Cartier is an iconic luxury brand that’s the subject of both envy and admiration of many across the world. What started as a jewelry company has grown into a luxury brand that offers a wide range of products, including watches, fragrances, and leather goods. When you hear Cartier, you think style, class, sophistication, and the ultimate in luxury – but they didn’t earn this reputation overnight.
The Origin of Cartier
Cartier, as we know it today, has its origins from a small jewelry shop opened in 1847 by Louis-Francois Cartier in the city of Paris. In the 1870s, his son, Alfred Cartier, took over the business from his father.
During the Siege of Paris, he managed to keep the small family business alive by snapping up jewels at knocked-down prices from desperate Parisians and selling them to English aristocracy.
Back then, the House of Cartier did not make watches. Instead, most of their products were hand-crafted jewelry, which quickly became popular among the wealthy elite.
Their clientele boasted of the likes of Princess Mathilde, the niece of Napoleon I, and King Edward VII, who fondly referred to Cartier as "the jeweler of kings and the king of jeweler.”
Cartier’s Rise in the 20th Century
At the turn of the century, Alfred Cartier’s three sons Louis, Pierre, and Jacques, joined the company. Pierre was the business mastermind who expanded the family business to New York, Louis the creative genius was in charge of the Paris branch, and Jacques, who opened the London branch, was a gemstone expert.
One thing all the brothers had in common was their uncanny ability to network with the right people and identify new opportunities and markets for the family jewelry business. Together the three brothers made Cartier an international name within the first few decades of the 20th century.
The First Wristwatch by Cartier – The Santos
In 1904, Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont went to Louis, the artistic inspiration behind the Cartier firm, and complained about the impracticalities of using pocket watches in flight. This inspired Louis to create a timepiece the pilot could wear on his wrist.
Cartier designed a flat wristwatch with a square case and square bezel modeled after the era’s unique square pocket watches. This classy timepiece quickly piqued the interests of Cartier’s other clients and soon became the first mass-produced men’s wristwatch and the world’s first pilot’s watch.
The Cartier family saw the potential in this line of products and decided to put more focus on making wristwatches.
The Legendary Cartier Tank
In 1917, Cartier introduced the legendary Cartier Tank. Today, this watch is synonymous with the Cartier brand. Its design was inspired by the French Renault FT17 tank, as viewed from above. Though military connection made for good marketing, it’s the unique aesthetic that really made the Cartier Tank stand out.
The two vertical sidebars, known as “brancards,” combined with a cream-colored dial and black Roman numerals, have come to define Cartier design. By the 1920s, the brand had become so successful that other companies started creating imitations of Cartier timepieces. In response, Cartier began adding reference numbers to their watches.
The Cartier Tank became a timeless classic and a favorite of movie stars, celebrities, and even royalty. Some notable owners of the Tank included Andy Warhol and Jackie Kennedy.
In fact, Jackie Kennedy’s Cartier Tank Watch, which was gifted to her in 1962, sold for a staggering $379,500 in an auction in 2017.
To date, Cartier has gone to release numerous variations of the Cartier Tank.
- The Tank Louis in 1922
- The Tank Americaine in 1989
- The Tank Francaise in 1996
- The Tank Solo in 2004
- The Tank MC in 2013
The Cartier Brand Gets New Owners
Louis Cartier passed away in 1942. When Pierre died in 1964, the remaining family members decided to sell the Paris Branch. In 1972, a group of investors bought Cartier Paris. In the years to follow, they also managed to buy Cartier London and Cartier New York, thus reuniting the three arms of the business.
But the success of the Cartier watches did not end there. Under the new leadership, the company became increasingly innovative in its watchmaking, expanding the Santos and Tank collections while introducing new luxury watch collections such as the Cartier Drive in 2016.
Cartier is now a French luxury goods conglomerate that designs, manufactures, distributes, and retails a wide range of premium products that include jewelry, watches, and accessories.
There are nearly 300 Cartier boutiques worldwide that showcase the brand's high-end jewelry and watches. It’s regarded as one of the most prestigious jewelry manufacturers globally and, in 2018, was ranked by Forbes as the world’s 59th most valuable brand.
Today Cartier watches are instantly recognizable —the case shapes, cream-colored dials, and black Roman numerals are unmistakable. They truly bring with them a rich history of creativity, innovation, and excellence. The moment you place a Cartier Tank Louis Cartier on your wrist, you’ll understand.
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