August 2020 17 Min Read

The Daring Creations of Cartier London

By A Collected Man

The creativity of Cartier is undeniable. From their panther motifs to the couture jewellery that has graced royal courts around the globe, their designs have had a tangible impact on the way watches, jewellery and accessories are looked at today. While there are many other pioneers in this space, and we’ve discussed a few of them here before, the creative output from 75-177 New Bond Street during the latter half of the 20th century, has few parallels.

Unlike many boutiques today, where you might have a single watchmaker on site able to adjust bracelets or carry out a service, back then, the capabilities of Cartier London were completely unique. Having the facility to design, produce, assemble and sell a watch in one city is a rare thing. This meant that, while carrying the Parisian jeweller’s name, it was an independent and self-sufficient entity. With bold models ranging from the Crash to the Asymétrique, the New Bond Street branch was arguably the most daring, adventurous and creative of all three of the Cartier branches in Paris, New York and London.

Three examples of the creativity that came from the Cartier London workshop.

With the majority of the Maison's London’s horological production taking place over the course of eight years, from 1966 to 1974, it is all the more impressive that their legacy is so significant. Here, we hope to provide a brief historical overview of the circumstances which led to the creation of Cartier London, as well as the causes of its remarkable independence. We also took this opportunity to speak to a number of distinguished collectors including John Goldberger, Eric Ku and Roni Madhvani, in order to gather an insight into why they find the London pieces particularly attractive. With that in mind, let us find out how this French jewellery house came to London, and was not only adopted by the city, but became part of its very fabric.

From the Beginning

We start, of course, in Paris. The story of Cartier begins with Louis-François Cartier in 1847, who took control of his master’s old watch shop where he had learnt the trade, but always dreamt of more. At this time, the likes of Breguet dominated the horological world in Paris, so Cartier wanted to expand his former employer’s business into jewellery. However, deciding to move into this field seemed like a rather perilous choice at the time, as France was very much a country of revolution, with an uprising in Paris in 1848 causing more than a simple headache for any high-end dealer in the city. This led to a few years of struggle, as the French upper-classes almost saw their very existence in jeopardy.

However, that never stopped Cartier, and as the business developed, his son Alfred prepared to take the reins. When the Paris Commune of 1870 came along, Alfred took the initiative to offer the aristocrats that were quickly fleeing the capital, the opportunity to sell their jewellery to him. They were in such a hurry to escape the violence that was plaguing the bourgeoisie and in such desperate need of finance, that they supposedly accepted far less for the gems than their true worth. This meant that Cartier was able to amass a rich collection of jewels on which to build the business. Luckily, the Commune only lasted a matter of months and once it lifted, Cartier was free to sell these  gems in the new French Republic, as people were equally willing to buy.

The ascendancy of Cartier had properly begun. The company grew and moved to larger premises several times at the end of the 19th century until in 1899, they moved into their iconic Rue de La Paix location. What would go on to become known as the spiritual heart of Cartier is still their home today. Alfred had three sons, Pierre, Jacques and Louis, who would all take the Maison to new horizons. They essentially split the world between them, with Louis remaining in Paris, while Pierre ventured further afield to New York and Jacques driving the success of the jeweller in London. It was the belief that the Cartier vision could be sold around the world that drove this third generation of Cartiers to pursue global ambitions.

Establishing a Home in London

Even before Jacques and Pierre first took the company to London, the city had been treasured by their father. Indeed, during the Franco-Prussian war, Alfred took to self-exile there, from 1871 to 1873. He rubbed shoulders with the British aristocracy, laying the groundwork for a future expansion, while at the same time drawing the bright, young things of London’s social set over to the Rue de La Paix. This desire for Cartier permeated all the way to the top of English society, with the Prince of Wales, soon to be King Edward VII, dubbing it “the jeweller of kings, and the king of jewellers.” After the passing of his mother, Queen Victoria, in 1901, royal protocol dictated that he could no longer head over the channel to shop.  

Where Cartier would eventually call home in London.

So, in 1902, Pierre and his younger Jacques crossed the channel and founded the company’s first store in London, at 4 New Burlington Street, initially accompanied by his older brother Pierre. After setting up shop, it only took them two years to receive their first royal warrant from King Edward VII. This was gained through the order of 27 tiaras that Edward put through Cartier for his 1902 coronation. The decision to move had been justified. Not only could they fulfil their coronation order with greater ease, but they would now be able to establish a second main workshop by hiring local artisans and craftspeople.

It would be a few more years until they expanded further, the New York branch being established in 1909, with Pierre leaving London. The main difference between the two international locations of Cartier would be the craftsmen they had manning the workshops. New York mainly made use of French artisans, while London trained English jewellers and watchmakers in the Cartier style, letting them work more independently. This would lead to some of the most unique designs that Cartier would produce, as we will see later on.

