Cartier Celebrates 100 Years

By
Photography Erwan Frotin

Published May 22, 2009

Interview: Tell us about Cartier in Europe and how it came to America 100 years ago.

Pierre Rainero: Cartier has been in business since 1847. It was founded at a key period, because it was the end of the last French monarchy—the last year, in fact. And it was the beginning of a second republic—what we call the Second Empire—a period of incredible development for France.

Interview: That’s when Paris, as we know it today, was built, yes?

Rainero: Yes, exactly. The architecture, the big boulevards and avenues . . . It’s exactly that period. It was really when Paris started to shine internationally, and Cartier developed its business with global expansion. Paris became again—I say “again” because it was replaced at the end of the 18th century—the center attraction of the world. So for half a century, until at least World War 1, it was an incredible period for Paris, and Cartier became one of the most important jewelers. We had an international clientele already—not only the aristocracy of the Second Empire, but also the Russian princes and the rich American people. And another key period was the very last years of the 19th century. In 1898, Louis Cartier, grandson of the founder, LouisFrançois Cartier, joined the business with a new ambition and a new vision for the company. His ambition was to become the jeweler, and the new vision was the creation ofthe Cartier style. Before him, no jewelry house could be recognized through its own style.

Interview: Louis Cartier had that vision, but was he an artist or an artisan?

Rainero: Louis Cartier was not an artisan. He was a man of culture. And so he became what I suppose is called now the art director. He never really drew anything. His process was very much about concept and commentary on what should be done. He would rely on talented people. He had a vision that the final object should be the result of many different talents working together, inspired by a specific heart, a specific eye—his eye and his vision.

Interview: And so he was the author of the style of the House of Cartier?

Rainero: Yes. And in a very specific, very particular manner. Because it’s not a style linked with a specific knowhow. You don’t recognize a Cartier piece that way. It is more a sense of proportions, a philosophy, an eye for colors—it’s really a way of looking at things. And that’s why the Cartier style is very recognizable. There is a grammar to it, and an aesthetic vocabulary. There’s a graphic design that can be recognized and also a philosophy. And the richness of that style is that it can evolve. It’s open to new influences. Everything he was looking for, in terms of new designs, should open doors for the future. For instance, that’s why he was strictly against the art nouveau. Because for him, art nouveau was a deadend street. It could not evolve, you know—it was art nouveau and that was it. That was the modernity of Louis Cartier’s vision.

Interview: Did Louis Cartier live in an artistic milieu? Did he mix with painters and musicians?

Rainero: The entire family was interested in culture. His grandfather, LouisFrançois, and his father, Alfred, were musicians. They were also fascinated by books, and they spoke English and French. That was quite new for the time. But that was very aristocratic, more than bourgeois. And Louis Cartier was linked with other people, like ArmandAlbert Rateau. Rateau was a creator of furniture and also a big decorator. Louis was also a friend of George Barbier, an illustrator very much linked with the Ballets Russes—he was involved in designing costumes and sets for it.

Interview: I would imagine that the jewelry business was much like the couture business, that everything was made to order.

Rainero: Yes and no. Because things were made for stock. But they were all unique pieces. He really increased the pieces for stock, showing his vision in terms of creation. That was daring, because the most important pieces were usually all specific orders, special orders, guaranteed for the customer. He had the initiative to create important pieces for stock. It means that he had a certain trust in his vision because it was, of course, an investment.

Interview: The expansion into America happened because there were suddenly a lot of American industrialists, wealthy Americans, traveling to Paris and coming into Cartier?

Rainero: Exactly. And, in fact, we’d already opened in London, in 1902. We had a great aristocratic clientele—specifically, the Prince of Wales, who became Edward VII after the death of Victoria. He is the one who really asked Cartier to settle in Great Britain. His coronation took place in 1902, and we went to London and supplied many people who attended the coronation. We received 27 different orders for tiaras for that coronation.

Interview: That’s incredible.

Rainero: Incredible, yes. It was thanks to a specific creative development that is now called the gallant style. Louis Cartier began the use of platinum in his jewelry. That was why we obtained that quantity of special orders.Interview: When Cartier opened in New York, was all the manufacturing still done in Paris?

Rainero: No. There’s a small article that was published in the spring of 1909—I think it was in The New York Herald—that’s an interview with Louis explaining what he’s going to do. The idea from the beginning was to settle an atelier and design studio in New York, with the help of the designers and the workers from Paris. So that’s what was done. We sent workers and designers to New York—as we did in London—and then they hired people in the United States to be instructors and to be able to actually make the Cartier pieces on our premises.

Interview: When someone came into Cartier with something in mind to be made, what was the process? Would they actually meet with the people who would make the piece?

Rainero: No. They were people who were trained in a very specific manner, people living in the culture, trained to relate to important people, to understand their lifestyle, to understand their requests—and also with a certain authority to talk about the House, you know? And also a certain jewelry culture, to be able to propose the right thing. They were already called at that time—and it’s still the name we give to them—Grand Vendeur.

