In 2009, four generations of the Cartier family gathered in the South of France to celebrate patriarch Jean-Jacques Cartier’s ninetieth birthday. As the family enjoyed a casual breakfast together, Jean-Jacques announced that he’d been saving a vintage champagne for the occasion. His granddaughter, Francesca Cartier Brickell, offered to fetch it for him, and headed down into the cellar—where she made a priceless discovery. Francesca found a battered trunk dotted with faded travel stickers from all over the world with innumerable letters saved by generations of the Cartier family. There were communications that opened up a long-gone period of glamor, with clients that boasted King Edward II, Grand Duchess Vladimir of Russia, Coco Chanel, the Duchess of Windsor, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly and Queen Elizabeth. It was correspondence assumed lost, and it was this that inspired Francesca to put together this priceless book.
The result is The Cartiers: The Untold Story of the Family Behind the Jewellery Empire, a fascinating read, revealing exclusive details about the family behind one of the most admired Jewellery Houses in the world. Narrating the journey of four generations, this spellbinding story traces the Cartier dynasty from the establishment of the firm in the early 19th century through to its sale in the 1970’s.
On her India tour, I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet Francesca, and, after reading the book, was unquestionably inspired to publish an interview with her, one which transpired during the lockdown. Lesson learned-letter writing is a lost art, and one that the world needs to rediscover. Charming, friendly and extremely down to earth, Francesca Cartier-Brickell tells us about the fascinating experience that it has been, writing- The Cartiers.
By Priyanka Sippy
Q: How did it feel growing up with such an illustrious surname and grandfather?
A: Well, it didn’t really feel like that. I grew up hearing the odd fun anecdote from my grandfather (Jean-Jacques Cartier, who was the last of the family to own and manage a branch of the firm) but he had retired by the time I was born. I never knew him as a jeweler – to me, he was simply a loving grandfather, who we used to visit at his home in the South of France for summer holidays. Even then he would much rather hear how everyone in the family was getting on than talk about himself, he was so modest that you’d never have known that he had created jewels for everyone from royalty to film stars. The main clue to his past was his passion for art and design – not only was his house filled with beautiful objects (and I’m not talking jewels on display! I mean paintings or rugs from India or Persian miniatures or a Chinese cabinet) but he also loved drawing. I remember when we were little, he would draw us little animals so effortlessly. It was as if they came to life on the paper through his hands.
Q: What inspired you to write the book?
A: The main impetus for writing the book came when I discovered a trunk of long-lost family letters. That happened about 11 years ago now and I still feel shivers when I remember opening it and realizing all that history was just lying there, waiting to be discovered.
Q: How did you come across the letters that were the crux of the book research?
A: While talking about the past one time, my grandfather told me there was an archive of letters but that he thought it had been lost, probably when he moved from the UK to France. But then on his 90th birthday, when all the family were over with him in France, he asked me to go down to his cellar to bring up a bottle of champagne to celebrate. I couldn’t see the champagne anywhere and was about to give up when I spotted a trunk in a dark corner of the cellar. It was a very old leather traveling case covered in faded travel stickers. By now, I didn’t really think the champagne was inside but I wanted to know what was… so very carefully, I undid the brittle leather straps that clearly hadn’t been touched for decades and slowly lifted the lid. Inside, just waiting to be discovered, were hundreds of letters that – as I would find out later – chronicled the story of my family over four generations and the firm they founded. In a way, those letters traced the growth of Cartier from a small shop in Paris into the most famous jewellery business in the world – the King of Jewellers, Jeweller of Kings. For me that discovery was the turning point. I felt inspired, and even duty-bound, to keep the story alive, if only for my children. And of course, it was truly fortuitous to have found the trunk while my grandfather was still alive. I was able to go through the letters with him, he was there to fill the gaps, to answer my questions, to explain the backdrop.
Q: What are some of the challenges you faced while writing the book?
A: I’d say the main challenge was stay motivated to finish it given the enormous scope. I had always envisaged The Cartiers as a human story, a story about a family with all their highs and lows, loves and fears, hopes and anxieties through four generations. That part I could grasp because I had spent hours and hours talking to my grandfather about the wider family and their lives, and of course I had all those letters to bring them to life in my head too. But as I would soon realize, the project confronting me was actually much bigger than just the family members. I realized that I also had to truly understand the social context in which they were operating in. That was a big task – the backdrop was over 150 years of world history – and it was overwhelming at times.