Coming Into Their Own

Whilst initially under the tutelage of his older brother, who had now gone in search of opportunity in America, a 22-year-old Jacques would take control of Cartier London, as his creative abilities began to shine through. Three years later, he would move the store to where they are to this day, 175-177 New Bond Street. This five-story townhouse, located on the premier luxury shopping street in London, suited the brand perfectly; keeping them in a location that their clientele favoured, while remaining close to all of their competitors, as more and more jewellery and watch brands moved to the area.

An Cartier London Tank Cintrèe from 1969 and an advert from 1970, courtesy of Auro Montanari.

Having a larger premises meant that Cartier could do more, quite literally, in house. The top floors were dominated by workshops that began to produce uniquely Cartier London jewellery. At this time, wristwatches were very much still in their infancy. Jacques’ older brother Louis had designed Alberto Santos-Dumont’s watch only a few years prior and the Cartier Tank was still to be sketched out. In the earlier years, the London workshop would concentrate mainly on high jewellery, taking on bespoke commissions. Due to the death of King Edward VII in 1910, Cartier London also had to supply two coronations with tiaras and other jewellery in their first decade of operation.

There is a short anecdote we thought we would touch on briefly, which demonstrates Cartier London’s growing influence at the time. When General Charles de Gaulle fled Paris in 1940, following the Nazi invasion of mainland France, Cartier offered him a car and a place to stay above the store, while the British government arranged a more permeant address for him. “I thought it was the least I could do for him, and for England, to give him all the support I could, and all the help I can,” Etienne Bellenger, a senior salesman at Cartier, wrote to Pierre Cartier. “I thought it essential to do something after the collapse of France, to show our English friends that amongst the French, there were still those who were anxious to support England as much as possible, as it is really marvellous the way all English people behave and show every mark of sympathy for us.”

The Era of Creation

Once established in Mayfair, Jacques was quick to think about the big picture and explore the opportunities that being at the heart of an Empire gave him. In 1911, he accompanied King George V and Queen Mary to India for the Delhi Durbar, where the King and Queen were presented as the Emperor and Empress of India. While on this trip, Jacques made sure to get acquainted with the Maharajas and other nobility, as well as the top jewellery and gemstone dealers in each area. It is believed that this trip to India is where the inspiration for the Tutti Frutti range was found. Jacques was amazed by the plethora of coloured stones that were on offer on the Asian sub-continent. So much so that he would, in the 1920s, establish a Cartier office in Delhi purely for sourcing stones.

Two Cartier London Crashes and a unique oval from London next to a Maxi Oval from New York, courtesy of Eric Ku.

After securing his relationship with the Maharajas, Jacques would then go on to try his luck with the Sheiks of Arabia, where he would fan the flames of a craze engulfing the English upper-classes, Egyptomania; as well as finding a reliable source for pearls and other semi-precious stones. Tapping into the zeitgeist of the moment was somewhat of a talent for Jacques. While the roaring ‘20s swept through the upper echelons of society, he was producing tiaras that fit the flapper aesthetic. Combing the etiquette that British society was so well known for, along with the fashion of the times, Cartier began to produce headpieces that wrapped around the ears to perfectly suit the bob haircuts of the time.

While these designs not only helped to keep the company relevant and interesting to the social set, it also ensured that Cartier kept hold of a royal warrant right the way through to the modern day, as the princes and princesses of England continued to patronise Cartier. While fashions, tastes and techniques may have changed, the one thing that has stayed constant is the appreciation for Cartier. This is mainly down to the leadership in design of Jacques and later his son, Jean-Jacques Cartier. Together, they would build the creative legacy of Cartier London which we look back on today.

Jean-Jacques Cartier, courtesy of Francesca Cartier Brickell.

We recently took this opportunity to speak to Eric Ku, an acclaimed dealer of vintage Rolex, as well as a multi-facetted collector with a keen interest in vintage Cartier, from the Cintrée to the Crash. Ku points out that “Cartier employed a number of different goldsmiths, silversmiths and craftspeople that led to a lot of these different designs being possible.” However, while there were a number of great designers who worked at Cartier, it was never about an individual. This was confirmed to us by Harry Fane, an expert in vintage Cartier who has been dealing in it for over 40 years, beginning at a time when no one cared about the jeweller’s vintage pieces. “Cartier always worked as a collective,” Fane tells us, “what Cartier produced was produced by Cartier. It wasn’t produced by Emmerson for Cartier, nor was it an Emmerson piece. It was always a Cartier piece.”

This was partly due to the lengthy training programme that Cartier gave their designers and workmen. As Fane points out, “they went through a rigorous training program in order to understand the Cartier look. There was a famous story about Dennis Gardener, that it took him three years to get the nod from Jean-Jacques that he had understood the aesthetic of Cartier.” For those who aren’t aware of Dennis Gardener, he worked as a designer for the brand from 1947 and only recently passed away. In his tenure, Cartier London released some of their most iconic designs, from the Crash to the Pebble and countless unique commissions.

