DUBAI: Author and Cartier family member Francesca Cartier Brickell was on hand at this week’s Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai to discuss her book “The Cartiers: The Untold Story of the Family Behind the Jewelry Empire” — and Arab News sat down with her to dive deep into the storied family’s past.
Unlike other books on Cartier, which primarily discuss the jewels, Cartier Brickell’s work takes a more personal approach and explores the family itself. It highlights how a small jewelry business in Paris became a global phenomenon, creating bedazzling pieces for kings and queens worldwide. Based on primary research, the book takes us through various setbacks the business faced, including two world wars and the great depression, eventually becoming a powerhouse in the jewelry business.
One summer, her family gathered at her grandfather Jean-Jacques Cartier’s house in the south of France to celebrate his 90th birthday and little did she know what she would discover. “He asked me to fetch something from the cellar, and I looked everywhere for it. Suddenly, I found this old trunk in the corner. I opened it and it was filled with hundreds of family letters dating back to 150 years ago,” she said. Once she presented them to her grandfather, many discussions on the family’s history started to take shape. “I’m so grateful he was still alive because he got to give his side of the story. A letter doesn’t explain everything or fill in the gaps – but he could. And before he died, I decided to write about it because otherwise it would be lost forever,” she said.
While Cartier has always been synonymous with high-end luxury and royalty, its beginnings were incredibly humble. Louis-François Cartier started as an apprentice in the jewelry trade and worked long hours before founding the business in 1847. “It’s so easy to imagine that Cartier today was always a big business, but it wasn’t – it was a startup. And it was a startup by someone incredibly poor and without money. There was a revolution the first year after he established it, and he thought the business would go under.”
While Louis-François’ son Alfred would no doubt grow the business, his grandchildren, Louis, Pierre, and Jacques, took the Cartier name to new heights and forged strong bonds with royalty in Europe, the Middle East, and India. Cartier Brickell spent ten years researching the book – traveling to far-flung places, talking to families of old Cartier employees, digging into any archival documents she could find in major public libraries, and even checking shipping records. Through her research, she recalls one of her most exciting memories – meeting the Maharani of Baroda. “My great grandfather Jacques had met Maharaja Sayajirao at Laxmi Vilas in Baroda palace a hundred years ago and had written in these diaries with sketches in them which I had in my possession. I was opening one of the pages, and she instantly recognized a sketch. A few minutes later, she brought out that exact piece – a bejeweled turban ornament. There was this kind of connection we had that our ancestors knew each other.”
Every chapter of the book tells a new tale – whether it is about the wealthy women the three Cartier brothers married, whose wealth propelled the business’s success, the clever and unusual marketing tactics employed by them, or the details behind some of their most iconic creations. An unmissable anecdote is about the 45-carat ‘Hope Diamond’ Pierre Cartier bought in 1910 – notorious and allegedly cursed, it was a considerable risk for Cartier. Eventually purchased by US heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean in 1912 for $180,000 ($5 million today), Pierre had to reset it a few times before she finally bought it. “His marketing strategy was brilliant. Cartier was unknown in America, and his brother was completely against mainstream advertising (so) word of mouth was the only way to do so. So, he bought this jewel, and he knew McLean was wealthy and liked making an impact. She would have these big parties and wear the diamond, tie it around her dog Mike, or even hide it in the garden and ask guests to find it! This made great newspaper material and got Cartier in the press and into New York high society,” Cartier Brickell said.
Ultimately, Cartier Brickell wanted to highlight the human story of the Cartier family. The book is a compelling read that takes you through the highs and the lows of multiple generations of a family that started a business with very little, eventually turning it into one of the world’s most iconic fine jewelry labels.