Francesca Cartier Brickell Shares the Untold Story Behind Her Family’s Jewellery Empire

The discovery of a battered trunk — filled with old documents and correspondence — in the cellar of her grandfather’s house in the South of France led Francesca Cartier Brickell on a 10-year journey of discovery. Prestige speaks to her about her book, The Cartiers: The Untold Story of the Family Behind the Jewelry Empire.

First published by Ballantine Books in 2019 (hardback) and last year as a paperback, the story of the family behind the jewellery empire is a captivating tale filled with intrigue, drama, and fascination – all the more significant since it is told by the granddaughter of Jean-Jacques Cartier. Ten years of Francesca Cartier Brickell’s life went into researching and writing the book. It was an experience that would reveal never-before-published details about the family behind the global jewellery dynasty, but also give Francesca a deeper understanding of her own roots.

The Cartiers: The Untold Story of the Family Behind the Jewelry Empire offers a behind-the-scenes look at the French maison’s most iconic jewellery – the notoriously cursed Hope Diamond, the Romanov emeralds, the classic panther pieces – and the long line of stars from the worlds of fashion, film, and royalty who wore them. It is also a compelling family story. It tells of Louis Cartier, the visionary designer who created the first men’s wristwatch to help an aviator friend tell the time without taking his hands from the controls of his flying machine, and Pierre Cartier, the master dealmaker who bought the New York headquarters on Fifth Avenue for a double-stranded natural pearl necklace. And Jacques Cartier, the globe-trotting gemstone expert whose travels to India gave Cartier access to the world’s best rubies, emeralds and sapphires, inspiring the celebrated Tutti Frutti jewellery.

What was it like growing up in such a famous family, and did the status of the family name also bring along certain expectations to live up to?
As a family, and this is going back many generations, we have always been very discreet. Discretion is one of the big Cartier values. Growing up, we never talked about it. In fact, my connection is on my mom’s side, who is Jean-Jacques Cartier’s daughter, rather than on my dad’s side. So, we had the Cartier name, but we also had my father’s name. It wasn’t that obvious that I was part of the Cartier family – it was just something we didn’t talk about. I didn’t even tell many of my friends. When I wrote the book, I think it came as a surprise for many people that I was connected to the Cartier family. I grew up seeing my grandfather during family holidays, and that’s where the link was more obvious. I would speak to him about the past, and he would share his magical stories with us all. But he had sold the business at that stage and moved to the south of France. Growing up, as children, we would all visit him in France. I talk a bit about that in the introduction of my book, and about his house, which is also where I ended up living for the past five years. I have just recently moved back to Oxford for my kids’ schooling. So, I wrote the book in my grandfather’s house in France, which just kind of seemed right.

What was your relationship like with your grandfather, Jean-Jacques?
We were very close. He was the most perfect grandfather, unbelievably generous. On his birthday he would rather give presents than receive them – which, as a child, you just can’t get your head around. He was very modest, and wise, too. He didn’t speak a lot about himself. When I started speaking to him about the past, he wanted those memories of his father, and his uncles, and his ancestors to live on. He didn’t want himself to be in the limelight. I obviously included him in the book because, for me, he was out there. He was from that generation who fought in the Second World War who were very modest and real gentlemen. They had a sense of what was important in life. He was wonderful… and a big influence for me.

Of all the quotes from your grandfather that appear in the book, which one is your favourite?
There are so many different ones which highlight different parts of the [Cartier] history. There were ones from grandpa in World War 2 that I was astounded by… things he went through. But for me, one that sums up the book is, “Never copy, only create”. Grandpa told me that it was uncle, Louis, who had this motto, who was then shared by his two brothers, Jacques and Pierre, as well, and then passed on to the next generations. The idea was that Cartier should never copy, or look at past jewellery for inspiration. You can look all over the world for inspiration, but not to past jewellery, so they should take inspiration from everywhere to create new pieces. When I was looking at writing this book I was wondering how they could have been so successful through so many decades, so many periods, and countries, and context… and I think that’s why. They were always innovating. That motto just best sums up Cartier.

Jean-Jacques Cartier, the Authors’ Grandfather

What are some of the most important family values that were passed on to you by your parents, and to them, by their parents?
From my grandfather, as he described it being passed down from his father, and his father before him, down to all the generations, I think to be very kind was very important. There was a letter from the founder, who was my great-great-great-grandfather to his son, when his son goes travelling to England for the first time in the early 19th century. And the advice he gave to his son travelling was, whoever he met, to be very kind. I think that was how Cartier stood out. In the early days, they didn’t have a lot of money, they were not even making their own jewellery. They were selling jewels from other workshops. There were many jewellers at the time. So how were they going to stand out? By giving their clients, employees, and the dealers they dealt with a kind of service that is better they would find elsewhere. Being kind is something that was passed down. And also, not to take shortcuts. They all worked really, really hard. That’s something I realised while researching my book, reading all the letters… there were always something to do, something that went wrong, someone to visit, a client to see, an employee to help out. They just never stopped. The work ethic was phenomenal.