I took it step by step, chapter by chapter, one month I would be deep in research for 19th century France and the next I’d be immersed in British coronations and Indian durbars, then wrenched from tiaras and turban ornaments to the trenches of the First World War. It went all the way from 1819 to the 1970s and from Paris to St Petersburg, London to New York, and Mumbai to the Middle East with all the rises and falls in each place along the way. In a way it was lucky I had a deadline as otherwise each chapter could have easily turned into a book.
The author selecting photographs of Jacques’ trips for The Cartiers
A major part of the book is about the three grandsons of Louis-Francois, the founder: Louis, Pierre and Jacques. How did their expertise lead to Cartier becoming the iconic brand we all know?
My great-great-great-grandfather Louis-Francois Cartier, the founder of Cartier, was born into a working-class family. He founded the firm as an entrepreneur effectively and laid the foundations for future generations, including the family values by which the Cartiers did business. His son, Alfred Cartier, married into some money, which definitely helped matters, but it wasn’t until the three brothers came on the scene at the turn of the 20th century that the business exploded onto the international scene.
The three brothers shared complementary talents and a very close bond. Of the three, it was Louis Joseph Cartier, the eldest, who was the most creative. For instance, he came up with the idea of the first wristwatch for men, and the idea of using platinum as a mount for diamonds at a time when it was predominantly an industrial metal (he’d seen it under a train carriage and marvelled at its brightness and strength!).
Pierre Camille Cartier, the middle brother, was a brilliant salesman. He knew instinctively how to gauge the motivations of each individual client. For example, with Evalyn McLean (who bought the notoriously cursed Hope Diamond), he knew that by lending her the diamond overnight, he was more likely to secure a sale because she was more used to receiving beautiful objects than giving them back. And Jacques Théodule Cartier, the youngest brother and my great-grandfather was a mixture of his two brothers: He loved to design, but he was also a keen businessman and very good with people. In time, he secured an incredibly loyal client base, many of whom became friends. Of the three, Jacques was also the gemstone expert and his many trips to India, the world’s gemstone trading capital, would ensure Cartier stayed one step ahead of the competition when it came to precious stones.
Q: Tell us more about the creation of the first men’s wristwatch.
A: Well, Louis Cartier was friends with a famous early aviator, Alberto Santos-Dumont. Santos-Dumont, a Brazilian, lived in Paris and was quite a character. One of his flying machines looked like a giant rugby ball on its side, a bit like a hot air balloon and he would use to get around Paris, tying it up to a lamppost while he popped into to the nearest bar for a glass of champagne! Louis and Santos got along well: both were inventors (Santos chose not to patent any of his ‘flying machine’ designs because he wanted them to be freely available to all), both enjoyed flying (Louis too was part of the French flying club) and both enjoyed evenings spent at the fashionable Parisian restaurant Maxim’s. Apparently, it was during an evening spent here that Santos first told his friend the difficulty he was having while flying: he wanted to be able to check the time but he couldn’t do so with his pocket watch as it would require taking his hands off the controls while flying. It was as a result of this meeting that Louis would come up with the first wristwatch for men: The Santos.
Remember this was around 1904 or thereabout and wristwatches were only worn by women and mainly as ornaments. Asking men to switch from their masculine pocket watches to wristwatches was like asking them to wear bracelets. But when Santos started wearing his namesake watch, he essentially became its brand ambassador, making it acceptable for other men to wear the wristwatch too.
Q: Do tell us more about Cartier’s association with India.
