07 Feb 2023
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The Cartiers: A Fitting Ode to a Living Legacy
Having worked on this book for 10 years that included many months of intense research and writing, family holidays getting cancelled along the way and closing herself off from the rest of the world, Francesca Cartier Brickell has managed to produce a powerful book that mimics the journey of the French luxury maison quite eloquently
By: Vijetha Rangabashyam
Mar 6 2020 3:03PM
Reference: 24802  

(L-R) Francesca Cartier Brickell, The Cartiers, published by Penguin India. The author’s grandfather, Jean-Jacques Cartier
(L-R) Francesca Cartier Brickell, The Cartiers, published by Penguin India. The author’s grandfather, Jean-Jacques Cartier

Over ten years ago, on her grandfather’s 90th birthday, while rummaging through his cellar for a bottle of champagne, Francesca stumbled across an old battered travelling trunk. The contents of that trunk, priceless stories in the form of long-lost-letters, almost hundred years old, transpired into pages of untold, enlivening stories surrounding the maison.  

What kind of research did you have to undertake for this book?

Reading through the letters was an enormous job in itself, as they were in both French and English, and many had hard-to-decipher handwriting. Beyond that, I read very widely and intensely, because in order to understand the characters and their motivations, I had to understand the social context they were acting in. For example, for the first chapter (based in the late 19th century), I read multiple first-hand accounts of the period under Napoleon III, the Franco-Prussian war and the Siege of Paris. For the 1930s, I read all about the Great Crash, the lives of the Maharajas in India and the coronation of King George VI. But also I tried to go beyond those secondary sources into primary research, by not only recording my grandfather’s memoirs (and bombarding him with questions!) but also speaking to ex-employees of the family firm, former clients, gem dealers and their descendants – really anyone connected to the past who was open to shedding more light on the history.

A selection of letters, telegrams and designs (photo credit: Jonathan James Wilson)

From conception to writing and finishing the book – how long did it take you to complete the book?

It took about 10 years in total, including about 18 months of intense writing. The bulk of the time was spent researching but in reality, I was also bringing up two young children simultaneously, so I had other distractions as well. In fact, I often took them with me on research holidays! But a couple of years ago, I came to realise that I could be turning over stones forever — each time I made a new discovery, it just opened up a whole new avenue of research possibilities. I needed to get on with the writing or this story would never make it out into the world.

When anybody looks at pieces from Cartier, be it a watch or a bracelet, there’s a distinct design aesthetic– where do you believe your ancestors drew their inspiration from?

There were several family values that I talk about in the book, and one of them was ‘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.

 I remember asking my grandfather and different designers about what it was that made the Cartier style so recognisable, because if one was taking inspiration from everywhere, then surely you could end up with a hotchpotch of ideas. The answer I received time and time again was that it was to do with the symmetry, the hints of Parisian style (Pierre Cartier once said that the artist has to breathe the air of France to create artistic models), and the simplicity and restrained elegance of the designs. There was in their designs, as oneCartier London designer Rupert Emmerson explained, “an absence of unnecessary twiddly bits”. As a result, there was a timeless classic element to the Cartier pieces that unified them, making them recognizable as Cartier whether they were flowers or geometrical shapes and whether they were made in 1900 or 1960.

Cartier’s portfolio is vast – through time, the Maison has fashioned pieces like brooches and hair accessories that were in vogue in the past. Why do you think these pieces stand the test of time even today?

That’s an interesting question. I actually start the book off with a phenomenal jewellery auction at Christies that took place last year (Maharajas & Mughal Magnificence) which I think illustrates that point well. But to answer your question, I think the main reason those pieces still break records is because of the quality of design, materials and craftsmanship as well as the heritage associated with them. My grandfather once told me that his father had always insisted on using the best gemstones even though they might be the most expensive. The Cartiers’ logic back then (which still holds true today) was that if a jewel – whether it be a small tie-pie or an extravagant tiara - was of the highest quality, and assured of lasting for generations, then the client would come to feel the high price tag was worth it. Today of course, those unique, and now antique, pieces have the added appeal of heritage, adding even more to their value.  In some cases, the Cartier jewels also have the provenance of having been owned by famous clients like Elizabeth Taylor, Maria Felix, Wallis Simpson, Daisy Fellowes, or Grace Kelly.

Belle Epoque Tiara, courtesy of Wartski

Cartier’s India connection is profound – from the gemstones that were sourced right here to crafting pieces commissioned by the Royalty. Can you talk more about that connection?

My great-grandfather Jacques’ first visit was in 1911 but he visited regularly through the 1920s and 30s. Each trip would last several months, which is not surprising when you consider that this was before planes and the boat journey there from Marseilles was three weeks, then of course another three weeks back, so he had to stay long enough to make it worthwhile. As part of writing the book, I have been lucky enough to retrace his steps from the diaries, visiting places like Mumbai, Baroda, Kapurthala and Jaipur.

Though they took him away from home and family for months at a time, Jacques loved his visits to India – he was fascinated by its history and culture even tried to learn Hindi with the help of a language book and the ship’s crew on journey over there! He was awed by the country – everything from the architecture to the fabrics, to the colours had an enormous effect on him. “Out there everything is flooded with the wonderful Indian sunlight” he wrote, “one does not see as in the English light, he is only conscious that here is a blaze of red, and there of green or yellow”. He compared it to an impressionist painting. “Nothing is clearly defined, and there is but one vivid impression of undreamed gorgeousness and wealth”.

Over time, India became increasingly important for the Cartiers. Partly this was because of the clients who came to entrust Cartier with more and more commissions (jewels like the Patiala diamond necklace or Kapurthala emerald turban ornament have become legendary) but it was also because of the gems Jacques was able to source there and bring back to the West. India, being the gem-capital of the world, had some of the best precious stones available anywhere on the planet and as a result of Jacques’ trips, Cartier would gain a reputation as having some of the highest quality rubies, sapphires and emeralds on the market. But there was another reason India was important too, even though this was a by-product of Jacques’ trips rather than an early motivation: it was the inspiration that Cartier would derive from India. The Indian colours inspired vibrant tuttifruttijewels, while Indian carvings and motifs fed into designs on everything from tiaras to cigarette cases.

(L-R)Jacques Cartier buying gems in the 1920s, The Patiala Necklace, worn here by Sir Yadavinder Singh
(L-R) Jacques Cartier buying gems in the 1920s, The Patiala Necklace, worn here bySir Yadavinder Singh

What do you think is your family’s recipe for success?

As I mention in the book, the dream to build the family firm into “the leading jewellery firm in the world’ was one that the three Cartier brothers had shared as children. Knowing they were to inherit the Parisian firm which their grandfather founded, they formulated a plan to take it beyond Paris. They took a map of the world and literally divided it with a pencil: divide and conquer.  Louis took Paris, the firm’s headquarters, which he felt was his right as the oldest brother. Pierre, the middle brother, took the Americas: he would go on to marry an American heiress and open a branch in New York.  And Jacques, the youngest brother, took England, and along withit, the responsibility for clients in the British colonies, most importantly India.

I always knew the three Cartier brothers, Louis, Pierre and Jacques were close - my grandfather had told me about their special bond. But it wasn’t until I read their letters that I recognized how significant their shared ambition and love for one another was in terms of the firm’s success. Whenever one of them was feeling disheartened (they called it having a blue moment), the others would rally round reminding him of their dream 'to build the leading jewelry firm in the world.' I loved reading those letters and so did my grandfather. We marvelled together at how those three brothers didn’t just have a lofty dream – nothing so unusual about that –but, by working together and leveraging each other’s strengths, they actually made it happen!

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