A Brief History of Cartier
We are all very familiar with “les Must de Cartier” which was made famous at the start of 1972 through newspaper, television and magazine advertising. It was a worldwide marketing phenomenon, a concept which pushed the selling of high-fashion items of jewellery, watches and gifts such as fine writing pens, to a wider, younger and upwardly mobile worldwide society which had changed since the 1950s. It set a fashionable and aspirational style and implanted the idea of the must have, in a range of items that were more affordable and not just for the titled, wealthy and elite that had previously been the main clients through the doorway of Cartier. This was not the first time since the beginning of the businesses in 1847 that Cartier had been innovative in taking its brand forward.
Founded by Louis-Francois Cartier (1819-1904), its first shop on rue Montorgueil in Paris, very soon outgrowing its location and moving to a new location in 1853 and then again in 1859 to a more salubrious premises that was more suitable to its ever growing titled and extremely wealthy clientèle, such as Empress Eugenee and Princess Mathilde Bonaparte, who had recently returned from St Petersburg after the failed marriage to the Russian Prince Demidov de San Donato. It is during that time in inventory and order books that it is being mentioned that the metal Platinum is used. It is more than thirty eight years later in 1899 that fine jewellers are using platinum in the delicate garland style settings of jewellery which became so fashionable and still highly sought after today. There are no drawings of the jewellery that have survived in their inventory today 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 are 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 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 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 the rue de la Paix. What is also interesting is the varied stock that was in the shop, miniatures, fans, bronze busts, Wedgwood medallions, ivory statues, silverwares from as far back as the 18th century, Sevres porcelain, simple silver objects and objects of vertu such as lighters, cheroot and cigar cutters, other types of 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 the 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 Faberge, 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 Faberge 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 buying items that they might sell as is, or take the stones out of in order to sell the stones 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. The firm traded in a variety of fine objects for the highest market. In the next articles we will look closer at the various types of Cartier jewellery, identifying and collecting Cartier pieces and at the later history of the firm.