A: Well I could talk forever about this subject! As part of the book research, I followed my great-grandfather’s diaries around India, staying in the same places where possible and meeting the descendants of many of those he had met – from gem dealers to clients. It was very special and I came to truly understand why he had felt such an affinity with the country – and also to see for myself why it was so important for Cartier. My great-grandfather, Jacques, first travelled out to India in 1911, to meet with the Maharajas and try and gain their future custom. What he wasn’t expecting from his first trip was how he would be inspired by the culture and his new surroundings to create a new style of jewellery for his Western clients. He had such a respect for Indian culture — he wrote that, in the ten centuries that preceded our era, it was India that reigned supreme in the artistic world, and everywhere he went he would sketch what he saw — from motifs on fabrics to carvings on temples to the outline of buildings. What ended up happening was a symbiotic relationship: The Maharajas asked Cartier to reset their jewels in a more European fashion, while back in the West, Cartier would create Eastern-inspired jewels for its European and American clients. It was a win-win. Added to that were the gems that Jacques was able to bring from India (as the gem-trading capital of the world) and you begin to have an idea how significant the country was for Cartier. But not only that – if it wasn’t for the ongoing custom of significant Indian clients during the years of the Great Depression, Cartier may not have even survived. After all many of their most important traditional clients suddenly saw their vast fortunes shrink to nothing: The Maharajas meanwhile, unaffected by the Crash over in the West, gave the Cartiers some of their largest ever commissions.
Q: Which is your all-time favorite Cartier piece?
A: I love so many of the pieces, like the mystery clocks or the Maharaja of Kapurthala’s emerald turban ornament or the royal tiara the Duchess of Cambridge wore on her wedding to Prince William, or even the simple trinity ring that I always wear. But one piece that I fell back in love with recently is the Mountbatten Tutti Frutti Bandeau. It’s a brilliant design, made under my great-grandfather in London in the 1920s, as it could either sit flatteringly on the forehead or be split into 2 bracelets. (3 jewels for the price of 1 really!). This colourful bandeau, comprised of carved rubies, emeralds and sapphires that Jacques bought on his regular trips to India, was one of 100 pieces that Cartier made for the fashion show but it was snapped up before it even made it to the runway. The buyer, Lady Mountbatten, was a strong stylish and well-connected woman who knew what she wanted when she saw it. She would also, rather aptly given her choice of the Indian-inspired headdress, go on to become the last Vicereine of India! If anyone wants to see it, the bandeau is in the V&A museum in London.
Q: How long was the book in the making?
A: The book took about 10 years in total, including about 18 months of intense writing at the end. A brilliant historian and author, Diana Scarisbrick, who became my mentor on this project said to me that, in order to write a book, you have to close yourself off from the world. I found that to be very true. I was under constant deadlines to deliver chapters, so it was pretty intense. I had to keep crisscrossing from Paris to London to New York, then to Delhi or Colombo or Cairo, which required hours working on chapter outlines on big whiteboards trying to keep the overall thread as organized and clear as possible. When I finished writing the book, I was frazzled! After working on it for so long, it was quite daunting to emerge from that solitary existence and share the book with the world. It has been wonderful to have had reviews from the likes of the New York Times and the Economist (which I never expected), and also very touching to have lovely feedback from readers via my website or social media. It has meant a lot.
My Indian book tour was also very special, made even more so by my great-grandfather’s historic links with the country. Jaipur Literature festival was perhaps the highlight: so much color and energy, and so many people, it was like nothing I had ever experienced. I was very honored that Princess Diya Kumari of Jaipur launched my book, and also touched that so many people waited patiently to have their book signed afterwards.
Q: What is your favorite Cartier family motto?
A: Ahh yes well, it’s hard to choose one but I think the one that is perhaps most inspirational is “Never Copy, Only Create”. The idea behind this was that inspiration could and should come from everywhere apart from existing jewellery, so the Cartier brothers, and later my grandfather, would always look to come up with new ideas and create unique, beautiful pieces based on inspiration from other cultures, from the natural world, from pattern books, from motifs on fabrics, you name it. For those interested in more of a visual insight, I did a short 3 minute video on YouTube about the inspiration behind the innovation. This “Never Copy, Only Create” motto is so much a part of my family that even my young kids already use it!
Experience a fascinating slice of her journey and Cartier’s India connection with a short video- The Cartiers-Bejewelled India,
Francesca Cartier Brickell’s new book, “The Cartiers” is available now via Amazon and leading English language bookstores. You can also follow her journey on Instagram (@creatingcartier) or Youtube (@francescacartierbrickell).