‘The French are glad to die for love, they delight in fighting duels, but I prefer a man who lives and gives expensive jewels,’ Marilyn Monroe sang breathlessly, resplendent in pink satin, as she performed the now classic Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend repertoire in the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, followed by a delighted exclamation of ‘Cartier!’ as she raised her hands in the air. Marilyn was by no means the only star from the golden age of Hollywood to covet Cartier’s potent brand of refined, glamorous jewellery. The tales have become fashion lore; Gloria Swanson adored her two diamond and crystal Cartier bracelets so much that she insisted they feature as part of her wardrobe in Sunset Boulevard. In 1969 Cartier acquired an exceptional pear-shaped diamond of an awe-inspiring 69.42 carats. Richard Burton, knowing his wife’s taste well, gave it to Elizabeth Taylor for her birthday. The famous Cartier diamond was renamed the Taylor-Burton. A byword for elegance, this year the house that Taylor, Swanson and Monroe adored celebrates 165 years in business.
‘Cartier is so iconic because of what it stands for,’ says fashion designer Corrie Nielsen. ‘One can't help but think of all those old-school Hollywood stars: Loretta Young, Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford. They are just some of the world’s most renowned A-listers representing and evoking the Cartier image.’ In other words, Cartier knows how to sell a dream and shows no signs of waking up.
Since Cartier opened its first boutique in 1899 at 13 rue de la Paix in Paris, it has built up a reputation for setting jewellery trends while maintaining a sophisticated, timeless allure. The Love bracelet was created in 1969; its pared-down, discreet design was conceived to appeal to a younger customer seeking an everyday piece of affordable jewellery that wouldn’t look overdone with their modern, simple clothing. Cartier, then as always, made its own rules about trends, as is fitting for the doyenne of Parisian jewellers. ‘Cartier has always managed to remain old-school stylish, while feeling absolutely right for the moment, whenever that moment is,’ says Parisian fashion stylist Sophie de la Faille. ‘They have a knack for creating mouthwatering pieces, whether it's watches or tiaras, that women of all ages can hanker after.’
After the success of the Paris boutique, shops opened in London on New Bond Street in 1902 and New York’s Fifth Avenue in 1909 and Cartier became a favourite of the discerning elite and stylish royalty. When Elisabeth of Bavaria married Prince Albert of Belgium in 1900 she did so in a garland-style diamond and platinum diadem created especially for her by Cartier. Decades later, in 1956, when Prince Rainier III of Monaco wanted to propose to actress Grace Kelly he took her shopping at Cartier.
Cartier refers to these refined love tokens as ‘dreams incarnated’, underlining the complicity between the house and its clients. As confidante and messenger of love, in its 165 years the house has created special pieces inspired by great love affairs; it has picked out the romantic honeymoon journey of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor on a gold cigarette holder encrusted with precious stones and, on the orders of a renowned athlete’s fiancée (Cartier is far too discreet to say who), replaced his dumbbells with ones made of platinum and diamonds in the corresponding weight and shape.
Cartier is steeped in history; the house is renowned for its panther collection, first launched in 1914, and its elegant watches, and has been present at some of the 20th century’s most famous showbusiness moments. Yet it remains firmly focused on the contemporary. Its jewels are sprinkled throughout W.E., Madonna’s biopic of Wallis Simpson, enhancing the portrayal of enigmatic socialite’s elegance and fashion sense. This year, chiming with the times, the house announced that its watch collection would steer firmly clear of ostentation. ‘Bigger watches are losing ground today,’ says Cartier chief executive Bernard Fornas. This grande dame of Paris might be a stalwart on the jewellery map, but as she raises a crystal flute to toast her 165th year, she’s doing it in thoroughly modern, if classic, style.