Hubert Burda Media

Labour of Love

Francesca Cartier Brickell, tracing her lineage to founder Louis-François Cartier, pens a memoir on the Cartier family

As the direct descendant of the French family that founded the storied Cartier Maison in 1847, Francesca Cartier Brickell is a blue-blood in the world of fine jewellery.
Born in 1975, Cartier Brickell grew up hearing stories of the jewellery house from her maternal grandfather, Jean-Jacques Cartier (1920-2011), the son of Jacques Cartier (1885–1942) who was one of the three Cartier brothers who took the brand international from 1909 — Louis Cartier was the oldest, Pierre Cartier the second, and then came Jacques, the youngest. The once-family owned brand spanned three branches in New York, Paris and London until it was acquired during the 1970s by Hocq and eventually by Richemont.
Recently in town to kick-start Bonhams’ Spring auction preview with a lecture on Cartier’s long-standing history, Cartier Brickell says that while many books have been written on the brand, none accurately tell the story of the family behind the company. But, with her own upcoming book (which does not yet have a publication date), she is determined to rectify that.
“It will not be another one of those coffee table tomes on Cartier jewellery. I want to show the real emotions in the family and the dynamics behind the business, rather than just talk about the jewels,” shares the 40-year-old mother of two.
The idea for the book was the result of a 2009 holiday in Southern France, where the family was celebrating her grandfather’s 90th birthday at his home. Popping down into the cellar to retrieve a bottle of champagne, she came across a decades-old case containing thousands of letters — not just from the Cartier brothers to each other, but also from luminaries such as writer Jean Cocteau and the Queen of England — telling the story of both the family and the business for four generations.
Inspired by the momentous find, Cartier Brickell decided to leave her fund management role at RBS to work on the book. The first task was to track down other collections of letters relating to the brand. Travelling the world, she also met people who were connected to the Cartier of old, when it was still under family ownership — a period during which it pioneered some of its most famous styles, including their 1920s Art Deco designs in which baguette diamonds, black onyx and emeralds dominated.
“There are many books out there about Cartier but my grandfather felt that they do not tell the full story. They focused on one story, [that of] his uncle, Louis Cartier who managed the Paris branch, and largely ignored the contributions of Pierre and Jacques,” she says.
While many know Louis for conceiving the idea of using platinum in jewellery, Jacques, too was a creative force. He ran the London branch and produced renowned styles such as Tutti Frutti. He was also most knowledgeable about gemstones, travelling widely to procure the best stones for the firm. Pierre, who ran the New York outlet, was the most astute in business, and was the one who suggested expanding Cartier out of Paris.
“This was during the era when Paris was the centre of the Western world. Maharajahs, the King of Siam, royalty in Europe and rich Americans all visited Cartier Paris. None of the other big brands thought of [establishing shopfronts outside] of Paris, but Pierre did. He thought about expansion, a truly global idea at that time,” she shares.
Of course, all three brothers were close and worked cohesively together, she adds. For example, they had a shared mantra of never copying designs but to always create and innovate. For them, inspiration was gleaned from everywhere; from objects as diverse as Celtic bronze works, Chinese carpets, Spanish architecture, to everyday items such as vases. There was even an ex libris (a decorative label pasted on a book to indicate ownership) of Bagheera the panther on little Jean-Jacques’ copy of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, that was thought to have inspired the famed Cartier panther motif, reveals Cartier Brickell. This anecdote is an alternative to the more popularly known tale that the panther was inspired by the brand’s then creative director of jewellery, Jeanne Toussaint.
As for the sale of the family business in the 1970s, Cartier Brickell believes that it was inevitable, given how much the world had changed since the earlier decades of the 20th century. With the rise of machine-driven manufacturing and cheaper costs of production, luxury had become more accessible. But to the Cartiers, objects that were not hand-made were regarded as poor quality.
“My grandfather [Jean-Jacques] was a true artist and could not bring himself to make pieces with lesser quality. So he sold the company in 1974, which was very difficult as the firm had been his and his father’s baby. When he left, he cut all ties with Cartier,” she lets on, adding that her book will double up as a memoir for her grandfather.
Like him, Cartier Brickell has no business ties with the company today, but she is still passionate about its heritage, something she is glad the current Cartier leadership also deems important. “What’s great is that Cartier has not forgotten the past, and is building upon it. The brand is recognised for its heritage, evidenced by the Cartier Collection (a collection of old Cartier jewels and objects the brand has been buying back since 1973),” she shares.
In the same vein, she is also driven by love when it comes to writing her book — a huge project, which sees her having to sift through more than 120 years’ worth of history. “I’d spend hours in the British Library researching things related to just one comment in a letter. But I don’t mind at all. I’ve taken on the Cartier story as a real work of love. It’s become my life.”