Interview: They would consult with the artistic staff and describe what the client wanted?

Rainero: Yes, they would talk to designers. The designers at the time could only work with the existing stock of stones. So they were attached to that department called stock. [laughs] And not, you know, a design studio.

Interview: And there was considerable back and forth on design?

Rainero: Yes. The tradition is to propose at least three different drawings for the same request. And it’s still the same.

Interview: Can you mention some of the elaborate projects that Cartier took on?

Rainero: It’s quite difficult to imagine the richness of those people in those days. The court life in Russia was such a level of magnificence that the jewelry was extraordinary. We made incredible tiaras and necklaces. But also it was the same for the American princesses. [laughs] You know, like the Vanderbilts or the Morgans. Those people were coming to Cartier on a very regular basis, ordering not only those extraordinary pieces, but also accessories for the daytoday life. For Mrs. Vanderbilt, we made a box that could be attached to her car with a place for her books, notebooks, pencils, or whatever.

Interview: When you think of Cartier, you think of jewelry. But many of the incredible things are clocks or boxes, odd custom pieces.

Rainero: Exactly. You know, it was very much about the habits of those times at the beginning of the 20th century. Even in objects to put inside your house, like animals sculpted in art stones. The pens we made for a young lady to have in her purse at a ball—where she could take note of the names of young boys who would invite her for a dance, you know? And the book . . . “Carnet du bal,” we say in French.

Interview: We just say, “dance card.”

Rainero: Ah, okay. [laughs]

Interview: There’s a clock in your collection that belonged to Barbra Streisand. Quite amazing.

Rainero: She was an important collector of art deco objects. And, in fact, she sold it, and we bought it back for our own collection. She has a very good eye. The piece she owned was extraordinary—what we call a gravity clock, an eightday movement, and every eight days you put the clock on top of the columns, and the gravity goes down and makes the clock work.

Interview: The wristwatch is a fairly modern invention, but—wasn’t it World War 1?

Rainero: Cartier invented the model wristwatch in 1904. In fact, you could wear a pocket watch on your wrist, that was quite common. A pocket watch was attached with a strap. But Cartier had the idea to design specifically a clock to be adapted to a wrist.

Interview: I always thought that it was something made for aviators in the First World War.

Rainero: It happened because it was a gift from Louis Cartier to the aviator Alberto SantosDumont, a Brazilian living in Paris. He was a pioneer in terms of aviation. It was too complicated to manipulate a plane and look at your pocket watch in your jacket. He complained in front of Louis Cartier, and Cartier, without telling him, created the watch and gave it to him. And, in fact, it was commercialized for the first time in 1911. The one you mentioned that’s linked to World War 1 is the Tank watch, which is even more essential in terms of design. It was conceived and designed in 1917. Named after the armored tank, it was commercialized for the first time in 1919. And the story—we have no clue if it’s true or not—is that it was offered first to General Pershing.

Interview: Does Cartier still get elaborate custom commissions?

Rainero: Yes, I think there is more and more of a desire to have your own objects. I think people come to Cartier with the idea that their own desire will be done in the Cartier way, you know? Sort of “travail à deux,” as we say in French . . . [laughs] So both the customer and Cartier are the parents of a final object.

Interview: Are there any particularly famous gems that were mounted by Cartier?

Rainero: Oh, many. Especially in the U.S., because Cartier was sort of a gobetween, working between the aristocracy of the old world and the new aristocracy of the new world. And, in fact, we sold many historical stones to American people as historical pieces of jewelry. We sold the earrings of MarieAntoinette that apparently are now in the Smithsonian Institution. We sold the Hope Diamond, which is also at the Smithsonian. And you know that the Hope Diamond was the French Blue Diamond of Louis XIV? We sold the Star of the East. We sold the Star of South Africa. We sold the Pasha Diamond . . .

Interview: At some point Cartier began reacquiring historical pieces.

Rainero: Yes, because at the end of the Second Empire, the new French Republic decided—unfortunately for the French Republic—to sell the crown jewels. So maybe jewelers took back the crown jewels and sold them to private people. But maybe many aristocratic families already decided more or less at the same time to sell that jewelry. And also, let’s not forget the Russian Revolution. That’s how, for instance, Barbara Hutton could wear the famous emeralds of the Grand Duchess Vladimir—you know, it was because of the political turmoil and the economic turmoil that affected Europe at that time.

Interview: What pieces do you find most extraordinary?

Rainero: I would mention the first abstract pieces, created in 1904, 1905. That was totally unusual. I am tempted to mention the necklace of Maharaja of Patiala. Its extravagance is a statement from the head of state. It had a political reason to be, you know? So at the same time the result can be perceived as extravagant, but when you think of it in the big context, it’s not.

Interview: I guess you can say that extravagance has a political function.

Rainero: Yes, probably now, yes. But we’ll leave that to you.