Have you always had an interest in watches and jewellery, or at what stage of your life did this passion emerge?
More and more, later on. The more I dived into the stories and the pieces, that’s when it became really exciting for me. I spoke to so many of the craftsmen – many of whom have passed away by now – who were involved in the making of these watches and jewels, and you realise how many people are involved in each individual piece… the hours, and weeks that it would take to create each individual element. But then I also loved following the journey of the piece, for instance, a watch or a necklace. There was a necklace that was bought by Grand Duchess Vladimir of Russia (Maria Pavlovna), and during the Russian Revolution that obviously had to be smuggled out of the country. If you think of the life of some of these jewels… making it back to Paris to be bought back by Cartier, so now the style doesn’t work anymore and they would make it into a very fashionable long Art Deco necklace, and sell it to an American heiress who would wear it to Jazz parties. And then the Great Depression strikes, and she had to sell it, and Cartier would have it back again and transform it into a very cool 1930s necklace for the London scene. Some of these jewels end up telling the story of the world.

Your discovery of the hidden chest in 2009, with correspondence between members of the Cartier family, was the catalyst for your book. Did that moment also change your life in other ways?
I was working in Finance before and then I discovered this trunk of letters. My son had just been born, and it was my grandfather’s 90th birthday. And here were these letters that stretch back years, and I realised that if I didn’t do something with these they would probably be in a case for another 40 years – or be lost, who knows. I felt this big sense of duty to do something. As I was researching the book, I was also bringing up kids, and I left my job in the city. I decided if I was going to write this book I was going to do it properly. I had many of the letters, but there were also many pieces of the puzzle all over the world, so I wanted to track those down and speak to as many people as I could who are connected to the past, whether that’s maharajas in India, or descendants of the Russian Grand Duchesses, or American museums. My kids travelled with me, so this story became part of our lives. We even went to see the Cartier family mausoleum in Versailles. I found it all very, very moving, and I felt super connected to all my ancestors. I felt very pleased that I had discovered so much, and that my children can also have that connection. It’s changed everything. I loved it.

Going through all the material you discovered in the long-lost family archives. what was possibly the most surprising (or shocking even)?
One of them was about Louis, the oldest Cartier brother, basically forced into marriage in his 20s. I found the letters that revealed how adamantly he did not want to marry this girl, and how his father had basically taken him by the arm and shook him and told him that he must do it for the good of the family. That shocked me. Obviously, we don’t live in an age of arranged marriages like that, but it wasn’t so unusual back then. I also saw that if he hadn’t married his wife, I don’t know if we would have ever heard of Cartier. That single marriage – the money and connections it brought through her grandfather (Charles Frederick Worth, considered by many fashion historians to be the father of haute couture) – changed the course of Cartier’s history.

And while on your travels around the world, researching the book, what was the most extraordinary experience (or revelation) you had?
I met so many people over the past 10 years. One of the overall emotional impressions on me is how many of these people – the employees, whether they were craftsmen or even descendants of the craftsmen, or the designers, or the salesmen, or even a salesman’s grandchild – who still feel that, for their father of their grandfather, or for them, Cartier is like an extended family. Some people worked there from their apprenticeships at age 16 until retirement. And what was amazing for me, even though I didn’t know these people before I met them, they treated me like family, welcoming me into their homes – all over they world. This was incredibly moving.

An important aspect of the book explores the inspirations behind Cartier’s creations and how it became known for its distinctive style. In your opinion, what were the most significant years that laid the foundations for Cartier’s design DNA?
If you speak to any Cartier dealer or collector, they can spot a Cartier piece from a mile away. The pieces stretch from a tiny tie pin to a Tank watch, to a big diamond corsage, to a cigarette case, to a handbag – these are totally different items, yet they are all so recognisable as Cartier. It is a question I really tried to understand, and I spoke to my grandpa about it a lot as well. I think the Parisian connection was very important, being in Paris in the early 20th century – the architecture, the furniture. A lot of the designers came from Paris, even the ones who then went to New York, and London. That Parisian style provided a sense of proportion and symmetry. But then, I also think Cartier has adapted that; they travelled all over the world, not only to meet clients and to buy gemstones, but also to stoke up ideas. When Louis Cartier went to Russia, he didn’t just meet with Grand Duchess Vladimir. He wrote a letter back to his father to send the top designer because he felt it was so important for his training to be in Russia. And when Jacques Cartier travelled to India, his diaries were filled with sketches of patterns on rugs, or carvings on temples. Today we have the internet to do research, but they had to travel there to see it, and sketch it. It was the same with the Middle East and the Persian Gulf – not only to look for pearls, but also sketching. In terms of the influential years, the real heyday of Cartier’s creativity was the 1920s and 1930s. From an economic perspective, that was just boom time.

The book features a stellar cast of royalty, celebrities, and other luminaries of the day – all of whom have helped to write various chapters of Cartier’s legacy. Is there any one specific person (other than a family member) that you can single out and who made a big impression on you?
There are many people at different points who were important. Today, we talk of “influencers”. Back then there were influencers, too – Cartier very much relied on word of mouth. If the Queen of England would wear a Cartier piece at the time, that would have been very significant, and equally if it was a New York heiress, or a maharani in India.

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Source: Prestige Online

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