jewelry. They purchased from other makers, but only the very best jewels they could find for their store.
In 1870 there was another revolution in Paris (the Paris Commune) that caused the ruling class and other elites to flee for their lives. Unable to access their bank accounts, many of the blue bloods sold their jewels to raise cash to leave town. Alfred Cartier took full advantage of the situation buying spectacular jewelry from desperate aristocrats at rock bottom prices. When all was said and done he had an outstanding collection of jewelry for sale. The revolution didn’t last long and soon it was back to business.
Cartier and Fashion
By 1899 business was going so well that Alfred decided to move the store to Rue de la Paix a prominent area for fashion houses including the highly regarded House of Worth. Alfred had three sons, Louis, Pierre and Jacques. It was around this time that Louis joined the firm and around the same time that Cartier began to design and manufacture jewelry. It was the beginning of the Edwardian era and platinum was becoming a choice metal for high-end jewelry. Cartier took advantage of the new technology that made it possible to fabricate platinum into jewelry and began creating diamond pieces in platinum settings – especially in garland styles. It was a motif that was very airy and kept the jewelry light enough to wear easily while also capturing the white-on-white style that became increasingly popular in the first decade of the twentieth century.
The firm expanded in the early years of the 1900s with Alfred’s youngest son Jacques setting up a workshop in London. Cartier was a favorite of England’s King Edward VII who proclaimed that Cartier was “The jeweler of Kings and the King of jewelers.” In 1904 the company was honored with the first of fifteen royal warrants appointing the firm the official purveyor to the court of King Edward VII.
Featured image (top of page): Platinum, diamond and emerald brooch, circa 1910, courtesy Aguttes. First: Platinum, diamond, sapphire and moonstone brooch, signed Cartier-Paris, circa 1907. Second: Platinum, diamond and blue guilloché enamel heart-shape brooch, Cartier Paris, circa 1910. Third: Edwardian era Platinum and diamond hair comb, by Cartier.
Authored by Amber Michelle