Louis-François Cartier founded Cartier in Paris in 1847 when he took over the workshop of his master. In 1874, Louis-François’ son Alfred Cartier took over the company, but it was Alfred’s sons Louis, Pierre and Jacques, who were responsible for establishing the brand name worldwide.
In 1904, the Brazilian pioneer aviator, Alberto Santos-Dumont complained to his friend Louis Cartier of the unreliability and impracticality of using pocket watches while flying. Cartier designed a flat wristwatch with a distinctive square bezel. This watch was liked by not only Santos-Dumont but also many other customers. Thus the “Santos” was born. This was Cartier’s first men’s wristwatch.
Louis retained responsibility for the Paris branch, moving to the Rue de la Paix in 1899. He was responsible for some of the company’s most celebrated designs, like the mystery clocks (a type of clock with a transparent dial and so named because its mechanism is hidden), fashionable wristwatches and exotic orientalist Art Deco designs, including the colorful “Tutti Frutti” jewels.
In 1907, Cartier signed a contract with Edmond Jaeger, who agreed to exclusively supply the movements for Cartier watches. By this time, Cartier had branches in London, New York and St. Petersburg and was quickly becoming one of the most successful watch companies in the world. The Baignoire and Tortue models (both of which are still in production today) were introduced in 1912, followed by the Tank model in 1917. This, designed by Louis Cartier, was inspired from the newly introduced tanks on the Western Front. This line too has survived, with over thirty varieties made since.
In the early 1920s, Cartier formed a joint company with Edward Jaeger (of Jaeger-LeCoultre) to produce movements solely for Cartier. Thus was the European watch and clock company born, although Cartier continued to use movements from other makers. Cartier watches can be found with movements from Vacheron Constantin, Audemars-Piguet, Movado and LeCoultre. It was also during this period that Cartier began adding its own reference numbers to the watches it sold, usually by stamping a four-digit code on the underside of a lug. Jacques took charge of the London operation and eventually moved to the current address at New Bond Street.
Pierre Cartier established the New York City branch in 1909, moving in 1917 to 653 Fifth Avenue, the Neo-Renaissance mansion of Morton Freeman Plant (son of railroad tycoon Henry B. Plant) and designed by architect C.P.H. Gilbert. Cartier acquired the mansion from the Plants in exchange for $100 in cash and a double-stranded natural pearl necklace valued at the time at $1 million.
Among the Cartier team was Charles Jacqueau, who joined Louis Cartier in 1909 for his entire life, and Jeanne Toussaint, who was Director of Fine Jewellery from 1933. After the death of Pierre in 1964, Jean-Jacques Cartier (Jacques’s son),Claude Cartier (Louis’s son), and Marionne Claudelle (Pierre’s daughter) — who respectively headed the Cartier affiliates in London, New York and Paris — sold the businesses.
In 1972, a group of investors led by Joseph Kanoui bought Cartier Paris. President Robert Hocq, who created the phrase “Les Must de Cartier” (a staff member is said to have said “Cartier, It’s a must!” meaning something one simply must have) with Alain Dominique Perrin, General Director, began introducing new products. In 1974 and 1976 respectively, the group repurchased Cartier London and Cartier New York. In 1979, the Cartier interests were combined, “Cartier Monde” uniting and controlling Cartier Paris, London and New York.
Cartier merged in 1981 with “Les Must de Cartier”, and Perrin was appointed Chairman of Cartier SAA and Cartier International. The next year, Micheline Kanoui assumed responsibility for jewellery design and launched her first collection “Nouvelle Joaillerie”. In 1984, Perrin founded the “Fondation Cartier pour l’art Contemporain” (the Cartier Foundation of Contemporary Art) to bring Cartier into the twenty-first century, by forming an association with living artists.
In 1986, the French Ministry for Culture appointed Perrin head of the “Mission sur le mecenat d’entreprise” (a commission to study business patronage of the arts). Two years later, Cartier acquired a majority holding in Piaget and Baume & Mercier. In 1989/1990 the Musee du Petit Palais staged the first major exhibition of the Cartier collection, “l’Art de Cartier”.
Perrin founded an international committee in 1991, Comite International de la Haute Horlogerie, to organise its first salon, held on 15 April 1991. This has become an annual meeting place in Geneva for professionals. The next year, the second great exhibition of “l’Art de Cartier” was held at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. In 1993, the “Vendome Luxury Group” was formed as an umbrella company to combine Cartier, Alfred Dunhill, Montblanc, Piaget, Baume & Mercier, Karl Lagerfeld, Chloé, Sulka, Hackett, Seeger.
In 1994, the Cartier Foundation moved to the Rive Gauche and opened a headquarters in a building designed for it by Jean Nouvel. Following the accidental death of Robert Hocq in December of that year, his sister, Brigitte Hocq, became chairman. Joseph Kanoui became vice president of Cartier Monde. The next year, a major exhibition of the Cartier Antique Collection was held in Asia. In 1996, the Lausanne Hermitage Foundation in Switzerland hosted the exhibition “Splendours of the Jewellery”, presenting a hundred and fifty years of products by Cartier. As of 2012, Cartier is owned, through Richemont, by the South African Rupert family and 24 year-old who is the granddaughter of Pierre Cartier, Elle Pagels.