‘The Cartiers: The Untold Story Behind the Jewelry Empire,’ by Francesca Cartier Brickell: An Excerpt


A few years ago, four generations of my family gathered at my grandfather’s house in the South of France to celebrate his ninetieth birthday. As we all sat on the terrace that warm July morning, enjoying our usual holiday breakfast of fresh croissants and jam, I barely stopped to think how this wonderful man at the head of the table had lived through more than we could imagine. Born in 1919, Jean-Jacques Cartier had—like so many of his remarkable generation—witnessed cataclysmic world events firsthand. He’d seen the devastating lows of the Depression and fought in the Second World War. He had experienced more years of the Roaring Twenties than of the twenty-first century. And yet, that day, watching him open his birthday cards, he was simply Grandpa, with his neatly combed white hair and mustache and smiling blue eyes. But all that was about to change. I was just moments away from making a discovery that would bring me face-to-face with not only his past but the lives of many of my ancestors.

Finishing off the cafetière of coffee, we made relaxed plans for the day. We wanted to spoil my grandfather, but he hated being the center of attention. As usual, Grandpa just wanted the day to be about others. When we were younger, my siblings and I had been amazed at how he would rather give presents than receive them on his own birthday. One year it had been a large wooden sandbox that suddenly appeared on his terrace, another time a couple of bikes on which we could tear around his garden. This year, he announced he had been saving a bottle of vintage champagne.

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Offering to fetch it for him, I headed down to his cellar. In the dim light, I scoured the shelves, and when I couldn’t see the bottle, I began searching the rest of the room. My grandfather was known never to throw anything away, so there were plenty of things lying around, from boxes filled with manuals for long-defunct electrical appliances to cases of old clothes smelling of mothballs, along with umpteen copies of Horse & Hound magazine. Everything, it seemed, except the champagne. I was about to admit defeat and return empty-handed when, just as I was leaving, I noticed a large trunk in the corner nearest the door. Like most other things down there, it was covered with dust and a random mix of objects. It seemed unlikely to house the missing champagne, but I was intrigued.

I set to work removing a tall, thin metal wine rack holding a solitary bottle of out-of-date Orangina and made my way past some yellowing 1970s newspapers until the traveling trunk was revealed in its full battered glory. Black with brown leather straps, its surface was clear of any markings but its sides held clues to a different era: faded stickers from Parisian railway stations and exotic Eastern hotels. Kneeling, I carefully unbuckled the worn straps, willing them not to break off in my hands. And slowly, in that half-dark cellar, all alone, I lifted the lid.

Inside were hundreds and hundreds of letters. They were neatly arranged into bundles, each pile tied with a faded yellow, pink, or red ribbon and labeled in beautiful handwriting on a thick white card.

My grandfather had been part of the fourth generation of the Cartiers to join the renowned family business, and the last of that generation to run a branch before it was sold out of the family in the 1970s. His father, Jacques Cartier, must have been the original owner of the trunk. Here, I realized as I thumbed through the letters, was the story of a family firm that created some of the most revered jewelry of all time for the world’s biggest names. That single case would, in time, open a window onto opulent Romanov balls, glamorous coronations, and extravagant maharajas’ banquets. Royalty, designers, artists, writers, politicians, socialites, and movie stars would spring to life. I was soon to learn how King Edward VII of England, Grand Duchess Vladimir of Russia, and Coco Chanel featured alongside the Duchess of Windsor, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, and Queen Elizabeth II in Cartier’s rich history. And how linking them all were the jewels. Emeralds as large as bird’s eggs, ropes and ropes of perfectly pink pearls, cascades of rare colored diamonds, cursed gemstones, extraordinary sapphire tiaras, and the lightest, brightest diamond corsage ornaments.

But the letters also told a very human story. As I would discover, along with accounts of diamonds and glamour there were letters from homesick children and concerned parents. There were joyful telegrams on the birth of a baby and grief-stricken ones carrying news of deaths. There were love letters, angry missives, and correspondence colorful with news and excitement from foreign lands. There were pages written in hope and others scrawled in fear. There were words from a father offering guidance through new ventures, and there were airmail envelopes between brothers, squeezed full of shared problems, successes, and an unbreakable bond.

My grandfather had sometimes spoken of old correspondence passed down from his parents, but he had never been able to find it. He was resigned to the idea that it must have been lost or mistakenly thrown out in his move to France. As I returned to him on the terrace, without the promised champagne (later to be discovered in a cupboard under the stairs), I was able to surprise him with a bundle of the letters he had assumed were lost forever. He was thrilled.

