Not just a pretty face
Dismissed by some as a fashion brand that dabbles in watches, Cartier has actually contributed immensely to the history of fine horology
For many, Cartier might be a brand that’s more associated with jewellery, rather than fine watchmaking. Indeed, some horology fans dismiss the brand as simply a jewellery firm that dabbles in watchmaking, and not as a serious watch house. However, that worldview is mistaken, because Cartier has contributed a serious amount of innovation to the world of fine watches, and is directly responsible for creating much of the landscape of the modern watch industry.
For example, it was Cartier that came up with the world’s first practical wristwatch. Yes, there had been wristwatches before Cartier’s effort, and many more came after, but the Santos, developed in 1904, was genesis for the wristwatch industry, and the brand has continued along similar lines with its watchmaking efforts ever since.
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.
While the brand did well in the late nineteenth century as a provider of fine jewellery, it wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that Cartier’s nouse as watchmaker became obvious. In 1904, 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 endorsed by not only SantosDumont but also many other customers. Thus the Santos was born. It was Cartier’s first men’s wristwatch, but it was also the world’s first practical wristwatch, and it set the stage for a century of fine watchmaking.
Louis was also responsible for some of Cartier’s most celebrated designs, like the mystery clocks, which were a type of clock with a transparent dial and so named because the mechanisms were hidden. He also developed fashionable wristwatches and exotic orientalist Art Deco designs.
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. Indeed, its watch business was easily better known than its jewellery business. 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 30 varieties made since.
In the early 1920s, Cartier formed a joint company with Edward Jaeger (of Jaeger-lecoultre fame) to produce movements solely for Cartier. That said, Cartier continued to use movements from other makers. Cartier watches of the time could 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.
Unfortunately, Cartier’s history of innovation with the wristwatch didn’t manage to keep with the demands of the present. The company remained under family control until 1964, and its owners did well to continue growth across the various lines. However, with the death of Pierre in 1964, his heirs sold the business on, and so began a descent.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that the brand began to take steps towards its former glory.
In 1972, a group of investors led by Joseph Kanoui bought Cartier Paris. President Robert Hocq, who created the phrase “Les Must de Cartier” 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. The focus shifted away from watches a little. However, the brand wasn’t going to give up on its long history with the world of horology.
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.
Today, Cartier’s watches offer cuttingedge fashionable designs and well-practiced mechanical innovations. The idea, according to the brand, is to create a fusion of technology and character, and that is borne out in the watches that Cartier produces.