An advert showing the classic Cartier London dials, courtesy of Auro Monatnari.

This strict adherence to training and the Cartier aesthetic is what placed the brand on a different level to others at the time. While the three houses were technically independent, according to Fane, each of the brothers had shares in the others’ businesses. If one did well, then they all did well. Their independence was not driven from some brotherly competitiveness, but rather by the limitations of the day. “Communication was not what it is today,” Fane explains, “you couldn’t just pick up a phone and ask about a specific design, so they all had to be independent to a certain degree. But they were all invested in the other sites at the same time.”

The London Watches

We’ve mainly covered jewellery up until this point, as it was truly the core of Cartier’s business early on. However, considering it is the Cartier watches that concern many the collectors in our space, we thought we would dig a little deeper. It wasn’t until the early ‘20s that Cartier would sign a contract with Edward Jaeger to produce an exclusive range of movements for their timepieces. This joint venture would be known as the European Watch & Clock Company; showing a real commitment to producing wristwatches and incorporating them into the main company offering.

Speaking to Auro Montanari, otherwise known as John Goldberger, one of the most astute collectors of watches of the last few decades, he tells us, “from 1920 to 1966, the Cartier London branch regularly sold the wristwatches manufactured in Paris or in Switzerland by the parent company.” Cartier would also use movements from other watch companies, such as Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet, Movado and LeCoultre in their singular watch designs.

During this period, the London store was stocking these Paris and Swiss made watches like the Tank and the Santos, as well as a collection of other brands’ timepieces, such as Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Harwood and Universal Genève. These started to appear from 1929. However, they had not yet created the London models which have become so coveted today.

The unmistakable London hallmarks that accompanied every watch Cartier made in their London workshops, courtesy of Auro Montanari.

From 1966 onwards, Jean-Jacques Cartier decided to produce his own line of wristwatches. Compared to New York or Paris, many aficionados deem London the spiritual home of Cartier’s bolder, more creative designs, which balance tradition with innovation. In Montanari’s own words, “they were distinguished by a different and more contemporary design.” After all, when we think of the historical context at the time, it makes perfect sense. In many ways, in the mid ‘60s, London was the centre of the world. Travellers and trend-setters came here to discover something new, from the music to the fashion. It was, in one word, swinging London.

The first workshop for watches was not on the premises, but as Montanari tells us, it “was located at Ormand House, Roseberry Avenue” in East London. This was the Cartier-run Wright & Davies workshop. Here, the cases, buckles and straps would all be made from scratch for Cartier. With vintage Cartier collecting being defined by the importance of details, these cases were stamped with the London gold hallmarks and the J.C., for Jean-Jacques Cartier, stamp. We learnt from Cartier Brickell’s book, The Cartiers, that the standard cases, square, rectangular or oval, would take a craftsman about 35 to 40 hours to produce. This was before the watchmaker, Eric Denton, got his hands on them to put all the components together.

Just a selection of Auro Montanari's Cartier collection.

This was the amount of work that would go into one of Cartier’s standard models. When, in 1967, Jean-Jacques and Rupert Emmerson thought-up the Crash, this posed a whole new set of problems for the workers at Wright & Davies. Not only did the case take a lot longer to shape due to its completely unique, asymmetrical form, but the design of the dial caused issues once it reached Denton’s bench. After installing the movement, he realised that due to the surrealist style the numbers were painted in, they didn’t line-up and tell the time correctly.

So, Denton then deconstructed the watch, sent the dial back to Emmerson to completely repaint. This process had to happen multiple times before it could be sold as a functioning watch. They were first sold for £1,000 and one of the very first models was sold to British actor Stewart Granger, a big fan of Cartier. He wanted something “a bit different”, however, after about a week of use he brought it back to the shop, as it was just too out there for him. He found it impossible to wear and use.

A selection of Cartier London Crash watches from 1967 to the special reissue in 2019 for the reopening of the London boutique.

Ku points out that “if you look closely at the first run of Crashes, they are all original. They have bulges in different places, showing that there was no mould for these. They were hand-made, every time.” Even the deployant buckles were made by hand at Wright & Davies and if you were to mix up the blades from different watches they wouldn’t fit together.

While we are on the topic, it is worth addressing the hotly-debated and disputed origins of the Crash. While the tales of a VIP client or Cartier executive wearing a Maxi Oval in a fiery car crash is a romantic and easily sellable story, it is, unfortunately, false. This was addressed in Brickell’s book, where she recounts conversations she had with her grandfather, Jean-Jacques Cartier, about how the design was originally sketched out by himself and Emmerson. No watches were harmed in the designing of the Crash.