I adored my grandfather. Generous to a fault, he was loving and kind and had an enormous belly-chuckle that would shake his entire body and dissolve us all into laughter. Very understated, he was perhaps not what one would expect from someone who had managed a famous jewelry firm. He was happiest at home, a quiet, introverted man who didn’t speak about the business he had managed for decades unless we asked him. Even then it was usually only to sing the praises of his forebears or the talented craftsmen and designers who had worked for him, while playing down his own talents. Generally, he was more likely to want to listen rather than speak, to hear updates on the family, to know if everyone was well and happy, and if not, to find out what he could do to help.

Jean-Jacques had retired to France just before I was born. Each July, he would be waiting at Nice airport to collect us and whisk us back to the house he shared with my grandmother and, after she sadly passed away, in which he lived alone. Year after year, as we came through laden with bags, he’d be waiting there, standing unobtrusively at the back with his trademark pipe and cap. His face would light up when he caught sight of us, and he’d rush to help and lead the way out into that wall of heat and palm trees, toward the car. I loved that journey back to his house from the airport; it meant the summer had begun.

We would drive along the Promenade des Anglais with the glistening sea and happy beachgoers on our left before turning inland after several miles, toward the hills. Jean-Jacques’ lungs, like his father’s, were his Achilles’ heel, so he had purposely chosen a place up in the mountains, where the air was fresher. As we left the coast and crowds, the scenery became more remote until we reached his small village. Past the boulangerie and the greengrocer’s and the wood-fired-pizza van until, just moments away now, we would make the sharp turn onto the bumpy road leading up to his house and leave the real world behind. On both sides were goats munching on long, dry grass, and always Thérèse, the elderly goat farmer who lived in the beautiful tall stone cottage with tiny windows to keep it cool. Around a couple more sharp bends, and we were at the white gates that led to our holiday.

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Inside, it was an oasis. The noise of the crickets would greet us as we leaped out of the hot car and ran across the pale gray gravel. The garden, into which Jean-Jacques had poured so much of his energy since retirement, was, in stark contrast to the parched dryness elsewhere, fresh and colorful and alive. The long green lawn stretched invitingly away from the terrace, the scene of childhood races and badminton games. To the left of the lawn, down one terrace, was the pool, surrounded by lavender and rosemary. And on the banks just below that were lemon, clementine, and grapefruit trees. Jasmine covered the old open-air pool house with its Provençal tiled roof, and beyond stretched a view all the way to the coast. On clear days, you could see boats in the Mediterranean Sea. At the bottom of the garden were the apricot trees and strawberry and raspberry plants. There were tomatoes, too, fragrant and juicy. Characteristically thoughtful, Jean-Jacques had planted them and would dutifully water them each evening in advance of our arrival, even though he didn’t like tomatoes himself.

The sky, the brightest blue in the midday sun, would turn a glorious gentle pink each evening. It was the sky of Matisse and Picasso and Cézanne. My grandparents had spent their honeymoon in the nearby hilltop town of Saint-Paul-de-Vence, famous for attracting artists before it became fashionable for tourists. It was no coincidence that my grandfather had chosen this area for his retirement. An artist himself, he was drawn to the light. In the last few years of his life, as he was losing his eyesight, I used to catch him staring out at the horizon over the sea. “I’m trying to take as strong a picture in my head as I can,” he explained when I joined him on the terrace one evening. “I think if I go blind, I will miss that light terribly—not the sunset light but just before, when it’s more subtle.” Up in the garden, he had built an art studio. Modern for its time, it had sliding glass doors on one side and, above his artist’s desk, a large rectangular picture window overlooking the sea. Filled with sketchbooks, design paper, perfectly sharpened pencils, and fine black pens, the studio was his creative retreat.

For Jean-Jacques, the excitement of his work at Cartier had never been about the biggest jewel. He was more interested in the quest for original design and exceptional craftsmanship. It was a philosophy that was also a way of life. Inside his house, each piece, whether it was a small bronze sculpture, an oil painting, or a Spanish dining table, was chosen for its intrinsic beauty and placed in just the right position. Everywhere were hints of foreign influence, from the Indian rugs to the Chinese coffee table to the Persian miniatures. The family firm had long used inspiration from all over the world in its jewels, and, just like his father and uncles, Jean-Jacques surrounded himself with eclectic works of art. But he wasn’t trapped in the past. The innovative glass and metal bookcase, which he had designed for the back wall of the sitting room to hold his father’s books, was a manifestation of his “less is more” philosophy.

Everything had its place, and yet when we all descended upon him, bringing chaos in our wake, there was never the slightest complaint. The opposite, in fact. If we broke something by accident, the only thing our grandfather would want to know was if we were okay.

