U pon a chance discovery of a forgotten travelling trunk in her grandfather's cellar on his 90th birthday, Francesca Cartier Brickell found hundreds and hundreds of neatly bundled letters. Her grandfather, Jean-Jacques Cartier (1919-2010), was the fourth generation of the Cartiers, and the last in the family to own and manage a branch of the business (now owned by Richemont). The letters uncovered that day would lead Francesca on a decade-long journey around the world researching her family's history and the stories underpinning the global jewelry empire. Her book, The Cartiers: The Untold Story of the Family Behind the Jewelry Empire is a gripping read, a captivating tale of love, drama, betrayal – at the heart of which are the three Cartier brothers, Louis Joseph Cartier (1875-1942), Pierre Camille Cartier (1878-1964), and Jacques Théodule Cartier (1884-1941), who together turned the family business into a global icon.
In an exclusive in-depth interview with jewelry specialist of Sotheby's Asia, Uni Kim, we speak to Francesca about the Cartier style, her most surprising discoveries and favourite Cartier creations.
Since the time of the Cartier brothers, there has been this concept of 'the Cartier style,' which is emblematic to the Maison. Could you describe to us what constitutes the Cartier style?
This idea of the Cartier style is something that I often spoke to my grandfather about because it fascinated me. The output produced by the Cartiers was so extensive and so varied – encompassing everything from tiny tie pins to extravagant mystery clocks – and yet everything they created remains recognisably Cartier. I wanted to understand from him how that could be.
We talked about how the style marries simplicity and symmetry with Parisian elegance. It is free from unnecessary frills or what one Cartier London designer aptly described as "an absence of twiddly bits". It captures a sense of modernity while also being timeless, achieving a balance between being understated and chic. But as my grandfather explained to me, the style doesn't rest solely with the design; it extends to the craftsmanship as well. Cartier pieces were meticulously crafted to the highest standards, both in the quality of the materials used as well as the techniques employed in assembling them.
For example, take a simple ring, it wasn’t just the design that was recognisably Cartier, it was also the materials used – the highest quality gemstones, the type of mounting metal (Cartier created a platinum alloy unique to them), and the style and techniques of the mounting and setting. One craftsman who worked under my grandfather in the London workshop where they made everything by hand told me he had to essentially relearn to mount stones when he joined Cartier because they did it in a way that was different to their peers – their focus was on the lightest setting possible so to let in the maximum amount of light.
Cartier’s designs draw upon many inspirations – mythical creatures, Chinese art, Egyptology, travels to the Far East, just to name a few. Which are your personal favourites?
Adhering to the guiding principle of “Never copy, only create,” established by the three Cartier brothers that I write about in my book, the design philosophy encouraged taking inspiration from everywhere – except from existing jewellery. Given the remarkable breadth and diversity of Cartier's sources of inspiration, choosing favourites is no simple task. To take just one example, I have a particular fondness for the Egyptian revival pieces made by Cartier London. My great-grandfather Jacques sought to incorporate ancient objects, some thousands of years old, that he discovered during his travels to Egypt or in antique shops. These artifacts were modernised to appeal to the fashion sensibilities of the 1920s, as exemplified by the faience and jewelled Cartier London brooch, which sold at Sotheby's in 2013. Wearing such a piece offers a unique experience: you're not just wearing Cartier craftsmanship, but also a fragment of ancient history. Jacques had a great admiration for ancient Egyptian culture, his library contained many books on the subject and for him, it was important to show these objects in their best light, as a way of highlighting the incredible craftmanship of the past.
In your years researching the incredibly rich Cartier history, what were your most memorable discoveries? What surprised you the most?
In my years researching the history of my family, I've unearthed an intricate tapestry of stories. I discovered the depth of the family bonds but also rivalries, heartbreak, instances of mental illness, unhappy arranged marriages, hushed up robberies. This is over 100 years of history we’re talking so the stories go on and on... Yet perhaps the most incredible and far-reaching revelation when studying the history in depth was understanding the sheer number of individuals who were instrumental in each Cartier creation, and the extent to which working for the Cartiers defined their lives.
While the spotlight falls on the iconic trio of the three Cartier brothers – Louis, Pierre and Jacques – what I discovered is a wealth of “unsung heroes” who contributed in indispensable ways to the brand's enduring allure. This intricate network of gifted individuals – be it mounters, setters, polishers, watchmakers, clockmakers, pearl stringers or charismatic salespeople – collectively shaped Cartier's artistic and commercial triumphs. Of course, I am also thinking of extraordinary designers like Alexandre Genaille (Cartier New York), Charles Jacqueau (Cartier Paris) or Frederick Mew (Cartier London), whose specific contributions are sadly largely forgotten.
