November 2021 16 Min Read

The Women Behind Cartier

By Neha S. Bajpai

Of all the sepia-tinted memoirs of the Cartier family that have shaped our perception of the legendary maison over the years, there is one black and white photograph of the brothers with their father, Alfred, that leaves a particularly lasting impression. Taken in 1922 at the Cartiers’ family home in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, this happy picture captures the patriarch in the company of his ingenious sons, who had by then established Cartier as an internationally recognised jewellery house. While Louis was a visionary artist who introduced men to wristwatches with his famous creation, the Santos, Pierre was an astute businessman, and Jacques, an expert in gemstones. Together, the three brothers steered the company through the Great Depression, the two World Wars and many other historical milestones for nearly six decades.

As Francesca Cartier Brickell, the best-selling author of The Cartiers and sixth-generation family member, explained to me in a recent interview, while we are all familiar with the men who represented this great jewellery dynasty over four generations, the Cartier women have long been in the shadows – conspicuously missing even in that famous family photograph. Ironically, she points out, had it not been for these ladies and the strategic marital alliances, Cartier probably would not have reached the apex of the jewellery industry. These marriages kept the firm afloat in the early days, and later helped it to expand the world over. For example, when Louis Cartier married into the Worth family in 1898, this marriage would open doors to an international client base.

Three Cartier brothers and their father

The three Cartier brothers who would establish the brand’s three global bases in Paris, New York and London with their father, Alfred, taken in 1922, courtesy of Francesca Cartier Brickell.

“When the American banker J.P. Morgan heard that the granddaughter of his late friend Charles Frederick Worth was to marry Louis, he called for the groom-to-be, promised him his future custom, and bought $50,000-worth of jewels on the spot. That’s over $1.5 million today – that would have been an enormous leg-up back then for the then little-known Cartiers trying desperately to break into the international big league,” Francesca recounts. “The Morgans continued to be great customers, buying one of the first Model A mystery clocks, for example.

“The reality is that Cartier wouldn’t have survived as a business without the support of the Cartier women,” she adds. “They brought not only funds but also important personal connections to the business, elevating the Cartier family socially at a time when one’s social standing was considered of great importance by potential clients.”

A white Cartier Model A clock

A Model A mystery clock from Cartier, similar to the one purchased by J.P. Morgan, courtesy of Christie’s.

Cartier’s founding father, Louis-François Cartier, had a rough start as a jewellery apprentice, but he was determined to work his way up the social ladder. In 1847, Louis-François took over his employer’s workshop and set the foundation for Cartier’s iconic journey over the next century. While Louis-François's mother was a washerwoman, his daughter-in-law, Alice Griffeuille, was from a wealthy merchant family. A class above the Cartiers, the Griffeuilles married off their daughter to Alfred Cartier with a dowry of 100,000 francs in 1874. This marriage marked a significant step up for the family and enabled Cartier to weather the difficult years of the late 19th century.

“It also connected the Cartiers with other jewellery families like the Bourdiers, from whom the Cartiers would learn much, not least the importance of the Russian market for luxury,” explains Francesca. “Alice’s biggest contribution to the business, however, was of course her children. Her three sons – Louis, Pierre and Jacques – were not only remarkably talented in different ways, but also very ambitious and exceptionally close, perhaps a result of the way they were brought up.”

A black and white image of the founding father of Cartier

The founding father of the maison, Louis-François Cartier, courtesy of Francesca Cartier Brickell.

The Griffeuille-Cartier alliance was the first of those financially strong and socially powerful marriages that helped Cartier build an invincible jewellery empire over the next two generations. The moneyed marriage market of 19th century Europe wasn't particularly kind to women, who were expected to consolidate alliances with their inheritance, wealth and privileges within the upper-class aristocracy. Part of the same social framework, the Cartier women not only brought in their share of fortune to the family, but also nurtured the business with relentless support to their partners through thick and thin. Mostly neglected from written history, the Cartier women were the real backbone of a family business that thrived on not just beauty and innovation, but also some dramatic high-society romances and betrayals involving the world’s rich and famous. Here is a look at the power couples and the enigmatic women who shaped Cartier’s dazzling success story in becoming the world’s leading jeweller of the 20th century.

