From Indian royalty to Jackie Kennedy, Elizabeth Taylor to Andy Warhol, the patronage enjoyed by storied jewellery brand Cartier is unrivalled. Founded in 1847 by Louis-François Cartier, discerning jewellery lovers swear by its designs, its panther being an everlasting motif that’s acquired cult status.
That a brand like this would have a history peppered with enticing stories, is a given. There are a number of legendary stories about Cartier connection with India alone, the most famous of which is the Maharaja of Patiala commissioning Cartier to reset his Crown Jewels — one of the largest single commissions in the firm’s history. Equally interesting are the stories of its founders and the generations after that helmed the brand. 170 years after it’s establishment, Francesca Cartier Brickell, Louis’s, great-great-great-granddaughter, has compiled these stories of her family in her debut book, ‘The Cartiers’ at the recently concluded ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival.
“I grew up hearing stories of my ancestors from my grandfather, the last of the Cartiers to own and manage a branch of the firm before it was sold in the 1970s. He used to tell me anecdotes about how his father, Jacques, the youngest of the three Cartier brothers, and his mother Nelly, travelled many times to India from England through the 1920s and 30s, taking a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce and 18 suitcases of clothes and jewels,” reminisces Brickell. “Or how Ranjitsinhji, the Maharaja of Nawanagar, had sometimes stayed at his English home when my grandfather had been a boy. He remembered getting into trouble for playing in the garden and coming to dinner with grass stains on his freshly pressed shirt when there were such important visitors in the house.”
The book is a compendium of such memories and more (there’s one about Brickell’s grandfather, waiting to see the royal family at Buckingham Palace, falling asleep, and being woken up by the Queen Mother). The author says the idea of the book took shape when at her grandfather’s 90th birthday party, where she stumbled upon a trunk of letters which became the catalyst for her research and travels to chart the story of the Cartiers.
“The letters go back over a century, and encompass four generations of my family,” she explains. “Many are between the three brothers in the 1910-1940 period, and often between their wives too. But there are also telegrams, diaries, and other miscellaneous things. It was a wonderful to have my grandfather around to talk about these letters, fill in the gaps,” she recalls.
Her research also made her travel to different parts of India – Mumbai, Delhi, Baroda, Amritsar, Mussoorie to name a few – where she learned her family’s story. “I was able to stay in and visit many of the same places Jacques had stayed—from the Taj in Mumbai to Maidens Hotel in Delhi—and was startled by the similarities with his descriptions almost a 100 years ago. More recently, I visited Kapurthala which was very special as Maharaja Jagatjit Singh had been an important Cartier client (his 1926 emerald turban ornament is legendary) and an ardent Francophile. For me to walk through his French-inspired pink palace in Punjab and imagine him wearing his Cartier jewels there a century ago was a wonderful experience.”
The book is a must read for anyone who’d like a glimpse into the lifestyle of Indian royals of yore. For instance, the book recounts how Jacques arrived at the Delhi Durbar in 1911, for the first time, and surprisingly did not meet with success in terms of sales. “Jacques had brought many of the delicate feminine diamond jewels fashionable in Paris, but was disappointed to find that in India it wasn’t the women who were buying the jewels, it was the men. In fact, the piece that was most popular amongst the Maharajas at the time was the simple pocket-watch, also popular in Paris at the time.”
Brickell has plans to travel to different countries for book fairs and give talks about her book. “I grew up with a love of these family stories and a sense of the people my ancestors had been rather than an overriding sense of the jewellery legacy. Finding the long-lost trunk of family letters allowed me to begin to put it all in context. It’s lovely to get out now and share the story with others who are interested,” she says.
Buy your copy of ‘The Cartiers’ here.