Cartier – A History

A few years ago I attended an exhibition at the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco on the history of Cartier and its creations. The exhibit displayed an endless variety of mostly custom creations that Carter produced over the years for many of the world’s most important families. At the same time, anyone with enough spending money could buy mainstream Cartier creations for their own family.

Like many popular brands, Cartier’s longevity as a brand and powerful name has much to do with the clever charisma and leadership of its founder. Cartier really started back in 1847 by Louis-Francois Cartier in Paris. Even as a jeweler Louis-Francois had an early fascination with timepieces and understood their importance alongside precious stones and art. Cartier was able to get close to important and royal families in Europe. By outfitting the best families with the best things, his reputation grew and was eventually called the “Jeweller of King and the King of Jewellers” by the British royal family.

As a watch and clock maker Cartier is credited with reviving a number of almost lost arts in horology. Some of their most important historic pieces are elaborate “mystery” clocks which include beautiful bases and designs. The “mystery” part of the clock refers to the fact that the connections for the hour and minute hands are usually invisible, making it appear as though they are floating. Cartier produced a number of clocks and other timepiece for their clients before producing any for the mainstream market.

Cartier remained a family business into the 20th century. Louis Cartier, son of Louis-Francois, took over the brand until almost halfway into the 20th century. Louis is credited with making Cartier what it is today. While Cartier does make some of their own watch movements today, historically they partnered with high-end watch makers to product movements. One of the most notable partnerships was with Edmond Jaeger – who supplied Cartier watches with movements. The Jaeger name today is part of the well-known watch maker Jaeger-LeCoultre.

Early Cartier watches were hand-made in Paris and used very good Swiss movements. Two special models really put their name on the map. Cartier is said to have produced the first mainstream men’s watch with the Santos-Dumont (which went on sale in 1911). The now iconic square watch design was produced for Alberto Santos-Dumont, an early aviation enthusiast and friend of Louis Cartier. Next was the Tank model. Also with a square-like case, the Tank model came out during WWI in 1917 and was said to be in honor of Allied tanks from the war.

Today Cartier is still based in Paris, but is part of the Richemont Group of luxury brands. Cartier is among their leading holdings, and is considered to be one of the top names in luxury products globally. Cartier produces mainly wrist watches, but also fine jewellery and other accessories. Cartier has never forgotten their history of producing custom-made or one-of-a-kind beautiful jewelry and wrist watch creations. Such special products exist next to the brand’s more mainstream high-end watches and other offerings.