The Unwanted Bride: Andrée-Caroline Worth

Long before Chanel, Christian Dior, and YSL made their way into the fashion world, English designer Charles Frederick Worth arrived in Paris with £5 in his pocket and eventually established himself as the couture king with an enviable client list that included the who’s who of the Parisian court. A contemporary of Louis-François, Worth had recorded a stratospheric rise within Parisian high society, and it was very unlikely that a nondescript jeweller like Cartier in those days could negotiate a marriage proposal with the Worths. However, the ambitious Alfred Cartier found a chink and used it to pursue his eldest son Louis’ alliance with Charles Frederick Worth’s granddaughter, Andrée-Caroline.

Believed to have been born illegitimately and therefore unsuited to marry into aristocratic circles, Andrée-Caroline was not the wife Louis desired. Her strange demeanour reminded him of his mother, Alice, who ended up in a sanatorium and he wanted to avoid another “nervous crisis” in the family. Torn between the larger good of his firm and personal happiness, Louis finally gave in to his father’s demand on the condition that he could seek a divorce from Andrée-Caroline in future.

While Louis was already put off by the idea of this marriage, Andrée-Caroline’s “lack of reverence” on the wedding day shocked Louis’ younger brother Jacques Cartier. “I believe her to be ill, a young girl…to whom the idea of consent cannot have any value,” said Jacques in one of the letters quoted in Francesca's epic chronicle on Cartier the family. As expected, Andrée-Caroline proved to be the Cartiers’ passport into the French luxury world. Thanks to a handsome dowry, Louis could now buy a small store on the prestigious Rue de la Paix in Paris and tap into his father-in-law’s reputable client base.

Extremely creative, curious and headstrong, Louis was a genius at work, but his marital life was turbulent. Thanks to the Worth family, he got easy access to Parisian socialites at popular clubs, and that’s where he would spend his evenings, networking his way through potential clients, their wives, lovers et al. Eager to help his daughters-in-law, Jean-Philippe Worth also offered some of his best men, René Prieur and Paul Muffat, to help Louis. This marriage of convenience was more than a boon for the Cartiers, who collaborated with the Worths to open their first store together in London in 1902. While Louis and Andrée-Caroline’s marriage was falling apart, their extended families were getting closer. Just a year before the couple’s divorce in 1908, Louis’ sister Suzanne married Andrée’s cousin Jacques Worth, whose connections further strengthened Cartier’s presence in the jewellery business.

A useful alliance, even if it was an unhappy marriage, images courtesy of Francesca Cartier Brickell and Geneanet.

A so-called power couple in the eyes of French society, Louis and Andrée-Caroline’s marriage was unlikely to last. Louis had received 200,000 francs on his wedding day and was promised a dowry of 50,000 francs a year for the next decade from the Worths, but money could not buy love. Fed up with an absentee husband, Andrée-Caroline finally demanded a divorce from Louis after a decade-long alliance. Louis, now well-versed with the Parisian elite, was more than happy to escape the marital trap and focus full-time on creating exemplary clocks, pocket watches, tiaras, and brooches for Russian royalty.

The Soulmate: Jeanne Toussaint

One of the most intriguing women in the Cartier saga, Jeanne Toussaint was not just Louis Cartier’s lover, she was a creative force behind the Paris maison’s powerful design language for over 50 years. In fact, Mademoiselle Toussaint was the only one besides the three Cartier brothers who had the vision and the grit to pull the company through the post-war period.

Besotted by her amazing sense of style, Louis met Jeanne around the time of World War I and the two could never really separate from then on. Having been a courtesan previously, she wasn’t seen as the “right fit” to be Louis’ wife, but her devotion to the company was exceptional. Like Louis, Jeanne had a strong social network with friends like Jeanne Lanvin, Coco Chanel and René Gimpel, and she put her connections to good use.

Unwilling to give up on their relationship despite the family’s pressure, Louis finally hired Jeanne to work in the handbag department at Cartier Paris. In 1924, when he married Jacqueline Almásy, Louis promoted Jeanne to the head of department which made functional and affordable objects such as cigarette cases, letter openers, lighters, and fountain pens in silver.

