For more than 100 years, Cartier has produced some of the most recognizable watches in the world. When it comes to design, these exclusive wristwatches are in league with such world-famous design icons as Arne Jacobsen’s furniture, Ferdinand Porsche’s cars and Frank Gehry’s architecture.
Since Cartier became a registered trademark in 1846, the world has changed in numerous ways – but the old master’s philosophy hasn’t. The young Louis-François Cartier took over his master’s jewellery workshop in Paris and made a success of it in his own name. Socially, he was blessed with ties to high-society, even with the niece of Napoleon Bonaparte, Princess Mathilde. His success convinced Cartier that the family business should be carried on. He taught his son, Louis-François Alfred Cartier, the trade and transferred the Cartier business to him in 1874, 30 years prior to his death.
Louis-François Cartier was primarily a jeweller and designer, but as many others at the time he took great interest in clocks, and as early as 1859 he produced a number of table clocks jointly with the French clockmaker Maurice Couët. However, Cartier’s dream was greater; his ambition was to produce a complete range of wall, table and wristwatches. This was soon to be, and as one of the pioneers in wristwatch retail, Louis-François Alfred Cartier sold watches from the Paris store as early as 1888. At the time, no one could imagine the scope of the success to befall him. However, as time was to prove, wristwatches became the core of the Cartier future.
Just as his father, Louis-François Alfred Cartier wanted the next generation to carry on the family business. His sons became partners in the business as early as 1898. One of them is especially associated with the Cartier name – Louis Cartier. The young Louis was a recognized designer and an ardent watch enthusiast, which is why the Louis Cartier name is so important in the family dynasty.
Cartier reaches to the sky
In the early 20th century, Paris was the hotbed of fashion, art and adventurers, and among them the Brazilian playboy Alberto Santos-Dumont. He was a man of pleasure and an adventurer – probably in that order. He had a large social circle in Paris and the Parisians were mesmerized by his self-devised hot-air balloons and aircraft and by his odd attempts at record breaking, which often nearly cost him life and limb. Santos shared Cartier’s fascination with aesthetics and mechanics and the two men became friends. It was therefore no wonder that Cartier was the one who supplied the wristwatch when on 12 November 1906 Santos flew a record-breaking 220 metres at an altitude of six metres above the Bagatelle Park in Paris to the awe of the Parisians and the rest of the world. Adding to this, another legend was born – the Cartier Santos wristwatch. The prototype, however, had been produced two years earlier. All the same, this was the event that identified Santos with the watch, but five more years were to pass before the watch was available for retail.
This event prompted a hectic development of the Cartier watch programme. In the years to follow, Louis Cartier and his brothers and family sought to expand their business and especially the product range. Wristwatches became a must-have among the wealthy, and Cartier didn’t hold back. The following years, two new watch models were launched – the Tortue and the Baignoire – by Louis Cartier and the leading watchmaker at the time, legendary Edmond Jaeger, jointly. The designs complemented the somewhat feminine Tonneau, which had been in production for some years. However, more time was to pass before yet another classic model was born.
The Tank watch
Cartier was still a leading jeweller and the company enjoyed a loyal following among the elite – even beyond France. However, the cooperation with Jaeger was by far the most profitable part of the business. On 21 March 1907, the two men signed an accord granting Cartier the exclusive rights to much of Jaeger’s innovative know-how. The combination of their efforts was soon to become the cornerstone in Cartier watch-making.
However, at the beginning of the 20th century, when concepts such as ‘cubism’ and ‘art deco’ were still new, old bastions of command in Europe were rattling their sabres and war seemed inevitable. But all wars bring about innovation – especially in preparation for large battles – and World War I was no exception. The story goes that in the shadow of war, Cartier took inspiration from the French iron horse, the Renault armoured tank, and designed the watch, which today anyone with the slightest of interest in wristwatches would know as the Tank.
The prototype came about c. 1917 and was given to the American general John Joseph Pershing at the end of the war in 1918. Unlike the Santos, it didn’t take long for the Tank to become a sought-after watch. Records from the end of the decade show that Cartier sold everything they could manufacture, and demand was undiminished. Its austere aesthetics and timeless design contributed to its popularity, and it set the fashion like no other brand before. The Tank wristwatch still remains a milestone in the Cartier product range and a design icon among watches.
The Pasha of Marrakech
In the years to follow, the Tank model underwent experimental design alterations and new yet classic variations of the Tank design were born, among them the Tank Louis Cartier, Tank Chinoise and Tank Allongée. However, a new design icon started to take form around 1930. The Pasha of Marrakech placed an order for a water resistant watch, and naturally Cartier, which was still primarily headed by Louis Cartier, took on the challenge. In 1932, Cartier presented the Pasha to the Pasha. However, the model was only retailed for a short period around 1943 and has since been somewhat of a loner in the Cartier world. However, the Pasha has no doubt been rediscovered in recent years. As larger watches have become fashionable again, the attractive round watch from Cartier has experienced a renaissance. As with other elegant men’s watches, the Pasha has also proved it’s potential with female buyers. In all, 1932 was quite an interesting year for Cartier, since it was also the year in which Cartier took out a pattern on the Basculante – the reversible watch, which is still only issued in limited numbers. It isn’t just anybody who owns a Tank Basculante – but on the other hand, it isn’t just any watch.
Le Must de Cartier
After a busy period, the company experienced a steady development in the years to follow. This wasn’t, perhaps, so surprising, since both Louis and his brother Jacques had died in 1942. The company did, however, stay on family hands. Pierre, the last of the Cartier brothers, held joint responsibility with the sons of the three brothers.
Up through the 1960s, the sons and daughters sold their stake in the Cartier Empire and a new constellation of owners was established, loyal to the family spirit. In 1973, the new owners, headed by President Robert Hocq, launched a new concept and trademark: Les Must de Cartier. This brand became the essence of Cartier, which now no longer was the reserve of royalty and celebrity.
The company strategy for the 1980s was in place and the decade became explosively expansive for the brand as a whole and its range of watches in particular. Panthère was launched in 1983, the Pasha was re-launched in 1983 and the jewel range L’Art de Cartier, Ors et Pierres and La Panthère followed. All in all, Cartier established itself as the undisputed leader, which is perhaps why even experienced jewellers with a predilection for the powerhouses of the watch-making industry always pay homage to Cartier.
Cartier and the new millennium
In the 1990s, the brand continued its rapid development and Cartier became one of the flagships in establishing CIHH, Comité International de la Haute Horlogerie, and the affiliated sales fair SIHH.
Today, brands other than those financially tied to Cartier have joined the SIHH, which naturally brings us to the Richemont Group. No one is, after all, more important in the industry than the Vendome Luxury Group, established in 1993 – the later Richemont. With this affiliation, Cartier teamed up with other luxury brands, such as Piaget, Dunhill, Montblanc and Chloé, and joined forces in taking on the other major players on the market, as for instance LVMH and Swatch. However, it didn’t all boil down to marketing strategies. A lot of product-launching took place that decade too. With the Diabolo range as an exception, the designs were primarily variations of classic designs – among them the Pasha C and the Tank Française range.
One might perhaps fear that inertia was to follow, but Cartier certainly doesn’t just ponder its past. The classics of the future are in the making. With the launch of the Roadster range, the brand has proved that Cartier belongs to the new millennium. It’s obvious that the inspiration comes from the new Porsche model. The timeless character of the Cartier design is reflected in no better way than in Porsche, which like no other car manufacturer has constantly remodelled and reinvented itself without losing its fundamental design identity.