Collecting guide: 10 questions to ask about Cartier jewels
Christie’s jewellery specialist Raymond Sancroft-Baker offers an expert overview of the illustrious maison, the jeweller of choice for kings and queens, celebrities and tycoons. Illustrated with historic and beautiful pieces previously sold at Christie’s
1. How did Cartier achieve its reputation?
Raymond Sancroft-Baker: ‘The House of Cartier was founded in 1847 when Louis-François Cartier took over a shop at 29 rue Montorgueil in Paris; he was just 28 years old. His son Alfred took control of the company in 1874, by which time it already had an excellent reputation. However, it was Alfred’s three sons — Louis, Pierre and Jacques — who would go on to establish it as a world-famous jewellery brand.
‘While Louis retained the responsibility for Paris, in 1902 Alfred went to London and only two years later received the Royal Warrant, thereby supplying jewellery to King Edward VII and his court. Pierre travelled to New York where, in 1917, he famously acquired 653 Fifth Avenue for two strands of the very finest pearls. This piece of prime real estate remains a flagship store to this day.’
2. Why is Cartier considered to be the No.1 jeweller?
RS-B: ‘Cartier is considered by many to be the finest jeweller in the world because of the reputation it established in the first half of the 20th century for having the best-designed and best-made jewels and clocks. Its clientele encompassed royalty, film stars and business tycoons. King Farouk of Egypt, The Duchess of Windsor, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly and Clark Gable all made their way to Cartier to buy or have their jewellery made.
‘The firm had the amazing ability to produce a bracelet, for example, which through the choice of stones — their colour and design — would make the bracelet instantly recognisable as by Cartier. Considering that Cartier made thousands of bracelets, each of them slightly different, this was not an easy feat to accomplish.’
3. What is the best period for Cartier?
RS-B: ‘In my opinion the years between 1910 and 1940 were the golden era for Cartier. It employed the finest designers and craftsmen, and with the cream of society for its clients Cartier was able to offer the very best in jewellery. Its reputation was such that at the coronation of King George V in June 1911, 19 of the tiaras worn at the ceremony were by Cartier.
‘After the First World War people wanted to embrace the new — Art Deco took hold, and Cartier was at the forefront of innovation. It introduced the Tank watch in 1917 and, after Jacques Cartier had travelled to India in search of gemstones, “Tutti Frutti” jewellery, which became very popular in the 1920s. One must remember that jewellery is after all a fashion ornament, and having the latest design is always important.’
4. What have been the most notable sales of Cartier at Christie’s?
RS-B: ‘In May 1992 Christie’s organised the first auction entirely devoted to jewellery, objects and clocks made by Cartier. It included several mystery clocks, and an amazing marble, agate and enamel elephant table clock, barometer and thermometer, made circa 1905. The most unusual lot was an 800 kg safe in the form of a French 18th-century commode that was consigned from America for this inaugural Cartier auction. Due to its success, there was another such sale the following year, but there has not been another one since due to the scarcity of suitable pieces.
‘In 1991 in New York we sold the Egyptian Temple Gate clock that was made in 1927 and which is an extraordinary work of art. It now resides in the Cartier Museum in Geneva, which houses more than 1,500 of the finest examples of its craftsmanship. The clock sold for more than $1 million, but Cartier had to buy it from the purchaser at a later date — Eric Nussbaum, the director of the museum, would not rest until it had become part of the Cartier collection.
‘Another amazing jewel that epitomises the sheer quality and opulence of early Cartier jewellery is the stomacher diamond brooch that was commissioned by Solomon Joel in 1912. Christie’s first sold it in 1991 for £1,550,000, and then again in 2014 for £10,600,000. It now resides in the collection of His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani.’
5. Is it easy to recognise a Cartier jewel?
RS-B: ‘Even with limited jewellery knowledge, more often than not a Cartier jewel will stand out and one won’t have to look for a signature to confirm its origin. The firm has managed to display a flair and craftsmanship for which it has become rightly famous.
‘It is the sense of proportion, use of materials, and design that is often a little quirky or different from what one might expect, that puts Cartier on a pedestal. It is difficult to pinpoint why its pieces stand out, but by looking at a lot of jewellery its genius becomes apparent.’