“Jeanne was a source of valuable ideas during the 1920s,” says Sheila Smithie, a jewellery specialist and adjunct faculty member at Sotheby's Institute of Art. “For example, she was the first to propose that watch bands be constructed of interconnected gold links, rather than leather or grosgrain. Increasingly, her judgments became important firm-wide.”

According to Francesca, Louis Cartier used to say Jeanne had what he could never have: the eye of a woman. And he was certainly right, as she had an incredible instinct to judge what looked good on women, and what women wanted to wear. In 1933, when Cartier was applying for more patents than in any other decade in its history, Louis promoted Jeanne to the high jewellery department. In a male-dominated firm, this move upset a lot of people, including Louis’ favourite designer Charles Jacqueau.

A portrait of Toussaint painted by César Helleu.

“She was strong, even authoritarian, and could be difficult to work for – some of the designers didn’t get along with her, especially Charles Jacqueau – but she was a woman in what was then a man’s world, so she had to be tough to survive,” says Francesca.

Though Cartier had started employing more women in the company post World War I, they were generally working in support roles, as secretaries on the administration side, or as pearl stringers and polishers on the manufacturing side. “In London, Jacques was very avant-garde in choosing to hire Cartier’s first female designer – Miss Winter – in the 1920s, but that was highly unusual. She was friends with many of the Bright Young Things, so she became a real asset,” explains Francesca. “The other notable early exception I’ve seen is in a 1927 photo of the workshop where they were making the mystery clocks – intriguingly, there’s a craftswoman working to the left of master clockmaker Maurice Couet.”

Inside the Cartier workshop where Mystery clocks were made in 1927 showing a craftswoman alongside master clockmaker Maurice Couet, courtesy of the Cartier Archives.

The greatest advantage that Jeanne brought to the company was her ability to adapt to the times. She didn’t design jewels herself, but commissioned the work to her few favourites like Georges Rémy, Lucien Lachassagne and, in particular, Peter Lemarchand. “She embraced the modern sensibilities of the 1940s and 1950s and introduced muscular creatures, exotic naturalism, and colour to the Cartier jewels,” says Smithie. “She would approach magazines and couturiers, and watch fashion shows to understand the relationship of jewellery to couture. She knew that [Charles] Jacqueau and Art Deco had to go. She got craftsmen to do things they feared were impossible.”

'She was strong, even authoritarian, and could be difficult to work for – some of the designers didn’t get along with her, especially Charles Jacqueau – but she was a woman in what was then a man’s world, so she had to be tough to survive.'

Francesca Cartier Brickell

As opposed to popular belief, the famed panther jewellery from Cartier weren’t Jeanne Toussaint’s original designs, but she definitely got them noticed in the right circles. She shared a special camaraderie with Wallis Simpson, who was obsessed with the panther jewels. In 1948, the Duke of Windsor commissioned Cartier to make a gold and onyx panther brooch for his wife. It was the first of 12 “big cat” accessories that the Duchess of Windsor came to acquire from Cartier during her lifetime.

Francesca’s grandfather, Jean-Jacques Cartier, felt that the designer Lemarchand was the person who deserves credit for the post-war animal jewels, whether it be the famed “big cat” jewels or the songbirds which he worked on throughout the 1940s and 1950s. “Like Jacques, he went to meet clients in India where he was inspired by seeing big cats in the wild, and he spent countless hours at the Vincennes Zoo studying the movements of panthers to get them exactly right,” she says.

The multi-coloured flamingo Cartier brooch, courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Decades after Louis’s death in 1942, Jeanne continued to be an integral part of Cartier. She decided to retire in 1955 when she was 68, but Pierre Cartier persuaded her to stay on. According to Smithie, Jeanne has been an inspiring figure of social liberation, strength and artistic daring, then as now.

