Cartier Brickell was in Mumbai for a conference hosted by Saffronart on The Timeless Legacy of India Jewels on 6-7 October. India has been a source of inspiration for the world’s leading jewellery designers including Cartier, Harry Winston, and Van Cleef and Arpels, and some famous jewels such as the Orlov and Hope Diamond originate from or trace their design roots to India. Cartier Brickell spoke to Mint about Cartier’s India connection.
How did your great-grandfather, the youngest of the three brothers, describe his work in India?
The first time Jacques visited India, it was 1911 and he had arrived for the Delhi Darbar. The Delhi Darbar was a time to meet as many princes as possible in one place. He had his suitcases, like a travelling salesman. He had carried what was in fashion in Paris at that time, which was quite delicate, garland-style of diamantaires and necklaces. However, in India it was not the women who were buying the jewellery, it was the men. And they were not buying for their wives or their lovers, like they were in Paris. They were buying for themselves. So the biggest commission he got at the Darbar was something that he hadn’t really thought of bringing. It was a simple silver pocket watch. That was all the rage at Paris at that time and the maharajas obviously looked to the West and had seen this pocket watch and wanted it too.
How important was India for Cartier?
India was one of the most important markets for us. It was not just about the commissions we got from here. But around then the theme of orientalism and India was very much in vogue in the West. Cartier tapped into this. Besides, India was also important for buying gemstones. Right from his first trip in 1911, Jacques started meeting gem dealers. He then heard when the best gemstones were coming onto the market and cut out a lot of middlemen. It meant that Cartier had an edge when it came to the best coloured gemstones in the West. Also what this trip did, and it was fundamental to Cartier’s success, was that when he travelled around he obviously saw a different culture to that he was used to—the colour, the vibrancy, such sights, unimaginable mixing of colours and shapes. That formed the inspiration for Cartier’s important tutti frutti jewellery that has remained so popular in the West. The 1930s’ Great Depression was terrible for luxury brands and lots of them went under, and one of the reasons Cartier didn’t is because those commissions from the maharajas were reaching their peak in the 1920s and ’30s. That had really helped the firm tide over the depression when everyone in the West was reining in spending.
How often did Jacques visit India?
Jacques’ first visit (to India) was in 1911 and he stayed here for a few months. After that, from 1914-1919, the first world war broke out, in which he fought for the French. But in the 1920s and 1930s, he came back to India every two-three years. In the later years, he would travel with his American wife Nelly in their Rolls-Royce, which they would take all the way from England along with their chauffeur. His wife had 18 suitcases and needed her personal dresser as well. Also they used to often get ill on their India trips, so they bought their own doctor—so this whole crew would travel together. There were times when the road was rocky or, for example, they had to cross a river where the locals would lift the Rolls across it, so that they could keep going. Nelly used to write letters back to her kids—in them, she speaks of the contrast between sleeping on thin coco matting on the floor, while at other times they found themselves in luxury, staying at the Taj Palace in Mumbai or in the palaces of the maharajas.
What brings you to India? Is this your first time here?
This is my second trip. But the first after I started Creatingcartier.com. I am interested in the entire Cartier story. There was real love for India in my family from my great-grandfather and grandfather. This country was really important, especially in the early 1900s when they expanded internationally. I am particularly interested in the India story because Jacques travelled here so often. A lot of the letters are from India because he was away from home for long periods then.
Can you relate to the India that Jacques and his wife described?
It’s pretty similar actually. He talks about Bombay, the views, the buildings appearing in a horizon from under a veil and I could see that as I drove along the water. He talks about the cows everywhere and the awful traffic, and that remains. And of course there is opulence as well—the maharajas and the palaces as well, I visited some of these places and it is incredible really.
How did you start Creatingcartier?
I had been interested in the family history for a while. About 10 years ago, I started recording the memoirs of my grandfather Jean-Jacques before he passed away in 2010. He regretted that only one side of the story has been recorded in the glossy jewellery books about Cartier. But there is another important side as well. As I mentioned, there were three key brothers, Louis, Pierre and Jacques. Louis got much of the publicity for good reason. Much less has been written about Jacques, mainly because he was a humble man, quite private. I only know about him from my grandfather and through unpublished family archives of letters and photos. So I asked my grandfather if I could record his memoirs to share this other side of the story, and to make people aware of the real reasons behind the success of this international business empire. If it wasn’t for the contributions of any one of these three brothers—and indeed the contribution of India—to the story, I doubt we would have heard of Cartier today.
What are the few common themes that emerge every time you meet someone connected to the Cartier story?
There is a real love, real nostalgia for that time. Those people were absolutely top of the game—the craftsmen, even to set a stone, or design a piece they would train for three years. They would then stay at the firm their entire life. They loved what they were doing and now it’s just not the same. It’s all machine-made.
Were all three brothers equally important to the Cartier story?
Louis was this amazing creative genius; he came up with the idea of the wristwatch. He came up with the idea of using platinum in jewellery. No one used platinum before this. It was an industrial material. He started experimenting with different metals and realized that it was very strong and very light. So you create a diamond tiara with a thinner amount of mounting. The diamond really appeared to shine through...it’s a totally different effect.
Pierre was a real businessman and he opened the American branch and came up with the idea of opening the London branch as well. He really understood globalization. He just got business and markets. He realized getting Cartier in the gossip columns was far more important than a thousand advertisements. He didn’t advertise.
Jacques was the most knowledgeable about gemstones. Which of course helped on his trips to India. He visited the gemstone mines and had seen people mining. He was also a very good designer. He understood business and was an all-rounder.
They each ran their own business in London, Paris, New York. But they wrote to each other all the time. They were aware of each other’s clients and they shared everything.
How did they maintain the quality, standards and come across as one Cartier when in reality they were three independent companies—Cartier SA, Cartier Inc. and Cartier Ltd?
Paris was the first one. The other stores—London and New York—when they were set up didn’t have the workshop so the jewels would be sent from Paris to be sold. Later on they had their own workshops as well, which helped them to customize.
How did the family come to the decision to exit?
There is a saying, I think in every language, which goes something like this: from the stables to the stars and back to the stables again. It’s not an unusual story...the three brothers were incredibly close while they grew up with shared beliefs and ambitions. The cousins grew up in different continents and they didn’t know each other that well, and they were not necessarily interested in the business. My grandfather was very much interested in the business and he held on the longest. But he sold out in the 1970s.
What led him to sell?
He was an artist, his father was an artist and he had created beautiful pieces that cost money and took a lot of time. If something wasn’t perfect, it was sent back and made again. There is nothing coming out of that workshop that wasn’t 100% in terms of design, quality of stones. You know the back of a Cartier is as good as the front...the world in the 1970s was a different place. And nobody wanted to spend a lot of money on expensive handmade luxury. They wanted a bit of luxury at a lesser price which of course meant machine-made products and for my grandfather the beauty of the jewellery and the quality was a part of his DNA. That’s how he was brought up. He couldn’t bring himself to do machine-made (jewels). So he felt he wasn’t the best person to helm this business.
Cartier jewellery at auctions keeps hitting record highs. Why is that?
Now, the world is coming back full circle. Those antique Cartier pieces, especially the India-inspired pieces, I don’t think they can be surpassed. They are so beautifully made. You cannot get that quality these days. The quality of those pieces is unparallelled and that is why there is this resurgence of interest in these pieces.
We live in an age of consumerism where the quest is to buy more and more. Do you have a view on whether this consumption can be done differently?
I would spend more less often on some things that I truly love and that would last a lifetime. I think it is better to buy less than to buy more. It’s far better to buy something special that has had true thought put into its creation than just to buy anything.