Known as the man who may know more about Cartier than Cartier, Harry Fane has been obsessed with the historic jeweller for over 40 years. Since 1978, he has been dealing exclusively in vintage Cartier collectables and watches, especially those from the jeweller's golden era from 1919 to 1939. Within the confines of his Mayfair office, we sat down with Harry to hear more about what drives him and get the opportunity to handle some exceptional pieces, including some iconic wristwatches such as the Cintrée or the Crash. From hunting down treasures in Indian palaces to finding them new homes with oil-rich Venezuelan barons, he shares tales of a life driven by his search and passion for vintage Cartier.
How did it all start for you?
I started my career working at Sotheby’s in London and then Los Angeles and New York, which I soon left to work privately selling contemporary American art: Warhol, Wesselmann, Stella, people like that. And then my best friend and I decided that we’d go into business together. That must have been around 1978 and we started selling general objets d’art.
And how did that kick off?
Our first venture was going to Caracas, Venezuela.
We had a friend who, believe it or not, sold Persian rugs there and he said, “Look, bring all your stuff to Caracas and I’ll sell it all”. We flew there. This was the beginning of the oil boom so there was a wash of money and nothing for them to buy, so naturally, we were welcomed with open arms.
New money looking for an outlet…
Exactly, and well, when we were back in Europe restocking, in Portobello Road, Brighton or Paris, among other places, once in a blue moon, we would come across a nice piece of Cartier: a powder box, a cigarette case, a picture frame, whatever, something by Cartier, which no-one was interested in. There was no market for vintage Cartier at that time. If you went to a stand, you might see fifty pieces and one little Cartier thing. We were very drawn to the Cartier aesthetic but we weren’t jumping on a bandwagon. There was no bandwagon.
A vintage Cartier cigar box
Seems hard to believe nowadays…
Let me put it this way. If you were an oil-rich Venezuelan baron and you were offered a very pretty little Cartier clock for $3,000 or a huge, great pair of English candlesticks for $3,000, you undoubtedly chose the candlesticks. That was what they wanted. So, as we started to focus more and more on Cartier pieces, we decided to turn our backs on Venezuela and we started to go America.
We went to Palm Beach only with vintage Cartier. That’s all we had and we had a big success. That was really the beginning of the whole thing and we started dealing exclusively in Cartier objets d’art: cigarette cases, lighters, picture frames, paper knives and primarily clocks. Cartier had a great interest in making jewelled objects: Louis Cartier’s idea was to make a jewel into a utilitarian object and a utilitarian object into a jewel. And he succeeded very well, you know, the jewelled clocks he made were exceptional. These are indeed jewels, that happen to tell the time.
"We were very drawn to the Cartier aesthetic but we weren’t jumping on a bandwagon. There was no bandwagon."
And interest in these objects grew from there?
We became great purveyors of these pieces and at that time there were only a handful of people who were interested. Within two or three years, the Cartier Museum was established and we quickly formed a very strong bond with them. This was very fortunate as I got to spend a lot of time in their Archives which was incredibly educational. From that point onwards, I was responsible for finding some really major pieces. Some really important pieces of Cartier.
I suppose no one was really looking at the time…
Well, by the mid-‘80s, it was already beginning to catch on. There was a seminal sale, The Robert Green Sale in New York. He was the only person who’d ever properly collected vintage Cartier and that sale had encouraged a lot of interest. Now that Cartier was collecting for the museum and the auction houses were beginning to put important Cartier pieces in their sales, a wave of interest began which was only going to get bigger and bigger and bigger.
Harry Fane in his Mayfair office
And nowadays the obsession is everywhere…
I mean now everyone wants vintage Cartier [Laughs].
[Laughs] Seems that way!
Though there’s still some room for expansion, I think. You do a sort of price comparison between Fabergé and Cartier and Fabergé prices are still ten times higher than the Cartier prices. Partly, this is because Fabergé was a martyr to history and stopped trading in 1917. There is also a great body of expertise and a general clamour for Fabergé which there never was for Cartier.
"This was very fortunate as I got to spend a lot of time in their Archives which was incredibly educational. From that point onwards, I was responsible for finding some really major pieces."
So, where did you start digging for this stuff?
I used to go all around the world. Funnily enough, I used to go to India because the Indians were very important to Cartier post-depression. After 1930, if it hadn’t been for the spending power of the Indian Maharajas, Cartier may well have gone bankrupt actually.
Yes, I’ve spent many a day searching through old palaces in India trying to dig out Cartier clocks and things like that but I’ve been all over the world to find Cartier things.
A Cartier clock and barometer, with a stingray leather exterior
A Cartier barometer
And what was the golden era for Cartier?
Creatively, it was really 1919 to 1939. That’s when they created some exceptional pieces of jewellery for some very special clients. Commercially, today is probably their golden age.
What was different back then?
In the 1930s there was a very small group of people who were buying these things and it was a pretty sophisticated society. I think that they lived a fast and glamorous life. They were well housed, well dressed, and of course, they were well jewelled. I think those people were seeking out the best things and they were very confident in what they were buying.
No Gucci belts, then?
[Laughs] No, none of those. There was a level of sophistication which is almost lost nowadays. I think that they were much better read and that the association with the arts was far more intimate. Their taste was very discerning. In the old days, I think that people really sought out a great piece of jewellery, which was found at Cartier. Now, people want a Cartier piece and it doesn’t really matter what the piece is. It’s about the name and I think that’s the difference.
