As a jeweller, the brand’s offerings are often replete with not only precious metals, but also diamonds and other gems. Large Roman numerals which warp in order to fit the dial’s contours are a signature motif of these watches.
The company began with both watches and jewelry, though its first men’s watches didn’t come until the early 20th century. During this period, Jaeger-LeCoultre, now a sister Richemont brand, created movements for these watches under contract.
Nowadays, Cartier makes many of its own movements, but it previously used calibers from other companies. The brand’s in-house movement department has been around since 2005.
Although, as a jeweler, elegance and refinement are a matter of course, this brand’s designs are anything but dainty. On the contrary, its collections often appear sturdy, stout and bold.
Screwed-down bezels, strong, confident edges and thick contours define the aesthetic of these watches. In general, the company does not shy away from unusual, distinctive shapes and configurations in its watches.
With many different levels of watch in production, Cartier manufacturing is distributed across six Swiss cities. Also, investing heavily into research, it preserves obscure techniques, for example, dramatically curving glass crystals, gold granulation, and grisaille enamel.
Keep reading to start from this brand’s beginnings, or follow these links in order to skip to more recent history:
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Brand Beginnings: Master And Apprentice
Louis-François Cartier learned his trade as an apprentice to jeweler and watchmaker Adolphe Picard; afterwards, he continued working for him.
This was in Picard’s atelier on Rue Montorgueil in Paris, but in 1847, after Adolphe’s death, Louis-François took over.
Louis-François gained a reputation for his skillful use of platinum during this period. This set him apart from his colleagues, due to the relative difficulty of using this metal in fine metalwork.
In that era, platinum jewelry was rare because of its high melting point and hardness relative to gold and silver. The idea of platinum as a precious metal was recent at this time, so Cartier’s offerings were quite innovative.
Family Succession: An Age Of Expansion
In 1874, Louis-François’ son Alfred took the company’s reins, and would then run it with an eye for international growth. That year, to this end, he brought the brand to the final Annual International Exhibition in London.
Before long, platinum became the typical setting for another newly-popular precious material, that is, diamond. Therefore, the company’s expertise with the metal was in high demand.
During this same timeframe, Alfred’s eldest son Louis worked to expand and improve the timepieces division. He developed many full-size clocks as well as watches, including a few men’s wristwatches.
Many men at the time considered wristwatches only fit for women. Therefore, they preferred pocket watches. However, Louis and his younger brothers Jacques and Pierre were set on making men’s wristwatches into a desirable possession.
The Early 1900s: Enduring Collections
During the reign of Edward VII, the London branch of Cartier began serving as the English royal jeweler. This branch of the company operated from 1902, when Jacques, middle of the three brothers, started it.
Pierre and Jacques worked to fulfill many jewelry contracts for royals and aristocrats. Besides Edward VII, these included Siamese king Chulalongkorn, French heiress Daisy Fellowes, the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and others.
From 1900, Cartier offered a collection of diamond-set platinum jewelry which found great popularity among royalty. Also around this time, in 1899, was a very early example of a diamond-set gold watch.
Santos: Spirit Of Aviation
The company’s next big contribution to wristwatches came because of Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont.
The coffee plantation heir devoted himself to both lighter-than-air and heavier-than-air aircraft, such as balloons, airships, airplanes and helicopters.
Because he needed both hands to control his creations, he found pocket watches inadequate. He was friends with Louis Cartier, therefore, they worked to create a suitable timepiece.
Louis designed a square watch that sit flat against Alberto’s wrist, so that it would stay securely in place. What they came up with would later inspire many subsequent generations of the “Santos” line.
That 1904 watch was a standout in many ways, and not only because of its eye-catching square case. Members of the public saw the iconic aviator wearing his personal wristwatch when prepared for his flights.
Therefore, freeing up both hands, the utility of such a timepiece became apparent in what was primarily a gentleman’s pursuit. Certainly, this contributed to the perception of wristwatches as a commodity equally suited to men and women.
The Tank: World War Legend
In 1917, during the First World War, Louis Cartier designed the very first Tank watch. Now the quintessential Cartier watch, at the time it was Louis’ latest, though unnamed, stroke of genius.
The name “Tank” only appeared later, when Louis’ inspiration came to light. Specifically, he made the watch in the image of the distinctive rectangular tanks of World War I’s battlefield.
Indeed, the smooth, rounded-off lugs blend seamlessly with the sides of the case, resembling a tank’s treads. Edmond Jaeger, who was under contract since 1907 to produce movements exclusively for Cartier, designed the movement.
Louis labored to perfect his now-legendary design, while Jaeger’s great skill in thin movements made his vision a reality. Besides the movement, Jaeger also worked alongside Louis to create the deployant buckle, which appears in the 1917 Tank.
