Behind the Brand: The History of Cartier
In our Behind the Brand series, we take a closer look at some of the most prestigious watchmakers from around the world. From small beginnings to becoming large multinational corporations, we explore how and why these brands became so successful. This week, we’re looking at one of the most prestigious and royal watchmakers: Cartier. Read on to find all about Cartier’s history and the brand’s journey to success.
With endorsements from celebrities and royalty throughout its history, Cartier has established itself as a brand that signifies opulence and prestige across the world. What started as a small workshop expanded across generations to become the juggernaut of jewellery design that we know today. While the Cartier brand is well known for crafting stunning jewellery, they’ve also long been one of the most popular high-end watch retailers for decades. Read on to find out about the history of Cartier watches.
When and where was Cartier founded?
Cartier traces its origins back to Paris where, in 1847, Louis-François Cartier took over his master's workshop after learning the craft under him for many years. He soon expanded the workshop and began building the brand’s reputation for interesting and extravagant designs.
But it wasn't until Louis, Pierre and Jacques, the grandchildren of Louis-François, took over the company in 1874, that it would become established as a global jewellery and watch retailer.
Louis in particular was influential when it came to Cartier watches. He created some of the most iconic designs of the time including mystery clocks, which had a transparent dial and hidden mechanism, as well as fashionable pocket watches with exotic Art Deco designs.
A chance revolution
While wristwatches did exist at this time, they were mainly designed for women, with men preferring the classic pocket watch. That was until 1904 when Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont, who was the first to achieve powered airplane flight, asked his friend Louis Cartier to create something more practical than a pocket watch to wear when flying.
Louis obliged and created a distinctive timepiece that became known as the Santos. This became incredibly popular among the brand’s customers and is credited as the first men's wristwatch, a key moment in Cartier’s history and the history of watchmaking itself.
This propelled the company forward, and branches opened in some of the world's major capitals: London, New York and St. Petersburg. Cartier was gaining a reputation as one of the most successful watch companies in the world.
The end of the First World War saw continued success for Cartier, with Louis continuing to work on new designs. The Tank model, which is still popular today, was created in 1917 as a present for General John Pershing of the American Expeditionary force.
Designed for a soldier, Louis took inspiration from the design of the Renault tanks, which had been used for the first time on the Western Front of WWI. With hard edges and a clean aesthetic, the watch was popular among consumers too, and it went on sale to the public in 1919. As interest grew, further models were developed, and Cartier's watches continued to attract the attention of celebrities and royalty.
When Pierre died in 1964, the company was passed on to the great-grandchildren of Louis-François: Jean-Jacques Cartier, the son of Jacques; Claude Cartier, the son of Louis; and Marionne Claudelle, the daughter of Pierre.
The three were already well established within the business and headed up Cartier subsidiaries in London, New York and Paris, but they decided to sell off their respective businesses.
Between 1972 and 1976, a group of investors purchased each of the three arms of the company and united them to create Cartier Worldwide. The 1980's saw a period of rapid expansion for Cartier, as the brand added almost 100 new models to their line in a bid to stay ahead of the competition. This effort included a move into the perfume market, with Must de Cartier hitting the shelves in 1981.
More recently, Cartier has established itself within the arts, setting up the Cartier Foundation of Contemporary Art and associating the brand with up and coming artists of the day.
The company expanded further with the purchase of Piaget and Baume & Mercier holdings in 1988, overtaking Rolex to become the number one player in the quality watch market.
Establishing itself firmly as one of the finest watchmakers on the globe, Cartier launched the Comite International de la Haute Horlogerie in 1991, which has become the go-to yearly conference for high watchmaking.
The brand has continued to grow since the turn of the millennium, with the launch of the popular Roadster in 2002, which was inspired by cars from the 1950s; the Santos 100 in 2004, which commemorated the 100th anniversary of the original Santos watch; and the Ballon Bleu de Cartier watch in 2007, the companies biggest ever launch for a round watch.
Cartier watches have been popular throughout history. And as their timepieces are so covetable, the history of Cartier is littered with notable owners, from famous celebrities to royalty the world over.
Pop art pioneer Andy Warhol famously said: "I don’t wear a Tank watch to tell the time. In fact, I never wind it. I wear a Tank because it’s the watch to wear."
Other famous wearers include Mick Jagger, who purchased a Tank Française in the mid-90s; Pierce Brosnan, who was known for wearing Cartier timepieces throughout his career; and Tom Cruise, who often sports the Santos 100.
Cartier has always had royal appeal too, with King Edward VII purchasing a piece for his consort, Queen Alexandra. But royalty around the world has also found an interest, with King Alfonso XIII of Spain, King Albert I of Belgium, King Fuad I of Egypt and King Zog I of Albania all taking an interest in the brand over the years.
In more modern times, Kate Middleton, the Princess of Wales, is often seen wearing her Cartier Ballon Bleu watch during her royal appearances.
Cartier is one of the most sought-after watch and jewellery brands in the world, with a history that is as rich and varied as the timepieces they offer.
If you liked this article, you may also be interested in checking out the rest of our blog, with plenty of great jewellery and watch advice. Find out more about some of the most popular and stylish watches on the market, with our deep dive into the world of water-resistant watches and our list of the most iconic James Bond timepieces.