Since its inception in the mid-19th Century, the House of Cartier has been at the forefront of intriguing watch and jewelry design. Today, there are countless emblematic pieces manufactured by the house, from their famed Flamingo brooch, to their classic Panthère collection, and their legendary line of classic elegant “Tank” watches. Here, we take you through some of the iconic motifs Cartier returns to time and time again, as well as their most popular pieces and what you can expect to pay for Cartier jewelry at auction.
A Brief History of Cartier
Founded in 1847, The House of Cartier was first established when 28-year-old Louis-François Cartier took over a jewelry workshop at 29 rue Montorgueil in Paris. Coinciding with the rise of the French Second Empire, Cartier’s business continued to grow, resulting in the opening of the first Cartier boutique in 1859. At its heart, the house was a family business, with the founder’s son, Alfred, taking the reins in 1874. With an already excellent reputation, Alfred further elevated the house, moving it to the prestigious rue de la Paix in the jewelry district of Paris. Yet, it was not until the next generation that Cartier was established as the world famous brand we know today, by Alfred’s three sons: Louis, Pierre and Jacques.
With Louis maintaining control over Paris operations, Jacques went to London in 1902. Merely two years later, he was commissioned by King Edward VII and his court to create 27 tiaras for the coronation, thereby being awarded the Royal Warrant in 1904 and title ‘Jeweler of Kings, King of Jewelers’. This distinction cemented Cartier’s status as the jeweler of choice for London’s Edwardian elite and their London flagship opened shortly thereafter in a Bond Street townhouse.
Several years later in 1917, Pierre travelled to New York and in a famous exchange for two strands of fine pearls, he acquired the prestigious address of 653 Fifth Avenue. As an early adopter of influencer marketing, Pierre gave jewels to the then world-famous Australian opera singer, Nellie Melba, to wear on stage.
At that time, each and every Cartier piece was designed and created at the Rue de la Paix workshop in Paris. Yet, just after WWI, the three arms of the business started trading as independent companies, with each piece being signed as either Cartier London, Paris or New York. Nevertheless, there still remained a close collaboration between the three to maintain high level standards in quality and workmanship. When Cartier London opened its own workshop, English Artworks, in 1922, it hired a French workshop head to teach local goldsmiths the “Cartier way”.
The House of Cartier style appealed to a diverse range of clientele including both upper middle classes and aristocracy. Notably, their jewelry was worn by artists, actresses, and writers who were part of the avant-garde scenes of the time. Cartier’s clientele also encompassed royalty, film stars, and business tycoons, including King Farouk of Egypt, The Duchess of Windsor, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly and Clark Gable.
Cartier London, Paris and New York were reunited as a single entity in 1979, with the design studio once again based in Paris. Since then, the House of Cartier has established a reputation as one of, if not the finest jewelry house in the world. The house has remained true to the finest traditions of watchmaking and jewelry by employing rare craftsmanship and unique skills that are often in danger of becoming extinct. For the past decade, the Maison has been actively committed to keeping traditional techniques alive for future generations.
Icons of Cartier Jewelry
In 1913, Cartier’s signature panther was inspired by a painting by George Barbier, which Louis Cartier commissioned as the new image for the house’s advertising campaigns. The image featured a woman sporting a long necklace with a panther at her feet, and before long, it became a symbol of the House of Cartier.
The motif was further reinforced by designer Jeanne Toussaint, who had joined Cartier in 1913 and earned the nickname “La Panthere”, mainly because she always wore a full length panther coat. Her intelligence and fearless style eventually earned her a role at the house as the design director of bags, accessories and objects.
The first three-dimensional Cartier Panthère was eventually created in 1948 as one of several commissions (including their engagement ring) by the Duke of York for his wife, Wallis Simpson. The brooch consisted of a cat perched above a 116.74 carat emerald from the Duke’s own collection. In 1949, the couple went on to commission another Cartier brooch, pairing a diamond cat with a sapphire.
Following the commissions by Duke Of Windsor, Cartier established an ongoing Panthere collection, which included the Panthere rings. They were also designed to look like the head of their namesake and were adorned with onyxes for the panther’s spots and emeralds for their sharp eyes. The Panthere ring remains one of Cartier’s most coveted pieces of jewelry today.
Another famous commission from the house by the Duke and Duchess was of this flamingo brooch from Cartier Paris, which she wore in 1940. Consisting of platinum, diamonds, emeralds, rubies, sapphires and citrine, many of the stones were actually supplied by the Duke and Duchess themselves to be crafted by Cartier.
The Tank Watch
Another classic piece which still holds court today is the Cartier Tank Watch. According to company lore, this timepiece was designed by Louis Cartier, the founder’s grandson. Launched at the end of WWI, the piece was inspired by the tread of a Renault FT-17 light tank, a mechanical hero of the Great War, and was presented to American general John Pershing in 1918.
At the request of French surrealist artist Jean Cocteau, a ‘trinity’ of rings was designed by Carter in 1924. Each of the three interconnected bands represents a different stage of a romantic relationship. There have been countless variations made on the classic design, including diamond encrusted bands, but originally, white gold stood for friendship, yellow gold for fidelity, and rose god for true love. With its’ timeless design, it’s easy to see why the Trinity de Cartier rings are one of the brand’s longest running and most beloved jewelry collections.
Created by Aldo Cipullo in 1969 as his first design for Cartier, the now iconic ‘Love’ bracelet was inspired by the idea that “love symbols should suggest an everlasting quality”. The screw on design ensures that the bracelet is secured to the wearer’s wrist, only to be opened with a miniature screwdriver which splits the bracelet in two parts. The original idea was for the screwdriver to be kept with the wearer’s partner, thereby giving them the power to unlock the piece. According to rumors, when it was first launched, Cartier only allowed couples to purchase Love bracelets. Once again leveraging the power of celebrity, Louis Cartier gifted Love bracelets to high-profile couples such as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
Despite numerous variations and special editions, the Love bracelets are still close to Cipullo’s original design. Due to the popularity of the piece, there have been countless imitations. In response to this rampant piracy, more recent models now have a unique serial number kept on file at Cartier headquarters. Other key indicators to distinguish authentic from fake Cartier are the materials used in the piece and any hallmarks or trademarks present.
Juste un Clou Bracelet
The collaboration between Cartier and designer Aldo Cipullo continued with the creation of the Juste un Clou Bracelet in 1971. It has since earned its place among the top 5 coveted Cartier pieces of jewelry. The piece exemplifies Cipullo’s signature approach, creating beauty out of the mundane by reimagining a simple nail into luxury jewelry. Translated as “Just a Nail,” this bracelet is made of a bent nail that gracefully wraps around the wearer’s wrist. The bracelet was also a tribute to New York’s wild and independent spirit during the 1970s and still holds its’ power today.
From the 1960s, Cartier London became known for its rebellious creations with the son of Jacques Cartier, Jean-Jacques, creating some of the most daring watch designs of the Swinging Sixties. This included the infamous and Dalí-esque Crash Watch in 1967, inspired by a Cartier Maxi Baignoire Allongée (‘extended bathtub’) watch that melted in the fire of a car accident, according to Cartier legend.
What Collectors Should Expect to Pay for Pre-owned Cartier Pieces
Cartier pieces sold at auction can cost anywhere from the low thousands to the millions. Although you can expect to pay high prices for rare and exceptional pieces with high value gemstones and provenance, there are many classics, such as the Trinity or Love collection, being resold at auction at more affordable price points. Buying these classic pieces at auction makes for a smart investment, as they will continue to increase in popularity and price with their average resale value remaining at a consistent 69% over the last several years.
Featured image via UnSplash.
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