The Cartiers: The Untold Story of the Family Behind the Jewelry Empire by Francesca Cartier Brickell

Car-ti-er: the three syllables expressed with a slight tilt upward of the chin, softly accented if you’re French, un petit peu mangled if you’re American. A name inscribed on the signature red leather box, its Beaux-Arts swag of flowers traced in gold. It’s the color itself, that red—the color of kings, of the heart, of love. And since the 19th century, it’s Cartier whose jewels have shimmered against the skin of American heiresses, Russian czarinas, English queens, and French empresses. Even if you think you know Cartier jewelry, even if your library is filled with any of the more than two dozen books on the French maison, you should make room for one more book, and it’s a big one: The Cartiers, by Francesca Cartier Brickell. Yes, she is family. And her book is the only one that pulls back the curtain on the Cartier Wizard of Oz to tell you about the family you never knew.

There’s the penniless founder, Louis-François, who at the age of 27 somehow scrapes together 20,000 francs, in 1847, to buy out his mentor’s workshop and from that point forward makes jewelry under the Cartier name. There’s his son, Alfred, who heeds his father’s advice, “Be very kind,” while carefully establishing the firm, aiming to produce quality goods (success is swift) and attain respectability (that takes longer). And there’s Alfred’s three sons—Louis, Pierre, and Jacques—who form the heart of this book.

Chez Cartier

Brickell is the tour guide whose fascination with her subject turns hitherto unknown fact into fresh gossip, and she spares no detail along the way. We go into the homes of the Cartier brothers and their marriages (some amorous, others arranged—notably, alliances with familles Worth and Revillon), mistresses, children, and united ambition to grow the business mindful of their peers (“Never copy, only create” is Louis’s rallying cry) and acquire clientele as famous as their many historic gemstones.

Pulling back the curtain: the Cartier brothers, Pierre, Louis, and Jacques, with their father, Alfred, second from right, in 1922.

An early strategy by the three brothers establishes their commercial success and notoriety worldwide: the prescience to having stores in three countries, one to a brother, with profits shared by all. There is the flagship in Paris, run by the eldest, Louis, the temperamental mastermind and creative genius of the three; New York, deftly commandeered by Pierre, whose Gallic flair and reassuring discretion wins over newly moneyed American clients; and London, in time entrusted to the baby of the family, Jacques, whose quiet nature is better suited to designing than squiring royals.

At 27, the penniless founder, Louis-François, scraped together 20,000 francs to buy out his mentor’s workshop.

Brickell shares the private correspondence among the brothers, larded with nicknames should their missives get into the wrong hands, including “Stone” for Paris, “Moicartier” for New York, and “Precious” for London; and the Cartier code for transmitting prices, a numeric system expressed through the letters of the word “Confitures” with 1 for c, 2 for o, and so on. The Cartier story includes French and Russian revolutions; two world wars; English coronations; the Great Depression; the 1925 Expo, in Paris; and the 1939 World’s Fair, in New York; and by the late 1960s a counterculture that favors bell-bottoms over baubles. And while the Cartiers cleverly kept the company name in the news, they just as assiduously kept their private lives private.

A selection of letters, telegrams, and designs from the Cartier Family Archives.

That all changed in the summer of 2009. The occasion was the 90th-birthday celebration of Jean-Jacques (son of Jacques), when generations of Cartiers gathered at his home in the South of France. Brickell had gone to fetch a treasured bottle of champagne from her grandfather’s cellar. Rummaging around, she didn’t find the bottle but returned instead with an altogether different corker: a banged-up steamer trunk filled with decades’ worth of letters, sketches, and receipts, hundreds of them bundled in packets tied with ribbon and neatly labeled on old card stock. Here was the Rosetta stone of the Cartier family, the only existing record of their personal lives, long thought to have been lost.

The Golden Years

So begins The Cartiers, a four-generation saga spanning the years from the company’s founding, in 1847, until its sale, in 1974, when the family ceded ownership to outsiders. Over some 127 years, stories of beautiful and important jewels intermingle with those of historical figures and distinguished and glamorous clients. In America alone you can chart the rise of fortune and fame through company records, including those of Barbara Hutton, Doris Duke, Edith Rockefeller McCormick, Marjorie Merriweather Post, Evalyn Walsh McLean, Elizabeth Taylor, and Jackie Kennedy. Abroad there are the internationally famous—Daisy Fellowes; Elsie de Wolfe; Lady Cunard; Grace, Princess of Monaco; and the Duchess of Windsor; plus kings, queens, and rulers worldwide—the Empress Joséphine, Grand Duchess Vladimir, Catherine the Great, Queen Mary, the Maharani of Baroda, and the Maharaja of Patiala.

Here was the Rosetta stone of the Cartier family, long thought to have been lost.

Brickell, who admits that she’s no jewelry historian, has done prodigious research, tracking down primary sources and talking to former employees and experts in the field. (My one quibble is wishing she had had a better editor.) Quite rightly, she frames the narrative around the letters, including personal notes about family life (congratulations on births and new homes, concern for brothers and sons serving in the war, sympathy when beloved relatives pass away). First-person accounts lead us into the sanctuary of the Cartier design departments, where squabbles and competition exist among the best of them. And for anyone who has ever wanted to know more about the enigmatic “PanPan,” Jeanne Toussaint, the creator of Cartier’s panther jewelry, there is more to learn here.

Brickell has humanized Cartier. That’s no small feat. The creation of Cartier’s triumphant Art Deco jewelry is now backed with anecdote, the magnificence of their Indian gems gains from our knowing the extraordinary effort required to buy the stones. The struggle to remain in business during the Hitler years is made very real. For every exquisitely designed and crafted Cartier jewel there is now a face and a story alongside it. Save for chance and pluck, the story of the Cartiers might never have been revealed. As Jean-Jacques said to his granddaughter Francesca, “I am so pleased there is a historian in the family.” So are we.

Ruth Peltason is the author of David Webb: The Quintessential American Jeweler and the forthcoming Modern Jewels: Jewelry Design of the Sixties and Seventies