09/14/2020
 5 minutes

The Remarkable Story of Cartier: From Jeweler to Watchmaker to Ultimate Luxury Brand

By Jorg Weppelink
CAM-1354-Brandweek-Cartier-Magazin-2-1

The Remarkable Story of Cartier: From Jeweler to Watchmaker to Ultimate Luxury Brand

Cartier is one of those iconic luxury brands that captures the heart of audiences worldwide. What started as a jewelry company has grown into a luxury brand that offers a wide range of products, including watches, fragrances, and leather goods. When you hear Cartier, you think style, class, sophistication, and the ultimate in luxury – but they didn’t earn this reputation overnight.

 

The Cartier Story 

Master jeweler Louis-François Cartier founded Cartier in Paris in 1847. From the very beginning, the brand catered to society’s wealthy elite. Several decades after the company’s founding, Cartier introduced his son, Alfred, and his grandsons, Louis, Pierre, and Jacques, to the business. These additions brought new perspectives in terms of both product offerings and international expansion. 

With business flourishing, Cartier opened its new Parisian boutique on the prestigious Rue de la Paix in 1899. It would go on to become the home of Cartier and the location from which the three Cartier brothers would plan their expansion. At this stage, however, the offerings did not include luxury watches. 

 

Cartier on the Place Vendôme in Paris 
Cartier on the Place Vendôme in Paris

 

The Beginnings of Cartier Watchmaking 

In 1904, Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont went to his friend, Louis Cartier, and complained about the impracticalities of using pocket watches in flight. This inspired Louis Cartier to create a timepiece his friend could wear on his wrist. Cartier designed a flat wristwatch with a square case and square bezel modeled after the era’s unique square pocket watches. 

Stylish and Sporty: The Cartier Santos 100
Stylish and Sporty: The Cartier Santos 100

 

It didn’t take long for other customers to show an interest, and the Cartier Santos-Dumont became the first mass-produced men’s wristwatch and the world’s first pilot’s watch. 

In light of the wristwatch’s popularity, Cartier started focusing on developing more models. The brand created several timepieces that have since all become icons. In 1906, Cartier introduced the Tonneau, followed by the Baignoire and Tortue in 1912. 

 

Cartier Tonneau 
Cartier Tonneau

 

In 1917, three years after the start of World War I, Cartier introduced the legendary Cartier Tank. Today, this watch is synonymous with the Cartier name. Its design was inspired by the French Renault FT17 tank, as viewed from above. Although the case is more or less square, Louis Cartier used two vertical sidebars, known as “brancards,” to create a rectangular shape. In addition to creating a unique aesthetic, it also allows for the Tank’s characteristic integrated bracelet. Combined with a cream-colored dial and black Roman numerals, it has come to define Cartier design. 

 

Cartier Tank 
Cartier Tank

 

The Success of the Cartier Tank 

In the years that followed, Cartier introduced numerous variations of the Tank. The most notable is the Tank Louis Cartier, which has become the “standard” Tank. While the versions differ in size, shape, technical complications, and materials, they all share the same essence. The outbreak of World War II ended the stream of Cartier Tank releases, and in 1942, Louis Cartier – the driving force behind the Cartier watch department – passed away. 

 

Social Change After World War II 

The 1950s saw rapid societal changes that impacted architecture, fashion, and design. Thanks to the brilliant design of the Cartier Tank, however, the brand did not suffer in this changing world. The Tank proved itself a timeless classic. It was worn by many iconic individuals, including Ingrid Bergman, Clark Gable, Andy Warhol, and Muhammad Ali. 

The 1960s marked the introduction of another Cartier legend. In 1967, the brand launched the iconic Cartier Crash. The Crash was created in London and looks like it belongs in a Salvador Dali painting. Nevertheless, it is still very much a Cartier watch. 

 

Cartier Crash 
Cartier Crash

 

 

Selling the Business 

When Louis-François Cartier’s grandson Pierre died in 1964, the remaining family members decided to sell the business. In 1972, a group of investors led by Joseph Kanoui bought Cartier Paris. In the years to follow, they also managed to buy Cartier London and Cartier New York, thus reuniting the three arms of the business.  

The success of Cartier watches never ceased. All the timepieces in the Cartier Tank collection remain iconic luxury statements. Of course, the 1970s and 1980s gave way to the quartz crisis, which revolutionized the watch industry. During that time, Cartier primarily focused on selling quartz versions of their famous models. 

 

Cartier Pasha 
Cartier Pasha

  

The outstanding Cartier Pasha joined the Cartier catalog in 1985. In 1996, Cartier released the Cartier Tank Française to great acclaim. By that time, a renewed interest in mechanical watches had already begun. This model propelled Cartier back into the spotlight of luxury mechanical watchmaking, where it remains to this day. 

 

Cartier in Recent History 

In the last two decades, Cartier’s popularity has only grown, and they’ve become increasingly innovative in their watchmaking. We have seen the release of the Roadster in 2002, the Ballon Bleu in 2007, the expansion of the Santos and Tank collections, and the introduction of the Drive collection in 2016.  

Today, Cartier’s watch line-up features seven collections for both men and women. Tank, Santos, and Ronde watches are available in both men’s and women’s models. The Tank is by far the most comprehensive and varied Cartier collection. 

 

Cartier Drive de Cartier 
Cartier Drive de Cartier

 

 Cartier’s Cultural Relevance 

The luxury industry would not be what it is today without the influence of Cartier. The Parisian brand’s impact has been enormous, and it continues to shape the world of luxury to this day. The essence of the brand has always been to combine luxury with creative freedom and a remarkable pioneering spirit. 

When it comes to watches, Cartier is known for its iconic designs, unique shapes, and classic aesthetics. Cartier watches are instantly recognizable. The case shapes, cream-colored dials, and black Roman numerals are unmistakable. 

 

Creative Freedom and Boundary Pushing 

None of this would have been possible if it weren’t for the creative freedom and fearless spirit underpinning every Cartier creation. Cartier is known for pushing boundaries, enabling the brand to distinguish itself from the competition. Together with the technical excellence behind their watches, Cartier has become one of the most iconic brands on the market today and has won the hearts of many historic figures. 

If you think all Cartier watches are bound to classic design, think again. Although the case shapes have been around for years, Cartier is not afraid to use new, innovative materials and skeletonized movements to create modern renditions of their classic pieces. Creative thinking and innovation have been at the core of the brand ever since its foundation in 1847. You can experience all the brand has to offer the moment you place a Cartier Tank Louis Cartier on your wrist. 

Read more:

The History of Watchmaking: Cartier’s Milestone Watches

The Design Development of the Cartier Santos

Chrono24 Buyer’s Guide: Cartier Tank


About the Author

Jorg Weppelink

Hi, I'm Jorg, and I've been writing articles for Chrono24 since 2016. However, my relationship with Chrono24 goes back a bit longer, as my love for watches began …

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