Panthére: The Maison’s House Cat
Panthére, or Panther, refers to the wildcat symbolizing the Maison itself, as well as watch and jewelry collections featuring it. The first time the brand used the panther motif was in 1914; this was in a ladies’ watch.
This original model had a similar dial and crown to the current Panthére watch, but with a round case. Also, it did not yet have the crown guard typical to the series now.
The round case of the original watch featured a panther-skin pattern, using both onyx and precious metals: platinum, rose gold.
The modern Panthére de Cartier, in contrast, has a square case similar to the Santos watch. Rather than the flat bezel of that watch, the Panthére’s bezel is in rounded relief.
In the current collection, the Panthére takes subtle cues from panthers, if at all. This can be seen, for example, in the gold and steel variant.
Specifically, alternating links of steel and gold in this watch’s bracelet gently reference the coloration of the African leopard.
But where did the panther come from? Jeanne Toussaint, close friend of Louis Cartier, went by “La Panthére,” because of her affinity towards African panthers.
From 1933, as the company’s Director of Jewelry, she shaped not only the jewelry collections, but the entire brand image. Thus, the panther has featured prominently in the house’s offerings and commissions for years afterwards.
A Succession Of Luxury Groups
During the late 20th century, the company was part of various luxury goods groups. Firstly, in 1979, the holding company Cartier Monde was an umbrella for the various businesses under the brand.
A decade later, the group owned large parts of Dunhill, Piaget and Baume & Mercier. At this time, Richemont was buying interest in Cartier Monde.
By 1993, the company was part of Vendôme Luxury Group. The name of this group referred to the famous Place Vendôme store the company opened during its early years.
Then, Vendôme Group acquired Vacheron Constantin in 1996, whose movements Cartier used at various points in its history. Finally, by 1998, Richemont owned the entirety of Vendôme Luxury Group.
Classic Brand, Modern Manufacture
Though the company had long earned respect as a watchmaker, in the 2000s it sought the last Geneva Seal requirement. In order to qualify for the prized Poinçon Genéve, or Geneva Seal, it needed the capacity to make movements in-house.
Hence, in 2005, Richemont appointed French watchmaker Carole Forestier-Kasapi as Cartier’s Director of Movement Creation. At this point, she had worked with Richemont movement departments, including Piaget and Van Cleef & Arpels, since 2000.
Before that, she worked at Renaud et Papi, a complications supplier under Audemars Piguet. Therefore, she had a familiarity with haute horology that enabled her to transform Cartier into a real-deal manufacture.
Of course, she would not only need a design and production team but the facilities to make the hardware. Thus, in 2007, her team assumed control of one atelier from Roger Dubuis’ manufacturing division, which Richemont recently acquired.
Finally, the company released the watch with Carole and team’s first movement in 2008: the Ballon Bleu Flying Tourbillon.
The Ballon Bleu
The Ballon Bleu subtly refers to both the jeweler-watchmaker’s history and identity with its distinctive shape. Firstly, the toroidal bezel and cabochon sapphire crown at 9 o’ clock suggest the shape of a sapphire ring.
However, it is also an indirect reference to the brand’s emblematic panther. Specifically, it recalls the 1949 brooch that the company made for the Duchess of Windsor, the American Wallis Simpson.
In said brooch, a snarling panther fiercely guards a great blue sapphire, which appears spherical when viewed from the front. Hence, it is the “ballon bleu” in the watch’s name.
The watch’s crown guard therefore represents the panther’s claws enveloping the azure gem. Another defining feature of the watch is its emphatically domed mineral glass crystal.
In order to create the curved crystal, glassworkers carefully soften the glass with torches while coaxing it into a mold. While most luxury watchmaking has switched to sapphire crystals, mineral glass is still more suitable to unusual, especially convex, shapes.
Afterwards, the glass crystal is meticulously hand-polished before the watchmakers set it into the case. Similarly to the Tank, the Ballon Bleu exemplifies traditional watchmaking and lapidary arts tastefully applied.
Learn More About Cartier
Collections like Tank, Panthére and Ballon Bleu exemplify Cartier’s characteristic mix of elegant, yet unisex watch design. Also, the brand’s history shines through its collections, from Santos Dumont, to the Tank, Jeanne Toussaint’s panther and beyond.
If you’re interested in learning more about Cartier history, check out the videos on the official website.
In order to continue learning about watches, including influential brands, general information and reviews, check out these links:
- See our in-depth watch reviews.
- Read more about Richemont, including other former Vendôme Group brands.
- If you’re wondering what a watch movement is, just check out our primer.
- Otherwise, visit the Bespoke Unit Watch Homepage.
"Ingenious Intricacy! A. Lange and Söhne pushes the envelope with its remarkable skill in movement engineering."Rating: 5.0★★★★★