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Cartier's Clocks

Cartier's Mystery Clocks Still Bewilder Even As They Bewitch
Ettagale Blauer
From the Print Edition:
Chuck Norris, Jul/Aug 98

(continued from page 2)

While Cartier may be best known for its mystery clocks, its reputation as one of the world's finest jewelry makers dates back much earlier. The firm traces its beginnings to France, where it was founded by Louis Cartier in 1847 to serve a largely royal clientele. His son, Alfred, took over the business in 1874 and certainly one would have to count Alfred's three sons, Louis, Pierre and Jacques, among his greatest productions. It is to them that we really refer when we speak of the renowned jewelry firm of Cartier. In 1899, the business was moved to the Rue de la Paix in Paris, the most elegant and posh shopping street in that style-besotted city. That the firm came to have three branches (Paris, London and New York) to match Alfred's three sons is due to circumstances during the early years of the twentieth century rather than a need to give each of them something to do. The 1902 coronation of Edward VII (who had waited interminably to succeed his mother, Queen Victoria) created so much work for Cartier that Pierre was sent to London to deal with it all. A permanent London branch, run by Jacques, was opened the same year. Jacques would remain there, becoming a lifelong resident of London. Edward frequented the shop in person in his pursuit of the lacy, delicate-appearing jewels that quickly became one of Cartier's hallmark design motifs and gave a name to an entire era of design, the Edwardian Age.

After an initial foray to New York two years earlier, Pierre established Cartier in America in 1909, opening a salon at 712 Fifth Avenue. His presence was needed to deal with the American millionaires--the country's own brand of royalty. Pierre became known as the "American brother." He married an American woman, from St. Louis, and lived in the United States until 1947, when he retired.

Louis, meanwhile, ran the Paris branch. In 1898, he married Andrée Worth, daughter of the important fashion designer. Though that marriage lasted only 12 years, it created a firm connection between the House of Cartier and the fashions of the times.

This was most strikingly shown at the famous 1925 Art Deco exposition in Paris, which was formally known as L'Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. (According to Cartier chairman Destino, the term "Art Deco," which derives from the landmark exhibit, did not come into use until the 1960s.) Although Cartier exhibited there, the firm sidestepped the Grand Palais where the other jewelers were showing. Instead, Cartier chose to exhibit in the Pavillon de l'Elegance along with the couturiers, emphasizing their understanding of the connection between jewelry and fashion.

The question of whether the brothers were right for their times or that they were made by the times in which they lived is a toss-up. In any event, each of the three brought to the business a different quality, a different talent and a different personality. Taken together, they set the firm on a remarkable journey into jewelry design and the history books. They were certainly right for the first four decades of the twentieth century. It was during the Art Deco period that Cartier established a level of design and craftsmanship unrivaled since the time of Fabergé and rarely equaled since. The range of designs and the daring experimentation with color combinations and shapes, with the inclusion of stones and elements bought in the East, were unparalleled. They still stand as outstanding examples of the jeweler's art and today command enormous prices whenever they are offered at auction.

Indeed, Destino contends that the Art Deco era is the greatest in the entire history of jewelry. "Jewelry has been made for at least four thousand years of recorded history," he says. "If you look back at the whole four thousand years, it's the first 25 to 35 years of the twentieth century that were probably the most important in that history. The seventeeth and eighteenth centuries are interesting but irrelevant--you can't wear the jewelry. The work of the Art Deco period looks right today."

Cartier's involvement with the styles and gems of the East, especially India, began after the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. The end of the Victorian era coincided with a collective sigh of relief from the fashion world. English women of fashion had not dared to dress themselves flamboyantly during Victoria's 40 years of mourning for her beloved husband, Albert. Her death was a signal to open the windows and let in the light. Even during the year of mourning that followed Victoria's death, Pierre Cartier was already embarked on the creation of an Indian-style necklace to complement Indian gowns that had been sent to Alexandra, Edward's wife. Nothing in the extensive royal collection was suitable, and small wonder. It was not only the mourning period that made jewelry so gloomy and heavy--the white metal generally used to set gems at this time was silver. Soft and apt to tarnish, silver tended to dull rather than illuminate the stones set in it. Around 1900, Cartier began to work with platinum, a very strong white metal that lent itself to lacy, openwork designs. Thin platinum wires are strong and hold precious stones securely.

Once again, destiny played a large role in the firm's development. After waiting six decades to gain the throne, Edward VII didn't last long. Perhaps it was all those years he spent as a wealthy man occupied exclusively with nightlife, mistresses and fashion. He died in 1910, barely nine years after becoming king, and was succeeded by his brother, who took the throne as George V. As with the previous coronation, the House of Cartier was flooded with orders. The most important and influential customers were the wealthy royals of India, the jewel in the crown of the British commonwealth of the time. In 1911, Jacques was dispatched to India to deal with the needs of the Indian royalty. It was a trip into destiny for Cartier.

Although sometimes described as the most introverted of the three brothers, Jacques Cartier seemed very much at ease in a photograph taken during a trip to buy pearls in Bahrain. Impeccably dressed in white trousers and white shoes, and flanked by two sheikhs in their robes and turbans, Jacques was the very essence of Noël Coward sophistication. In those days, when pearls were worth a king's ransom, it was Jacques who traveled to the East to deal directly with the sheikhs in whose territories the pearls were found. He journeyed to Hormuz and Dubai, recording his impressions in a diary that has survived. He went to the pearl beds to watch the divers; they searched as many as 200 oysters without finding a single pearl during his visit. In addition to the pearls themselves, Jacques and his traveling companions observed the opulent way the Arabs wore pearls, which inspired Cartier to create very long strands of pearls and earrings; one famous pair extended into a necklace.

There was an ongoing relationship between the family of jewelers and various members of the royal Indian establishment. Indeed, there seemed to be as many Indian rajahs as there were gems in their vast palaces. Although the firm of Cartier had contact with Indian design before 1900, it was the 1911 trip that set the scene for Cartier's remarkably inventive use of colored gemstones. There was an exchange of influences: The Indian royalty had lived with their colorful enamels and gold settings, but now they longed for the new look of platinum--they wanted Parisian design. For the Europeans, the brilliant colors from India--the flamboyant mix of red and green accented with white--was a refreshing change from the all-diamond jewelry that had been the staple of British society.

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