The Cartier story, as told by a fifth-generation member of jeweller family

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 July, 2015, 6:35am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 July, 2015, 5:45pm

"So many books, hundreds of them, tell one story, but not the whole story. My grandfather always felt that the story wasn't always accurate," says Francesca Cartier Brickell, granddaughter of Jean-Jacques Cartier, who ran the London branch of the family firm from 1945 to 1974 and was the last Cartier involved in the day-to-day business.

"Cartier is the story of family and not just jewellery," she says.

As a guest of the auctioneers Bonham's, Cartier Brickell recently came to Hong Kong for the first time to give a selected audience a first-person account of the family that would come to dominate luxury and the jewellery trade in particular, revealing that the actual story was often more incredible and complex than has ever been relayed in biographies.

Cartier Brickell is at pains to stress that she has no formal role or connection with the Cartier company today. It ceased to be controlled by her family in the 1970s, and is now part of the Swiss luxury conglomerate the Richemont group. Instead, she says, she's a keeper of the family history, something just as precious as the jewels her ancestors sold. "It's important to understand that it all began with three brothers. Louis, Pierre and Jacques, who even when they were very young boys plotted to make their father's modest jewellery business into the biggest in the world," says Cartier Brickell, adding that her grandfather was the son of Jacques, the youngest of the three. "These three little boys decided to divide the world up between themselves, Louis would take Paris, Pierre America and the New World, and Jacques London and the British Empire."

Remarkably, the three Cartier brothers made good on their youthful promise to each other and Cartier Brickell says that this story above all the legends of Cartier was the one that her grandfather loved most. She adds: "I don't need to know it was successful, I see it every time I walk through an airport." Cartier Brickell then gave a detailed insight into each of the three brothers, all were of different temperament and talent, bringing something unique to the business. "Louis was the creative genius, he created - one could say invented - many things we have today, like the wristwatch. Pierre was the supreme businessman who travelled everywhere. He believed in globalisation before it was a word. And Jacques was a mixture of Louis and Pierre, the balance."

The three brothers who carved up the world would come into contact with history's greatest figures, who were all mesmerised by Cartier's jewels, attracted by innovations such as the legendary mystery clocks or looking for supreme craftsmanship to create one-off pieces. The Cartiers lived by the motto of "never copy, always create" to establish themselves not only as jewellers of the first rank but innovators. Cartier Brickell talked at length how often Cartier's customers became inspirations for pieces.

"There is a famous Paris restaurant called Maxim's, where Louis would go to meet his lover, he called the place his 'second office' as he had the chance for double business - commissions from other men buying jewels for their lovers and of course their wives. He met the writer Jean Cocteau there and designed the famous trinity ring for him. He also met a Brazilian aviator, a real celebrity at the time, Alberto Santos-Dumont, who complained to Louis [about] the problem of checking the time during an aerial race. From this discussion the first wristwatch was born."

Louis was the creative genius, he created - one could say invented - many things we have today, like the wristwatch. Pierre was the supreme businessman who travelled everywhere. He believed in globalisation before it was a word. And Jacques was a mixture of Louis and Pierre, the balance
Francesca Cartier Brickel

As the business grew in the early part of the 20th century, all three of the brothers would travel the world to service the rich and famous and all three would be indelibly influenced by what they saw on their travels and feed it into their creations. Cartier Brickell tells of a story of her great grandfather travelling to India to call upon the Maharajahs, and they would travel the country with a driver, a doctor in a Rolls-Royce. "From India, they came back with the most colourful objects, and this was to inspire the tutti-frutti style of jeweller," she says.

The company made its first visits to Asia in 1908 visiting Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai; those early trips were to inspire the chimera bracelet and also prompted a fashion for dragon motifs, lacquer and enamel. Cartier Brickell says that Cartier would buy dozens of lacquer bowls, trays and other items to take back, disassemble and refashion as vanity cases and cigarette boxes.

Cartier also began to make pieces in jade and recently the company brought back the necklace it made for American socialite Barbara Hutton for a record price of US$27.44 million to be a part of its historical collection.

Louis Cartier in particular, says Cartier Brickell, was intrigued by Chinese design and antiquity and was influenced greatly by his friend C.T. Loo, a Chinese dealer based in Paris "who educated the West in what the Chinese found beautiful".

Cartier Brickell says Cartier started as a family firm, with a love of art and design and innovation, and it continues to be so today, but it's often difficult to describe the Cartier style - it was more a case of people know it when they see it. She used a story told to her by one of her great-grandfather's early employees to illustrate the point.

"One of our designer's, Dennis Gardner, once told me that on his first day he made a design and nervously showed my great-grandfather, who said 'it's very good but it's not quite Cartier, try again'. So Dennis tried again and again and again. This went on for three years. Dennis' wife tells me she still remembers the day he understood the Cartier style."

Summing up, Cartier Brickell fielded some questions from the invited audience, and inevitably the question of why the family decided in the 1970s to sell the company was raised.

"By the time you've got to the fourth generation, they aren't so close. Cousins didn't feel the same, my grandfather was the last one with the branch. In the 1970s the world was changing, no one wanted handmade products, they wanted little bits of machine-made luxury.

"My grandfather couldn't bring himself to do that. Ironically, of course the world has come full circle."