Of course, the Crash was not the only model that came out of the London store. After it turned independent in 1919, it was able to produce its own creations, all remaining within the Cartier universe. According to Montanari, the most important models that came from the talented team there were “the Baignoire Allongèe (Oval), the Pebble, the Double Strap and the Asymmetric.” It is worth pointing out that collectors have made up a lot of these names, most of them were never given these by Cartier. In the last few years, we’ve seen Cartier reproduce many of these models, with the most recent example being the latest release of the Asymmetric.

A Cartier Octagonal watch from 1992 from Davide Parmegiani, courtesy of Auro Montanari. With a gold travel clock from the early 1960s.

Operating without the input of Paris, London managed to create instantly recognisable Cartier models. As Montanari observes “they are that holy grail of innovative design and timelessness”. Indeed, they took the aesthetic cues cemented by the Paris models and imbued them with their own, unique London boldness, from stretching the case of the Baignoire into the Oval and Maxi Oval, to curving the shape of the Tank Cintrée with three different sizes. Even the dial layouts were reworked, with most of them abandoning the chemin de fer chapter ring, and a few coloured enamel dials known.

Collecting London Watches

While these watches illustrate a great depth in design philosophy and creativity, the physical output of the Cartier London workshop was never significant. According to Fane, only 20 Crash pieces were made during the 1960s. While another series was made in the 1980s, these were produced after Jean-Jacques had sold the store and only a handful of watches were made. During the 1990s, the production of Crash watches was moved to Paris, and while you may find watches with London on the dial made in the 1990s, they were not made in London and could even be fakes.

A Pebble and Double Strap watch, showcasing the breadth of shapes Cartier London would use, courtesy of Auro Montanari.

Montanari points out that some of the fakes are extremely convincing “because they were hand crafted from the same retired London artisans.” Fakes being made by those who made the originals. A rather curious, and worrying, thought. This makes collecting vintage Cartier pieces all the more challenging, which goes some way to explaining why it has remained the remit of a small, focused group of collectors for such a long time.

The problem, Montanari says, with collecting Cartier London is that “there are no blogs, forums or literature dedicated to the matter where you can find correct information.” Indeed, finding original source material for London-made Cartier pieces can be extremely difficult. Some say that when the company was modernising, a lot of the original records were burnt or thrown-out, while others believe a resourceful watchmaker saved many of the drawings and decided to start reproducing the watches to an extremely high level. How true this is, we may never know. However, finding a true Cartier London watch from the time of Jean-Jacques Cartier in excellent condition is tough, but it make the discovery all the more satisfying.

Cartier Today

As part of the Richemont Group, Cartier London is now integrated into the well-oiled machine. While the making of their watches resides in Switzerland, the ability to design and commission a unique watch is an option at the 175-177 New Bond Street, where they still operate from. In fact, Roni Madhvani, a prominent collector of unusually shaped watches from Patek Philippe to Vacheron Constantin, recently received his unique, black dial Cartier Crash.

The upstairs Residence at the newly renovated New Bond Street store.

Madhvani originally had his watch designed before the brand was bought by Richemont, after which this service was stopped. Luckily, they’ve now resumed and were good enough to honour the original design. Collaborating on these sorts of designs is a thoroughly enjoyable, yet delicate process. Madhvani says you have to, somewhat, play by the rules, “you still need to be sensitive to where they’re coming from as a brand and maintain their integrity and DNA.” 

There is even a section of their newly renovated building purely dedicated to vintage Cartier watches, which allows you to buy a piece of their history in the same space that those watches have been sold in for over 100 years. If you manage to find your way upstairs, and if you are lucky enough to get an appointment, there is also the opportunity to go through the Cartier London archives, held on premises. This goes along with the collection of historic pieces of jewellery that Cartier holds in a small, museum-like layout.

Parting Thoughts

Whilst you can no longer buy a new watch that says Cartier London on the dial, the heritage of the brand in the capital is very much still alive. As long as there are those who admire the quality and originality of design behind these watches, we are certain the passion will remain. Many of the collectors that we spoke to echo the sentiment that, the pieces that came from London are unique in their creativity, in how they approach the idea of a watch; which, at the time, was an incredibly utilitarian tool.

The vision of the Cartiers to see how this everyday object could be turned into something beautiful changed the watch industry for good. These angular and misshapen London designs were an important part of that, manifesting the advantages of independence and reflecting the changing times they were made in. At the end of the day, this is what makes these watches so appealing to us – their connection to something far bigger. The story behind the dial can be far more interesting than the dial itself, even when the dial is rendered so wonderfully.  

We would like to thank Auro Montanari, Harry Fane, Roni Madhvani, Eric Ku and @13byvu for sharing their time and knowledge on this topic with us. We would also like to thank Montanari for supplying some wonderful images that helped us illustrate this piece.