For four generations of Cartier, hundreds of skilled individuals were mostly anonymous (it wasn’t until after Cartier New York was sold, that designers like Aldo Cipullo, credited for the iconic Love Bracelets and Juste un Clou, appeared in marketing materials). So discovering about them took a large amount of detective work, scanning letters for names, diving into birth, death and marriage certificates, ship records, 100-year old censuses and tracking down the last living retired employees or their descendants. I have travelled all over the world meeting these people and the extraordinary stories they eagerly shared with me spurred me on to finish my book because I felt, otherwise, all that human history risked being lost forever.
Animals, including the panther and other big cats, have a long and significant history in Cartier designs. Could you talk us through how the panther, which appeared as early as 1914, inspired so many Cartier designers?
Yes, the panther is probably the symbol most closely associated with Cartier, but I’d say its origin story in Cartier’s creative tapestry is multi-faceted. While the panther motif is often attributed to Jeanne Toussaint, its beginnings within Cartier trace back further, even before World War I. For instance, my great-grandfather Jacques Cartier was an avid traveller whose Indian diaries and photo albums from 1911 onwards reveal his fascination with the big cats. I write in my book about how he was also inspired by the idea of Bagheera the panther while reading his son The Jungle Book as a bedtime story one evening.
Meanwhile, the head Cartier Paris designer under Louis Cartier, Charles Jacqueau, was the first to incorporate the panther skin motif into a wristwatch during the 1910s and his early sketches and designs from this period include the big cats. Slightly later, the brilliant designer Pierre Lemarchand (who worked in both Cartier Paris and Cartier London for a time), had the opportunity to observe panthers in their natural habitat during his trip to India in the 1930s for a royal commission. His first-hand experiences brought an authentic touch to the Cartier panther designs. In London, Lemarchand’s good friend, the designer Frederick Mew, was also known for his skill in animal designs and designed panther jewels under Jean-Jacques Cartier post World War II.
As for Jeanne Toussaint, while she is often described as the designer of the panther jewels, she – by her own admission – could not draw. Instead, as Cartier Paris's creative director from the 1930s, she wielded significant influence over the Paris maison's artistic direction and she had an affinity for the big cats (so much so that her nickname was ‘La Panthère’). In the post-World War II period, she encouraged the Parisian designers like Lemarchand among others to design big cat jewels, notable examples being the brooches and bracelets for the Duchess of Windsor. So as you can see, the panther motif was very much a collaborative and evolving symbol, like so much else about Cartier, rather than the product of a single individual's vision.
Jacques’ various journeys to India continues to inspire us, while the jewels that arose from these trips, in particular what we now call Tutti Frutti, still stands as an icon of Cartier. Do you have a favourite Tutti Frutti piece?
Yes, I love the Indian-inspired jewelry (I’ve written more about them here) and I’ve been especially taken by the Mountbatten tiara both for the vibrancy of its colours and its transformable nature – it can be converted into bracelets. I also love its history as this bandeau was crafted under the supervision of my great-grandfather in London in the 1920s. At the time, he was collaborating with Lady Cunard on a London charity fashion show aimed at showcasing headpieces suitable for women with shorter hairstyles. The era of pre-war, high-volume hairstyles and heavy tiaras had come to an end, and Cartier had to quickly adapt by introducing an array of bandeaus (rather than tiaras) and jewelled hair clips.
This particular bandeau, featuring carved rubies, emeralds, and sapphires that Jacques likely acquired during his visits to India, was among 100 pieces Cartier created for the fashion show. However, it never made it to the runway – it was obviously just too appealing to Lady Mountbatten as she bought it beforehand! Notably, she would later become the last Vicereine of India, which made her choice all the more fitting. The bandeau is currently displayed at the V&A Museum in London for those who wish to experience its beauty first-hand. For me, its transformative design epitomises engineering ingenuity, meticulous craftsmanship, and unparalleled gemstones in a singular masterpiece.
Among Cartier’s many monumental unique creations, which are some hidden favourites from your research?
Selecting hidden favourites is a moving target, especially since my focus constantly shifts depending on my research. Currently, I'm diving deep into Cartier timepieces for my next book. My conversations with collectors have revolved around some exquisite rarities, particularly Cartier Paris watches from the Art Deco era as well as the Cartier London pieces from the 1960s and 70s. One Cartier London watch that I was lucky enough to see was an exceptional oval-shaped watch but oriented on its side. It's a rare sight; I believe only a handful were ever made. The watch is a masterpiece – its gold case is handmade with this subtle curvature that you really have to see and feel in person to fully appreciate. The dial features classic Roman numerals, but as Cartier brings in a unique spin by rotating the oval, these have to be elongated to ensure they fit harmoniously. This small alteration significantly changes the watch's aesthetic, but it still unequivocally retains that Cartier signature. The effect is classic Cartier London for the period – timeless and beautiful but slightly quirky and fun too.
Francesca Cartier Brickell is a direct descendant of Cartier’s founder, Louis-Francois Cartier. Her best-selling book, The Cartiers: The Untold Story Behind the Jewelry Empire (www.the-cartiers.com) is available in multiple languages, including French, English and now Chinese (卡地亚家族传).