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Francesca Cartier Brickell On 'The Cartiers'


Francesca Cartier Brickell was at a gathering with four generations of her family in the south of France a few years ago to celebrate the 90th birthday of her grandfather, Jean-Jacques. She went down into his cellar to find the bottle of vintage champagne he'd saved. But first, she found an old leather trunk embossed with her grandfather's initials and covered with yellowing travel stickers. Inside, a trove of letters told the story of a family name that is intertwined with royalty, celebrities, famed and cursed diamonds.

Francesca Cartier Brickell, author of "The Cartiers: The Untold Story Of The Family Behind The Jewelry Empire," joins us from the BBC in London. Thanks so much for being with us.

FRANCESCA CARTIER BRICKELL: Thanks so much for having me.

SIMON: A lot of the story centers around the three sons of Louis-Francois Cartier, who founded the firm. And we're talking about Louis, Pierre and Jacques. Each brought a different set of gifts to the business, didn't they?

CARTIER BRICKELL: Yes. So Louis, the eldest, was a kind of creative genius. He was the one who came up with inventions like the first wristwatch for men, which he made for an aviator friend of his, Alberto Santos-Dumont. Alberto was complaining to Louis that he couldn't check his pocket watch with his hands on the controls of his flying machine. And Louis went away to think about this. And he came back with the idea of attaching a time-telling device to the wrist.

SIMON: And there's a Santos watch to this day, isn't there?

CARTIER BRICKELL: There is indeed. Yes. Yes. And it continues. And Santos was the best brand ambassador at the time because he was such a social celebrity that he made it acceptable for a man to wear a watch. Previously, watches had been the preserve of women - diamond wristwatches. They'd be more like bracelets.

Pierre, the middle brother, was a real businessman. He was brilliant with people. And he did some phenomenal trades like selling a double-stranded pearl necklace for a building, and that building remains the Cartier 5th Avenue headquarters today.

And Jacques, the youngest brother, was a bit of a mixture of his brothers, and he was also the gem expert. So it's him that went off on these gem-hunting missions to India, where he met with the Maharajahs and brought back emeralds, sapphires and rubies.

SIMON: How did a family of what used to be called commoners make them so indispensable to rich people and royalty?

CARTIER BRICKELL: Yeah. Well, this was really a fascinating part of the research because I think it's easy to assume that Cartier was always a kind of big, well-known brand. But actually, the first two generations, it was really difficult for them, and they battled through revolutions and wars. And so it was only really the third generation, when Louis and his brothers came on the scene, that they started really doing something a bit different to their peers. They started creating pieces in the Cartier style. And it was this Cartier style of jewels - very light, very elegant, very delicate - especially combined with the use of platinum, which enabled Louis to create these tiaras that almost appeared lace-like - very different to the kind of dowdy jewels at the time.

SIMON: Why did the Cartiers buy the Hope Diamond?


SIMON: Yeah. I guess if you're in the jewelry business, it's - you know, how can you turn down the chance? But it was supposed to be cursed, right?

CARTIER BRICKELL: It was supposed to be cursed. I think when they started a store in New York, they wanted to get on the radar in America. And the brothers kind of had a rule at the beginning that they shouldn't advertise. Advertisements were beneath them. It would almost demean their name if they were trying to appeal to royalty. Instead of advertising, they thought they would get the word out through word of mouth. And how better to do that than through big jewels? And, of course, the Hope Diamond was a big, blue, unusual, notorious diamond. And how better to get into the public consciousness by buying it - and particularly by selling it to such a well-known heiress as Evalyn McLean?

SIMON: Did you like your forebears - reading in their letters, the back and forth?

CARTIER BRICKELL: What really came across was a phenomenal bond between them - talking about the three brothers here, Louis, Pierre and Jacques. I think that's partly because they'd grown up not particularly privileged themselves. You know, they'd grown up - their father had run a small jewelry shop in Paris, and they'd grown up above the store.

And my grandfather - one of his favorite stories was when his father and two uncles were little, they had this dream to make their grandfather and father proud. And they wanted to turn the family jewelry store into the leading jewelry firm in the world. And to that end, they took a map of the world, and Louis, the eldest, took a pencil. And he said, we're going to divide it between us - divide and conquer.

And he said, I'm going to take Paris - because Paris at that time, the late 19th century, was the capital of the cultural world. Pierre, the middle brother, said he would take America, with New York as its headquarters. And that fell to Jacques, my great-grandfather, the younger brother, to have England and, with that, the British Empire, the most important of which was India. The reason my grandfather loved that story is because that is actually what happened.

SIMON: Not a family-owned enterprise today, is it?

CARTIER BRICKELL: No. It was in the family for four generations. And my grandfather was the last to sell a branch of the firm. He sold it in the 1970s, just before I was born. So that's why it was so interesting - because I've always known him as just - as a lovely, retired grandfather, you know? - not at all associated with that world.

SIMON: Francesca Cartier Brickell - her book, "The Cartiers."

Thanks so much for being with us.

CARTIER BRICKELL: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.