In the 170 years of bejewelling the rich and fabulous since Cartier Monde first opened its doors in 1847; the storied French jeweller created, defined, and codified what luxury fashion looks like. Cartier, based in Paris today is the world's largest luxury jeweller, operating nearly 200 retail stores in more than 125 countries. Fifth Avenue, in New York City, is today synonymous with high fashion. Cartier was in fact the first luxury outlet to set up shop there when they moved into a former millionaire’s mansion. Cartier still occupies it to this day; it is their flagship store in the United States.
Although Cartier continues to be synonymous with fine jewelry and wristwatches, the company has developed a strong portfolio of fashion accessories, including cigarette lighters, scarves and perfume. It is an all-encompassing brand with a history of authenticity and innovation, one which has something of everything to offer to the fashionista who must have a piece of jewellery which exudes sophistication and style. This necessity is exemplified by the name of the modern Cartier collection: Le Must de Cartier. In English, it simply means one must have Cartier.
In the long history of Cartier, the fashion house has many proud stories to tell, but their most enduring legacy of course is nothing less than the wristwatch itself. Cartier was the company which really put wristwatches on the map—and on wrists! At the beginning of the 20th Century, fashionable gentlemen carried their watches in their pockets. These delicate timepieces, made of lustrous precious metals and kept in coat pockets at the end of a gilded chain, were suitable for dapper gentlemen in an office or about town.
For rugged men who led a rough and tumble life, however, they were woefully inadequate. With the invention of the aeroplane, especially, this began to change. As more and more bold and brave men began taking to the skies in these early aeroplanes, gentlemen flyers found that accessing a pocket watch was impossible without taking their hands off the controls—often a dangerous proposition!
In fact, the very first man to fly a heavier than air aircraft in Europe and a legendary aviation pioneer, Alberto Santos-Dumont, wore a Cartier watch. Living in Paris at the time, Santos-Dumont approached Cartier and asked them to design him a timepiece he could carry on his wrist while flying, one which would also be suitable at high society outings in the evenings. This unique request resulted in the Santos de Cartier. Although it was not the first wristwatch in history, it has probably been the single most influential.
Its design was nothing short of radical. Pocket watches at the time were intended to complement the other jewels people wore. The Santos de Cartier dispensed with this. Rather than being heavily jewelled, Cartier adopted a style which presaged the Art Deco movement. The Santos de Cartier was made of aluminium, which was at the time still an exotic material, and one which was used extensively in aircraft production (as it is to this day).
This helped save weight, an essential quality to early aviators. Likewise, the Santos de Cartier broke another cardinal rule of horology at the time. It did not hide the screws which mated the face to the body, as did contemporary pocket watches; instead, the screws were left exposed, like the rivets on an aircraft. Finally, it was the first wrist-watch to use a simple but beautiful leather strap. Intended to blend with Santos-Dumont’s leather flying jacket, it was a radical departure from the gilded chains of pocket watches, which were a sine qua non of men’s fashion at the time.
The cumulative effect of this design was monumental. In one fell swoop, Cartier redefined men’s fashion. The Santos de Cartier was a man’s watch. The men who wore it were dashing and adventurous, and soon enough all men would wear their watch on their wrist. It’s a fashion style that continues to the present day, one which Cartier singlehandedly popularised. This legacy is reflected in their newly released Santos 100, which is an homage to the original Santos de Cartier on the latter’s centenary. It is available in several styles, from a skeletal model to one which hews close to the original, but all of them reflect the elegant simplicity which made the original the greatest leap forward in horological fashion of the Twentieth Century.
In the intervening century since then, Cartier has made wristwatches of all descriptions, from the lavishly ornate to the elegantly simple. It is no exaggeration to say that Cartier made the wristwatch a fashion symbol, not just a way to tell time.
Of course, Cartier makes more than just wristwatches. It made its name as a purveyor of the finest jewellery in Europe, a legacy it continues to uphold. Any woman or indeed, any man, can feel proud to own a piece of Cartier. Whether it is a pearl necklace or a pair of diamond earrings, Cartier has made it.
The Bismarck Necklace, featuring double studded diamonds over platinum links was custom made for Princess Bismarck of Germany specifically so it could exhibit one of the largest sapphires ever discovered. It is such an exquisite piece of art that it is housed in the Smithsonian in Washington DC, on permanent display for the public. The lustre and scale are breathtaking, to say nothing of Cartier’s magnificent craftsmanship.
That of course is an exceptional part of the Cartier story. Today, while Cartier may make more accessible items of jewellery than a one-of-a-kind sapphire necklace and museum-piece, Cartier’s work is, in many respects, no less impressive. Their craftsmanship and sheer beatify are unparalleled, and the breadth of Cartier’s offerings are as bewitching as the beauty of their jewellery.