Cartier was founded in 1847 in Paris by watchmaker and jeweler Louis-François Cartier, when he took over the workshop of his employer, Adolphe Picard, and what had started as a small concern grew into an international luxury-goods business. The maison became a favourite jeweler among European royalty and aristocracy, and positioned itself at the forefront of luxury watch design, with innovations such as the Santos, one of the first wristwatches. The Cartier family retained the firm until 1964. Cartier jewelry is now produced by the Richemont Group but has remained true to the motto, coined by Louis Cartier, “Never imitate, always innovate.”
When Princess Mathilde, cousin of Emperor Napoleon III, bought a Cartier creation in 1855, she launched the maison into Parisian high society and beyond. At the turn of the century, Louis-François Cartier handed the business over to his three sons, who went on to grow the company internationally: Louis Cartier in Paris, Pierre Cartier in New York and Jacques Cartier in London.
Maison Cartier has been granted royal warrants by many of the crowns of Europe – so many, in fact, that King Edward VII of England referred to Cartier as the “jeweler of kings and the king of jewelers”. Crowned heads and aristocrats were particularly drawn to the maison’s neoclassical diamond jewelry, mounted in a novel metal – platinum – which was favoured for its flexibility and lightness.
Cartier employed many talented Parisian designers, such as Charles Jacqueau and Pierre Lemarchand, who were pivotal in creating many of the brand’s most remarkable pieces, and cementing its place as a leader in the world of high jewelry. Thanks to the visionary Jeanne Toussaint (appointed creative director of Cartier in 1933), Cartier channelled a wide array of fashions and influences into elegant and era-defining jewelry. The brand also excelled at watches and many remain icons to this day.
The company has also distinguished itself with its luxury luggage lines, refined perfumes and elegant accessories. In 2005, Cartier became one of the 14 founding members of the Responsible Jewellery Council, which has established an ethical, social and environmental code of conduct for participants in the jewelry trade – including precious watches – from mines through to retail.
Key Cartier jewelry and watch designs:
Cartier is of course known for its innovative and original high jewelry lines. Unafraid to play with abstract shapes, geometric forms and unique color pairings, the firm quickly moved with the times and embraced movements such as neo-classicism, art deco and modernism with verve.
Cartier is known for pushing the boundaries of design and innovation. For instance, at the turn of the century, most people wore a pocket watch. But Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont needed a “hands-free” way to check the time during his flights so he asked his friend Louis Cartier to come up with a solution. Cartier did not disappoint and presented him with a watch on a leather strap designed to be worn on the wrist. Named after the aviator, the Santos made the wristwatch incredibly popular. Delicate diamond-set wristwatches for women were also introduced to much fanfare. “The wrist watch is now the fashion of the hour,” heralded a Parisian newspaper. “Women are changing all kinds of jewelry for this new bauble.”
A decade later, in 1912, Louis Cartier designed the tortoise-inspired watch, the Tortue. At a time when most watches were round, the unusual, angular form was an instant hit.
Another classic is the Tank, created in 1917. The design was inspired by the Renault FT-17 tanks, which Louis saw during World War I. The rectangular watch has remained in production ever since and has been a favourite with A-listers such as Jacqueline Onassis, Andy Warhol and Michelle Obama.
A story surrounds the Pasha de Cartier, although the maison Cartier declines to comment on its veracity. In the story, the Pasha of Marrakesh, Thami El Glaoui, had commissioned a unique timepiece from Louis Cartier, which would be resilient and water resistant. Cartier invented a watch with a large diameter, a crown cover and metal grid to protect the dial.
One of its most famous creations is the ‘Tutti Frutti’, an eye-popping design that brought carved emeralds, rubies and sapphires together in vibrant combinations. Marrying Western and Eastern traditions, the Art Deco design was inspired by the colors of India. It was a highly experimental and original design – and the first to mix colored stones in such abandon. Today, Tutti Frutti necklaces and bracelets are much sought-after and highly prized. In 2020, a Cartier Tutti Frutti bracelet sold for more than $1.3 million at auction, the highest price for any jewel sold that year.
Jeanne Toussaint’s Le Panthère
Cartier would not have been the same without the supremely talented and charismatic Jeanne Toussaint, its director of fine jewelry, who held sway at the maison for much of the 20th century. She was known as ‘the panther’ because she had a penchant for their skins, which decorated her home. The fierce animal became a signature motif and the house mascot after the Duke of Windsor commissions a brooch for his wife, Wallis Simpson, featuring a yellow gold panther perched on a 116-carat cabochon-cut emerald.
The Trinity ring also plays a central part in the Cartier story. Conceived in 1924 by Louis Cartier, it remains key to the maison’s jewelry range to this day. Its three interlinking bands symbolise enduring love – it’s been seen gracing the fingers of style icons such as Princess Diana and Nicole Kidman.
Maintenance tips for Cartier Jewelry
Be sure to handle your precious Cartier jewelry and watches with care. Remove the piece when washing your hands or using corrosive products that could damage precious metal, stones or pearls. Jewelry should be stored carefully, preferably in its original box, and cleaned regularly. If your piece contains lapis lazuli, coral, pearls, turquoise, emeralds, or a significant cluster of stones, cleaning should be undertaken by one of the specialists at a Cartier boutique. Otherwise, you can brush the jewelry gently using a small soft brush and warm, soapy water, then rinse and dry with a soft cloth. Cartier advises that you take your pieces to a Cartier boutique to have them checked and cleaned yearly and to have the strings of any pearl necklaces serviced.