Ticket to Aristocracy: Jacqueline Almásy

Thirteen years after his divorce from Andrée-Caroline and a tumultuous affair with Jeanne Toussaint, Louis fell head over heels for the young, beautiful and titled Countess Jacqueline Almásy. A war widow, Jacqueline came from a Hungarian aristocratic family and was anything but a blue-blooded snob. She charmed Louis with her strong political views and outspoken nature. However, when the couple decided to get married, there were speculations on the class difference between them. After all, for the aristocratic society in the 1920s, Louis was just a lovestruck tradesman and not a blue-blooded suitor for Countess Almásy.

Adding some much needed legitimacy to the Cartier’s class standing, Countess Jacqueline Almásy, photographed by Színházi Élet.

Determined to prove himself worthy of this alliance, Louis even changed his name to Louis Cartier de la Bouitrere, Baron de Saint-Rene in 1923. “Despite officially not existing after the Revolution, the French nobility continued to thrive in that period,” explains Francesca. “Nancy Mitford, who lived much of her life in Paris, observed in one of her novels how French nobility was far touchier about status than the English. Louis and Pierre particularly wanted to be part of that set, so much so that Pierre even hired a genealogist to try to prove the family’s noble origins (he failed), but the reality is that they weren’t and even after all their success, they were considered as ‘trade’.”

The couple finally tied the knot in 1924 and Countess Almásy gave Louis that connection to the aristocracy that he felt he deserved. Extremely status conscious, Louis even bought a palace for his new wife in Budapest. Their love story, however, had its own share of twists and turns thanks to Louis’s insecurities and temper issues. In 1934, Louis accused Jacqueline of having an affair with Alfonso XIII, the former king of Spain. No explanation from Jacqueline or persuasion by his own family could convince Louis otherwise and he demanded a divorce. The couple separated for a few months and decided to give their marriage another go for the sake of their son, Claude. “Of the three brothers, I feel Louis is the hardest to understand because there were so many conflicting elements to his personality – he was a creative genius but also very proud,” says Francesca. “Being looked down on so infuriated Louis that, [once], after being snubbed at a party by Baron Maurice de Rothschild, he challenged the baron to a duel with pistols. He was so angry that he was willing to lose his life to make his point.”

Cartier’s American Dream: Elma Rumsey and Pierre Cartier

The daughter of American tycoon Moses Rumsey Jr, Elma came from a far wealthier family than the Cartiers, but she was grounded and family-oriented. Just as Louis’ marriage to Worth had helped Cartier to expand business in Paris, Pierre’s alliance with Elma opened the American market for the firm. By 1909, Cartier was all set to launch its store on New York’s Fifth Avenue. Still unknown across the Atlantic, the jeweller gradually started finding favours within Elma’s social circle – rich bankers’ wives and other influential clients such as the Morgans, the Roosevelts, and the McLeans flocked to the Cartier store and eventually helped Pierre realise his father’s big American dream.

Pierre and Elma Cartier with their daughter Marion, courtesy of The Granger Collection.

“This was a time when social occasions like dinners and charity events were the best way to meet potential clients and build credibility in a new city – and having an American heiress as a wife gave Pierre a seat at the table,” says Francesca. “It’s worth remembering that Cartier back then was hardly known in America – when they married, the headline of The New York Times was ‘Heiress weds foreigner’; that’s how unknown Pierre was then – and without Elma at his side, I don’t think Pierre would have been accepted in America to anywhere near the same extent.”

Pierre had high ambitions for Cartier New York. He wanted to develop it as a separate company from Paris and he worked out his independence by accomplishing some of the greatest business deals for Cartier. From selling the notorious Hope Diamond to American heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean in 1912, to acquiring transportation mogul Morton Plant’s Fifth Avenue townhouse as a barter for a million-dollar pearl necklace, Pierre successfully put the firm on the world map.

The Cartier New York boutique in 1920, courtesy of Hodinkee.

“One of the most important American clients for the Cartiers was the businesswoman, philanthropist and collector Marjorie Merriweather Post, as she bought plenty of jewels over decades. She was the same age as the Cartier brothers and stayed loyal to them throughout her life,” explains Francesca. During wartime, Pierre proved that the US boutique could survive outside of the shadow of the Paris store and, eventually, in December 1919, Cartier Inc was established, with Pierre as the chairman in New York.