6. Will Cartier jewellery be a good investment?
RS-B: ‘I have always been wary of talking about jewellery in terms of investment, but over the years that I have compiled the price guides for jewellery it has become apparent that the best signed pieces have increased most in price. The reason is because people recognise quality and those who own fine pieces are reluctant to sell, which in turn creates a shortage and so prices rise. This is especially true of Cartier jewellery, clocks and watches made in the first half of the 20th century.
One should ask oneself two questions before making a significant purchase — do I like it and can I afford it? If the answer is yes, then purchase the piece. It is important to buy something that you actually like and hopefully will wear, rather than to buy strictly for investment. I tend to regard vintage jewellery more as a store of value that will certainly keep pace with inflation.’
7. Are all Cartier pieces marked?
RS-B: ‘Yes. Most of its production is manufactured in Paris and by law all the pieces have to have a mark denoting the metal, be it a dog’s head for platinum or an eagle’s head for gold. In addition, Cartier always signs their pieces and usually includes a number so it can be possible to ascertain when the piece was made (and Cartier can know to whom it was sold). The pieces of jewellery made in London and New York are signed but do not have a hallmark. In London, clocks, compacts and cigarette cases have a series of hallmarks denoting the quality of gold, the date the object was made and the city of manufacture, but this did not apply to jewellery.’
8. Are there well-known styles of Cartier jewellery?
RS-B: ‘There are indeed many different styles of Cartier jewellery and a well-known example would be the Panther motif. It was first created in the late 1920s, but it wasn’t until 1948 when the Duke of Windsor commissioned a brooch for his wife that a fully three-dimensional Cartier panther brooch was produced.
‘It is Jeanne Toussaint who will forever be linked to the ‘Big Cat’ jewellery. She joined the firm in 1918 and remained for 40 years, presiding as Director of Fine Jewellery from 1933 until 1970, retiring at the age of 83. The theme of big cats is an enduring one and they are as popular today as at any time during the past 50 years, regularly appearing in our sales.
‘The Love collection is a modern theme, designed by Aldo Cipullo, and first sold by Cartier in 1969. In a brilliant marketing move, Cartier made the decision to gift his-and-her love bracelets to the most famous couples of the era, including Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw.’
9. What is the origin of the ‘Tutti Frutti’ style?
RS-B: ‘Cartier has always been at the forefront of change and innovation. Jacques Cartier first visited India in 1911 and, through his buying agents in Delhi, Calcutta and Bombay, managed to acquire Indian rubies, sapphires and emeralds, carved with floral motifs, at modest prices. The workshops in Paris assimilated Indian designs into a new style of multi-gem jewels that were far removed from the typical severity of purely diamond-based Art Deco jewels.
‘The genre reached its crescendo with a stunning necklace, the “Collier Hindou”, which was commissioned in 1936 by the heiress to the Singer sewing machine company, Daisy Fellowes.’
10. What does an expert look for when appraising a piece of Cartier?
RS-B: ‘I think condition is always an important consideration because one does not want the gemstones in a jewel to be loose or the prongs in a ring to be worn. Likewise, the actual gems or enamel should be in good condition and not in need of repair or repolishing.
‘The hallmarks and signature need to be clear, and this also applies to the number, which is vital for referencing previous sales or checking with Cartier’s archives should the opportunity arise.
‘Provenance is always an advantage but unlike 30 or 40 years ago, today few people who sell by auction disclose their name in the catalogue. However, if the piece has come from a well-known collection or source, it could add considerably to its value.
‘If one is buying a sizeable diamond or a coloured stone it is strongly recommended to have a gemmological report since prices can vary enormously depending on the origin of a stone. The most trusted report for diamonds is made by the GIA (Gemological Institute of America), while for coloured stones and pearls the SSEF (Swiss Gemmological Institute) and Gübelin Gem Lab of Switzerland are considered the best.
‘And just a brief word on storage: do not allow diamond jewellery to come into contact with other pieces because diamonds, being by far the hardest of all gems, will scratch other precious and semi-precious stones. Furthermore, pearls and opals should not be allowed to dry out, and are best kept away from warm storage conditions.’