The Cartiers is far more than a family member’s account of the legendary luxury brand; it is a unique overview of the 20th Century from a very specific – but entirely compelling – point of view. The author, Francesca Cartier Brickell, is the great-great-great granddaughter of Louis Francois Cartier (1819-1904) who founded the firm in Paris in 1847. The last Cartier to run any part of the business was Francesca’s grandfather, Jean-Jacques Cartier (1919-2010), who ran the London branch until 1974, the sale of which ended the era of family ownership. Francesca is an Oxford educated student of literature, and her writing strikes a rare balance between clarity and complexity that kept me reading straight through to the end on page 548.
I feel it’s worth mentioning Francesca’s education and writing chops because it is so easy to believe that The Cartiers was some ghost-written book-deal, a way for a member of a famous family to cash in on their legacy. The world is filled with such books, but The Cartiers isn’t one of them.
While fetching a bottle of Champagne in the wine cellar of her grandfather’s home in Southern France, Francesca stumbled upon a major stash of hand-written letters in an old trunk. Such a discovery is astounding in and of itself, but Francesca’s deft weaving of those correspondences into a cohesive and compelling narrative of her family’s incredible journey astounded me more. Additionally, her perfectly timed references to the broader socio-economic contexts in which her family toiled helps turn what could have been a bit of a belly-gazer into a rather poignant portrait of the 20th Century itself. It seems that no matter what was going on – a war, a depression, a revolution, a redistribution of wealth – Cartier adapted so nimbly that the story of this brand quite naturally reflects that tumultuous Century’s contours with unexpected precision.
Though the book begins much earlier, the bulk of the story focuses on Louis, Pierre, and Jacques Cartier, the three grandchildren of the company’s founder who nurtured Cartier from a reputable Parisian jewelry studio into an unimpeachable global luxury brand during the 20th Century. If I had to characterize what these three brothers did every day, it would be “hustle.” It’s tiring just thinking of the energy they put into building Cartier into the world’s most respected jeweler of kings, queens, movie stars and titans of industry. Imagine the challenges of building a clientele among India’s Maharaja’s when travel was by train and boat; imagine trading a string of pearls for a 5th Avenue mansion in Manhattan; imagine struggling through two world wars and The Great Depression between them while never going into the red. It’s a strangely harrowing tale.
One may wonder about objectivity when it comes to reading a family member’s account (as I did), but Francesca Cartier Brickell’s account of her family’s legacy feels genuine and balanced. A savvy reader may sense Francesca’s affection for her grandfather Jean-Jacques, or her disapproval of her great-uncle Claude’s mishandling of the New York branch, or her reverence for Parisian designer extraordinaire Jeanne Toussaint, but these tinges of subjectivity only add to the intimacy of the story. Given the facts of these people’s lives, her portraits ring pretty true to my ear.
The book became a page-turner for reasons entirely unrelated to my obsession with the Cartier Tank watch, or anything to do with luxury goods. I grew invested in these incredible characters, in the arcs of their extraordinary lives, and especially in their trials and tribulations in love. I grew fascinated by the interactions between the world’s most wealthy people, well portrayed here from the finest Parisian clubs to the palaces of India to the revolving door of Elizabeth Taylor’s marriages and much more. And while I’m certainly not immune to what some (crudely, if accurately) call “wealth porn,” what I came away with was something more like an understanding of how similar the passions, mistakes and successes of the ultra-rich can be to my own. Those elites may toil with million-dollar tiaras on their heads, but the texture of their lives comes through in The Cartiers in a way that inspired empathy. I chalk that inspiration of empathy up to the detail of these accounts, and I chalk that detail up to the fact that the Cartiers wrote to each other regularly and intimately about their relationships with their elite clients and each other.
However, there’s plenty of jewel gazing to be done here, as well. From the Hope Diamond, to the Taylor-Burton Diamond, to stones used to bail the remaining Romanovs out of Russia after the revolution, to Maharaja-owned rocks beyond comprehension, The Cartiers is certainly not going to disappoint those passionate about such things.
More compelling for me, however, was to learn about the Cartier style of mounting those jewels and of designing luxury good more generally, about how technology and innovation drove the Cartier style out of the chunky and floral Belle Epoch modalities toward the streamlined and angular aesthetics of Art-Deco to form a whole new way of adorning not just the wealthy but, through imitation and aspiration, all of us.
Ballantine Books $35