“Don’t worry, sweetheart,” he would say as we apologized, filled with guilt. “Are you all right?”

Those holidays were heaven. And after we left our grandparents to head back to school in England, we would stay in touch via letters. When we were at boarding school, heavy with homesickness, those envelopes with his beautiful writing would bring with them a moment of relief. He understood so well that feeling of missing home, and, empathic to his core, he couldn’t bear for others to be unhappy. He was dyslexic, and writing was time-consuming for him, so he’d use more images than words, filling the small pages with sketches of animals and amusing captions to make us laugh.

As we grew older and began to appreciate that this grandfather of ours might once have had his own life, we would ask him about his past. Though he didn’t generally talk about himself, when questioned, he would sometimes share anecdotes with us. Like the time he fell asleep while waiting to see the British royal family in Buckingham Palace and was woken, absolutely mortified, by the Queen Mother. Or how, during World War II, his French cavalry regiment had been equipped with swords as if in Napoleonic times, even though they faced huge armored tanks. Sometimes he mentioned specific jewels, a vanity case he had enjoyed making for a princess, or a diamond necklace his father had made for a maharaja. And there were many stories about earlier generations of the family, especially his father and two uncles, the three brothers who had worked together to make Cartier the leading jewelry firm in the world.

By the time I discovered the trunk of letters, I had already started writing down some of my grandfather’s memories, just for safekeeping, so they wouldn’t be forgotten. In fact, it was someone else who first suggested I try to keep a record of those lunchtime chats when, as he munched on his baguette, my grandfather would open up about the past. My husband, new to our family gatherings and with no living grandparents himself, recognized what a privilege it was to be afforded such a window onto another world, and worried that, if no one started writing the stories down, they would just fade away.

My discovery in the cellar took a haphazard collection of anecdotes to a new level. After bringing up the trunk, I spent the remainder of that summer working through its contents with my grandfather. We tended to sit together in his sitting room, usually around teatime. Since moving back to France, he missed the English tradition of afternoon tea, and I would try (not always successfully) to make scones from my late grandmother’s 1970s cookery book. As we read, we shared insights and I asked questions. I couldn’t make my way through the letters fast enough, fascinated by this sprawling history I knew so little about. He tended to take them more slowly, absorbing each word gratefully. I’d often find him just holding a letter in his hand as he sat on his favorite chair looking into the distance.

Just the day before discovering the trunk, we had been looking through a jewelry auction catalog, as we often did together. When he spotted an interesting old Cartier piece, my grandfather would take the time to teach me something about it, how it had been made, where the inspiration had come from, or the problems the craftsmen had encountered making it. On that day, he’d pointed out several 1920s Egyptian-influenced jewels made under his father and told me how excited the world had been at the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb, how it had made ancient history fashionable. After my discovery in the cellar, we joked about how the unearthing of the dusty trunk had been my own Tutankhamen moment. It would change the way I understood the past, transforming all those sepia photographs I’d grown up looking at into real, colorful and noisy characters. And though I didn’t yet know it, it would also end up setting me on a new life course. The more I read, the more I realized that I couldn’t bear that the letters might simply be packed back into their resting place for another few decades. I wanted to unravel the complicated Cartier history with my grandfather while he was still with us. The correspondence, after all, told only part of the story.

Turning to my grandfather one afternoon, I asked if he would allow me to record his memoirs. The odd story around the lunch table was wonderful but I would like, I explained, to have a more complete picture of his life and the lives of his ancestors in order that I might one day be able to write a history of the Cartiers. It was a big ask. Grandpa was incredibly discreet. He had consistently refused to speak to authors and journalists about the past. But he was elderly, and he recognized that if he, the last surviving Cartier of his generation, didn’t share his memories, they would be lost forever.

He also felt that there were unsung heroes who shouldn’t be forgotten. That though there were a huge number of gloriously illustrated books on Cartier, many of which he enjoyed, the full story had not yet been told. Sometimes, he would become frustrated when I suggested that his version of events didn’t quite correspond to what I had read elsewhere. “It doesn’t matter what the books say,” he would harrumph. “I’m telling you what really happened and I was there!” And so, wanting the family history to survive beyond him, he agreed to help me.

Over the following months, I would visit my grandfather regularly. I would arrive late at night, having taken the last flight after work on a Friday evening, and he would be sitting in his small kitchen, at the white 1950s Formica table, just waiting to tell me all the stories that had come back to him since the last time I was there. It was as if my interest in him had inspired him to look back, to remember things and people half forgotten. He needed to tell me, to download his recollections, to bring them back to life.

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