Count the names like the movement of the second hand on a watch. Fred Astaire, John F. Kennedy, Princess Diana, Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow, Michelle Obama…even the controversial Kanye West. What do they have in common? They all have owned Cartier watches.
For 174 years, Cartier has been a favourite of royals and celebrities. Britain’s King Edward VII, who became infamous for abdicating his throne even referred to Cartier as the “jeweller of kings and the king of jewellers”.
How did Cartier earn the lofty title? The Cartier family, original holders of the brand, did it through a combination of breathtaking pieces and shrewd business practices.
Off to a small start
Cartier was started in 1847 by Louis-Francois Cartier. He worked as an apprentice in Adolphe Picard’s watchmaking workshop, assuming control of it when Picard died.
The business passed to Cartier’s son Alfred, who eventually brought in his sons, Louis, Pierre, and Jacques.
The original Cartier’s son and grandsons are credited with making the brand a household name among Europe’s royals and aristocracy and taking the House’s stylish creations to an international audience.
The 20th century
Louis, Pierre and Jacques established different branches of the family business in London and New York, along with the Paris headquarters. They strategically married into wealthy and aristocratic families, using their ties as a springboard to network.
One of their first major innovations was a design addition for their personal friend, Albert Santos Dumont, a pilot and heir to a Brazilian coffee plantation fortune.
Santos Dumont complained that he could not look at his pocket watch and operate a plane at the same time. The Cartiers’ answer was to create a wristwatch with a large face and easily readable numerical display named the “Santos” in his honour.
A World War I tank inspired the family’s next watch innovation. The oldest brother Louis was inspired by the Renault FT-17 and based the watch’s design on the vehicle. Named the “Tank”, the design featured a squat, rectangular body reflecting the tank’s shape and a sapphire piece at its crown for added elegance.
Another storied Cartier watch is the Pasha. According to the official lore, this watch was created for a longtime Cartier customer, the Pasha of Marrakesh in 1935. As the story goes, the Pasha wanted a watch that could keep up with his active lifestyle.
One of the features the Pasha demanded was water resistance as he was an avid swimmer. The Pasha was said to have been created to accommodate him with significantly advanced water resistance when compared to other watches at the time.
The available evidence doesn’t support this legend. What is known is that the Pasha was relaunched and re-branded to compete and capture its share of the luxury sports watch market. Since 1985, it’s been a celebrity favorite.
Cartier’s Ballon Bleu and Panthere are children of the last few decades. The Panthere was launched in 1983 as a woman’s watch that could be worn like a piece of jewellery.
The Ballon Bleu is a unisex creation first launched in 2007. It gets its name from the distinctive “balloon” shape, one of the few circular watches that the House makes.
The Cartiers bow out
The Cartier family sold their interest in the historic watchmaker and jeweller in 1964. After changing hands and directorship a few times, it is now part of the Kruger family’s Richemont holdings.
Nearly two hundred years after the first Cartier started the business, it remains an icon in the luxury watch market.
The brand has moved up three places in the last year on Forbes’ Most Valuable Brands list from 59th to 56th. Its vintage watches remain coveted items at auctions.
Horologists and other experts in the field credit this to Cartier’s unique combination of function, design and rarity.
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