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From apprentice to master jeweller: the story of Cartier

Delve into the history of luxury jewellery and timepiece brand Cartier, which, this year, commemorates 175 years since its founding

Audiences around the world are enamoured by the lure of Cartier. With iconic jewellery collections and timepieces, the house is represented in more than 60 countries, with over 200 boutiques around the world, and is a firm favourite among royalty and celebrities alike. Yet, for a brand of its stature, it came from rather humble beginnings. Its origins can be traced back to a small jewellery workshop in Rue Montorgueil in Paris, where the story began.

In 1847, Louis-Francois Cartier, then just 29 years old, took over the jewellery workshop of his master Adolphe Picard. Despite uncertainty and unrest during the ongoing French Revolution, his workshop continued to thrive.

Such was his expertise that it attracted the who's who of society, with clients who sought his creations for their uniqueness. Word of his skill got around quickly and in 1856, Princess Mathilde, niece of Napoleon I and cousin to Emperor Napoleon III, made her first purchase from the brand. As he continued to see success, Louis-Francois opened the first Cartier boutique in 1859.

To keep up with the growing demand, Louis-François introduced his son, Alfred, and his grandsons, Louis, Pierre, and Jacques, to the business. Sharing their patriarch's passion, they brought new perspectives to the brand, which resulted in an increase in product offerings and exposure. And so, with the business flourishing, the family opened a new Parisian boutique on Rue de la Paix in 1899, which would go on to become the home of Cartier and the base from which Louis-François's grandsons would chart the brand's international expansion.

At this stage – the turn of the 20th century – Cartier's offerings were limited to jewellery only. But with Louis as the brand's creative mastermind, change was on the horizon.

During the early 1900s, the pocket watch was the standard timepiece. While this worked perfectly for leisurely pursuits and the sartorial sensibilities of that age, it was not well suited for men of action. It was Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont, who approached his friend Louis with the challenges posed by pocket watches in flight. His search for a hands-free way to check the time inspired Louis to create Cartier's first timepiece – a flat wristwatch with a square case and square bezel modelled after the era’s unique square pocket watches.

Although this wasn't the first-ever wristwatch to appear, this classy timepiece – the Cartier Santos-Dumont – became the first pilot watch to ever be produced. Its popularity piqued the interests of Cartier’s other clients, from which the brand grew its timepiece line.

In 1914, the iconic panther motif was introduced for the first time in the brand's very first round women's watch, with panther spots represented using onyx and diamonds. Since then, Cartier has gone on to create several timepieces that have all become icons, including the Tonneau, Baignoire and Tortue in the early 20th century, followed by the Tank in the 1940s and the Crash in the 1960s, which saw the brand sail smoothly through the challenges of World Wars I and II.

The house's jewellery line enjoyed equal popularity in the 20th century. In 1911, the brand was commissioned to create a necklace with 2,930 diamonds by the Maharaja of Patiala.

In 1924, it launched the Trinity De Cartier collection – an iconic piece in Cartier’s jewellery range. The three rings symbolise different stages of a relationship – pink for love, white for friendship and yellow for fidelity.

From Prince Rainier of Monaco, who gave a 10.47-carat diamond-ruby engagement ring to Grace Kelly, to Richard Burton gifting a necklace with a 69.42-carat Cartier diamond to Elizabeth Taylor (giving it the name, the Taylor-Burton Diamond), Cartier has been synonymous with the rich and famous for decades.

The brand also created exquisite pieces for the late Queen Elizabeth II, who lent the Cartier Halo tiara to Catherine, Princess of Wales, at the time of her wedding to Prince William.

Perhaps one of the house's most iconic creations is the Cartier Love bracelet, created by Italian jewellery designer Aldo Cipullo in the Cartier New York workshop in the 1970s. And now, even half a century after the first sketch, the collection remains widely popular, thanks to its perfectly clean lines and unique locking mechanism formed by two rigid arcs that must be bound together using a special matching screwdriver.

Equally popular is the Juste un Clou collection, which was also conceived in the 1970s in New York. Its prominent nail-inspired silhouette broke through traditional design codes when it was first launched. It symbolises the essence of its wearer, one who is original, independent, fearless and free.

Although the business changed hands following the passing of Louis-François's grandsons in the 1970s, the team of investors, led by Joseph Kanoui, who first bought Cartier Paris, followed by Cartier London and Cartier New York, appointed creative heads who steered the future of the brand in the right direction. In their able hands, Cartier reached new heights of excellence with products that continued to push the boundaries of traditional watch and jewellery making.


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