Cartier family descendant recalls late grandfather's Dubai visit, says 'Jewels reveal the story of the world'

Author Francesca Cartier Brickell, recently in Dubai for the Emirates LitFest, on how the historical account of the jewellery empire spanning four generations is even more relevant after the pandemic

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Somya Mehta

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Francesca's late grandfather Jean-Jacques Cartier with the merchants
Francesca's late grandfather Jean-Jacques Cartier with the merchants

Published: Wed 7 Feb 2024, 10:54 AM

With her great-great-great grandfather laying the foundation of Cartier in 1847, and her late grandfather, Jean-Jacques Cartier, being the last family member to be overseeing the business, Francesca Cartier Brickell’s roots in the jewellery empire run deep. Recounting the saga of three visionary brothers who transformed their grandfather's modest Parisian jewellery shop into a renowned symbol of luxury, she embarked on a global journey of independent research, crafting the riveting accounts into a biographical saga called The Cartiers.

Delivered by a great-granddaughter’s exclusive access to previously undisclosed family archives, the narrative offers a unique insight into the legacy of the Cartier dynasty. But what led Francesca to tell her own family’s tale? “I stumbled upon this trunk of letters and as I delved into their contents, I realised they chronicled the story of four generations within a single family,” says the author, recently in Dubai for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.

Francesca recreating the above photo
Francesca recreating the above photo

The Cartiers unveils the captivating story of a jewellery empire from the tumultuous era of revolutionary France to the vibrant 1960s. “It struck me as an extraordinary narrative, not only in terms of familial history but also in its broader context of world events,” says Francesca. “When they first started Cartier in the 19th century, it was during the French Revolution. My great-great-great-grandfather survived that revolution with a tiny company that he’d invested all his money in, similar to a modern-day startup, when he thought it was going to go bankrupt. That’s a profoundly relevant story today, especially after the pandemic.”

The Cartier story is also the story of the world, says the author. “When you follow a jewel — be it an emerald, ruby, or any other precious gem on a tiara — you're essentially tracing its journey. For instance, in the late 19th century, Russia was one of the wealthiest nations, and you'd find these jewels adorning the heads of Russian Grand Duchesses. Then, of course, came the Russian Revolution, and these jewels were smuggled out and sold. In some instances, they found their way back to Cartier.”

Belle Epoque tiara
Belle Epoque tiara

Moving into the 1920s, America emerged as the economic powerhouse after World War One, as Europe was reeling from the devastation of war. Meanwhile, the 1930s brought about the Great Depression, leading to the sale of these precious gems out of America, back to Cartier. “The jewels then ended up in the possession of Indian Maharajas but with Indian independence, they circled back to Cartier, eventually ending up in the Middle East, where the emerging oil wealth was reshaping the economic landscape,” says Francesca.

Educated in English Literature at Oxford University, she went on to pursue a career in finance, initially as a financial analyst and later as a fund manager with global institutions. However, driven by her passion for her family's history, Francesca made the pivotal decision to transition away from her career to dedicate herself fully to her book project. “Coming from a business background rather than a jewellery one, I'm intrigued by how following the trajectory of these jewels mirrors the larger story of world economics, power dynamics, and wealth distribution. It serves as the backdrop against which the Cartier family had to navigate their own journey,” she adds. “When you follow the jewels, you follow the story of the world.”

The Middle East's influence on the brand
The Middle East's influence on the brand

Traversing the globe in pursuit of original source material, Francesca has spent over a decade engaging with individuals associated with the Cartier family. “I travelled the world in search of people connected to my family or their descendants,” she adds. “I believe what Grandpa wanted me to highlight in the book is all these unsung heroes; the Cartier story is not just about one person. Many books written about Cartier focus only on Louis-François Cartier. While he is undoubtedly significant, as are the three brothers, it’s also important to highlight the contribution of all the brilliant individuals who worked alongside them. Each one is crucial and dedicated their life to it.”

Her extensive, independent research, supplemented by a wealth of personal archives including letters, telegrams, and photographs unearthed from her grandfather's cellar, enabled her to weave together a uniquely intimate narrative. “I often spoke to my grandfather about the story, and I included his memoirs in the book, although he sadly passed away before I finished it. I wanted to incorporate the conversations I had with him to bring his voice to life because he was such an integral part of it all.”

The author looking through archival photos
The author looking through archival photos

Central to this narrative are the three Cartier brothers, who propelled their family enterprise to international acclaim in the early 20th century. Each Cartier brother contributed distinct talents, says Francesca. “Louis, the innovative designer who crafted the first men's wristwatch; Pierre, the negotiator who secured the iconic Fifth Avenue headquarters in New York; and Jacques, the adventurous gemstone expert whose expeditions to India granted Cartier access to the world's finest rubies, emeralds, and sapphires. These brothers wrote in their letters that they had a dream to build the best jewellery firm in the world.”

But how did they manage to actually make it happen? “My great grandfather was actually fighting in the war. It was a real life or death situation that they were all faced with on a regular basis,” says Francesca. “Despite all the endless difficulties thrown at them, they always moved forward. The letters exchanged between the brothers at this stage are truly moving.”

The three Cartier brothers with their father
The three Cartier brothers with their father

The Cartiers also provides an insider’s view of the brand’s most iconic jewellery pieces — the infamous Hope Diamond, the Romanov emeralds, and the classic panther designs, with an extensive list of luminaires, from Indian Maharajas to figures like Elizabeth Taylor and Coco Chanel, who adorned the pieces.

“My grandpa said almost everything they made was a one-off; it was completely exclusive. Back in the day, they only had three stores. You could only buy Cartier in the stores in London, Paris, or New York, and all the stores were slightly different. And within each store, everything was different,” says Francesca, who currently spends her time between London and the South of France.

“The whole world has changed. This idea of mass-market luxury came about in the 1960s, where everyone wanted a bit of luxury at a lower price. That's probably the main reason my grandfather decided to sell the business,” she adds.

Photograph of the Hope Diamond necklace
Photograph of the Hope Diamond necklace

Speaking of the business of luxury and its evolution, visiting the UAE from the lens of the jewellery landscape has been really interesting for the author. “Especially when I think back to my great-grandfather Jacques' notes from his visit to Dubai more than a century ago, it was obviously a very different place. More desert than skyscrapers! He was in the region looking for pearls to buy rather than to sell Cartier jewels,” says Francesca.

“Today, jewellery seems to be such an integral part of the culture here — while signing books at the festival, I’ve had lots of lovely people showing me special jewels they are wearing or even pieces they have designed themselves.”

Francesca Cartier Brickell
Francesca Cartier Brickell

Published in the 200th year of the dynasty’s founder, Louis Cartier, the book stands as an epic historical tale presented through the intimately personal perspective of one legendary family and their jewellery empire. But even beyond that, The Cartiers seeks to dissect the business tropes of exquisite craftsmanship, timeless designs, and iconic creations, catapulting a humble start-up into a global corporation, which continues to be one of the most prestigious and sought-after luxury jewellery brands in the world.

somya@khaleejtimes.com


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