A Golden Couple: Jacques Cartier and Nelly Harjes

A true love match, Nelly and Jacques worked together to broaden Cartier’s horizon with an all-new clientele in the East. American but born in Paris, Nelly was the daughter of John Harjes, a wealthy partner at J.P. Morgan, who enjoyed a lofty reputation in banking circles. Boisterous, fun, and absolutely charming, Nelly was the complete opposite of Jacques in her demeanour, but the couple was a great asset to the family as well as the firm.

Even after Jacques passed away during World War II, Nelly was partly involved in the running of Cartier London alongside her son, Jean-Jacques, who was just taking over in his late twenties.

Francesca Cartier Brickell

“Whether out for dinner in London or travelling to India and Egypt, Nelly was almost always at Jacques’ side. A lot of Jacques’ clients and their wives counted her as a good friend,” says Francesca. The couple got married in 1912 after a year-long resistance by Nelly’s father, who was quite underwhelmed with Jacques’ profile as a tradesman. Jacques vowed never to touch a cent of Nelly’s money and married her in a Protestant church – the greatest sacrifice he could make as a devout Catholic.

“Even after Jacques passed away during World War II, Nelly was partly involved in the running of Cartier London alongside her son, Jean-Jacques, who was just taking over in his late twenties,” says Francesca. “She was also hugely popular at the English Art Works workshop. After World War II, she gave all the craftsmen two five-pound notes as a bonus to thank them for their war efforts – that’s the equivalent of around £500 today.”

The Cartier Daughters

Though women in the Cartier family mostly played supportive roles, Pierre and Elma’s daughter Marion was significantly involved – she ran Cartier Paris along with her husband Pierre Claudel in the 1950s. Earlier on, in the 1930s, the couple had visited Thami El Glaoui, the Pasha of Marrakech. Around that time, it is said that he commissioned Cartier to make him a waterproof Tank Etanche.

Marion Cartier and her husband Pierre Claudel in New York before they married in the 1930s, courtesy of Getty Images.

“In Paris, Marion was mentored by Jeanne Toussaint and took drawing lessons with the designer, Pierre Lemarchand,” says Francesca. “And yet though she was creative, her heart wasn’t in the jewellery business – her passion was designing stained-glass windows – so, after the death of her father Pierre, she stepped back and sold Cartier Paris in the late 1960s.”

Though Louis’ daughter Anne-Marie didn’t play the same kind of role in the family’s business, her husband René Révillon left his global fur business to join Cartier.

“René was Louis Cartier’s right-hand man in the 1920s and 1930s. If you look at Cartier designs from that period, you’ll often see ‘RR’ written next to ‘à executer’, showing how often he was signing off creative work until he fell out with Louis and was dramatically exiled – this was obviously terrible for poor Anne-Marie,” says Francesca.

The Clientele

Lastly, it feels remiss, of course, not to also mention the contribution of the many illustrious female clients who have not just shopped at Cartier over the many years, but also acted as ambassadors for the brand, including Cartier’s breakthrough royal client, Princess Mathilde, the niece of Napoleon III; Russian Grand Duchess Vladimir, who wore jewels as a symbol of power in the imperial court; and Hollywood superstar Elizabeth Taylor, whose receipt of a ruby Cartier necklace gift from husband Mike Todd while swimming in a pool in the South of France is immortalised forever in a wonderful home video.

From Past to Present

Now owned by the Richemont group, Cartier continues to be an iconic name in high jewellery and watchmaking circles. Among other initiatives, the firm now sponsors programmes such as the Cartier Women's Initiative, an annual award that drives change by empowering women impact entrepreneurs. Keeping the brand’s history in mind, this feels only right given the crucial role that various women – clients, employees and also the Cartier ladies – have played in making Cartier world-renowned as the “King of Jewellers, and Jeweller of Kings”.

We would like to thank Francesca Cartier Brickell and Sheila Smithie for lending their time and insight to this article. Many of the images that we have used can be found in Brickell’s book The Cartiers: The Untold Story of the Family Behind the Jewellery Empire and were supplied by its publisher Ballantine Books.