When did that change?
In the ‘60s, there was a big turmoil inside Cartier. They were changing ownership and they were going towards the mass market. This was a brilliant idea and they were the first people to really do it successfully. One of the things that I admire about Cartier today is that, even though we now know Cartier is a different business, if you go home to your wife or your girlfriend, and you say, “Here, I’ve just been to Cartier and I’ve bought you this,” when they get the box, there’s no doubt their heart beats a little bit faster. Cartier has retained the cachet which is amazing.
"I think that they lived a fast and glamorous life. They were well housed, well dressed, and of course, they were well jewelled."
It’s not given to everyone...
I don’t think there are a lot of brands who’ve lasted so long, where if you get a box from them today, your reaction in the same. I’m not going to say any names, in case I get in trouble.
Light blue in colour perhaps [Laughs]
[Laughs] Yes, yes, you know, your heart might sink, “Oh God!”.
A small portion of Harry's extensive collection of books on Cartier, jewellery and all manner of other things
So, what drew you to Cartier watches specifically?
Well, I think that, for a man, if you go out in your black tie in the evening and you’re wearing a great, big stainless steel Rolex, it’s not the same as wearing a beautiful platinum vintage Cartier watch.
That’s certainly true…
So, as an aesthetic, I happen to love it.
Hard not to…
I think that these little gold wristwatches that Cartier made encapsulate everything that Louis Cartier was trying to say. He wanted something beautiful and elegant and those were the only two criteria he had. I think that he succeeded superbly. It’s fascinating that the basics of these watches were designed in 1907 and they haven’t really changed. I just did a show in Bangkok and some people were coming in wearing their modern Cartier watches. I said, “Look, this watch was made in 1910. Look at the dial on it, and look at the dial of your watch. They’re the same”.
Yet there’s something about the original…
Oh, no doubt, there’s nothing like it. When you pick up something which was made by hand it has a different feel. It’s just a different thing, a different animal. I get that sense and of course, there are a lot of people who get that too. Most people don’t even know about these vintage watches but when they are presented with one, they get a great kick out of it.
The Cartier Crash: designed in 1967, the legend goes that the inspiration for it came from a Cartier watch which melted into this shape during a car crash
A Cartier Tank "Chinoise", so-called because of its brancards shaped like the lintels of a Chinese temple portico
Though we rarely get to see them.
To put things in perspective, between 1919 and 1960, for example, Cartier Paris made 1,803 Tank watches. 1,803 only!
And after 1960 mechanisation came in a little bit so the production numbers jumped. From 1960 to 1970, Cartier made more watches than in the previous 40 years which is phenomenal.
I’m not sure of the exact numbers today but Cartier do make a lot of watches.
And what do you make of the mechanical aspect of Cartier watches?
In actual fact, the mechanical aspect of Cartier watches is the least important.
Why is that?
Even Louis Cartier was not interested in the movement of the watch. His only interest was that the movement be small enough and thin enough, so it could be housed in a very thin watch case. The design is what mattered the most in his eyes.
"To put things in perspective, between 1919 and 1960, for example, Cartier Paris made 1,803 Tank watches."
And I see you’re wearing something rather special…
Yeah, this is very nice, it’s a 1928 Tank Cintrée [Hands watch over].
It’s so thin, you can’t believe there’s a movement in there. It’s pretty amazing that inside here, there’s a tiny man-made movement ticking away.
What’s interesting about this one specifically is that it has Arabic numerals rather than Roman numerals which is very rare.
A Cartier Cintrée from 1928, with rare Arabic numerals
"It’s so thin, you can’t believe there’s a movement in there."
It seems it’s all about the details with these. There’s one thing I’ve always been curious about, actually. What’s the difference between Cartier London, Paris and New York?
Well, historically speaking, I think that the one which is the least productive is Cartier New York. I mean, Cartier New York did make some unique models but I don’t think that they were particularly outstanding.
What about the other two?
Cartier Paris, for me, is the dream ticket. But there is this huge resurgence of interest in Cartier London which I fully understand. London made 100 to 150 watches between 1967 and 1975 and they were all very distinctive models. These watches were only ever made in London and weren’t made by any other house. Hence, they are very intriguing.
A niche within a niche…
Exactly, and I have plenty of collectors who only want London watches. I have a client in California, a movie producer, who only wants Cartier London watches.
The inception of an icon: the original Cartier Tank, first designed in 1917
What’s the threat of fake watches like?
The body of expertise today is such that the question of fake watches does not really arise.
"When you pick up something which was made by hand it has a different feel. It’s just a different thing, a different animal."
And what do you make of restoration?
Well, I do come across vintage Cartier watches which have had a very tough life. At times, they need restoration and I am lucky enough to have a team who are able to sensitively restore these watches to their former glory. I’m very open about any watches I have restored, and am happy to discuss what has been done or need to be done with any watch.
It's a matter of doing it the right way...
Exactly, we use the original process. Luckily, we have original Cartier printing blocks for the dials and we even have the original machines that Cartier used back in the day for printing dials.
Any other things to be on the lookout for when buying these?
Obviously, condition is very important. But any research a potential buyer does will reap many benefits down the line with regard to knowing which models are interesting and how many were made. Do your homework and you can find some pretty special things out there...
Thank you to Harry for speaking with us