LONDON: In 1916, a young woman named Maisie Plant laid her eyes on the world’s most expensive necklace. Its price tag was the princely sum of a million dollars (equivalent to more than $27 million today). Displayed in the vitrine of French jewelry brand Cartier in New York, the necklace had two strands of around 100 shiny pearls. What happened next was a staggering business deal between third-generation jeweler Pierre Cartier and Maisie’s much-older husband, American financier Morton Plant.
Plant owned a townhouse — also valued at a million dollars — on New York’s upscale Fifth Avenue. The two men struck a deal: Plant would give Cartier his townhouse in exchange for the necklace. The elegant mansion block was converted into a brand-new Cartier store, where it stands until this day.
In the early 20th century, pearls were a sign of wealth and power, adorning the wrists, décolletages, and heads of royals and socialites. “Pearls were it. That’s what everyone wanted, more than anything else, in a way that maybe diamonds are today,” Francesca Cartier Brickell, the English author of “The Cartiers” — and direct descendant of the family — told Arab News. “Pearls were the most valuable objects in the world. One pearl was four times as valuable as a diamond of the same size.”
According to Brickell’s late grandfather Jean-Jacques Cartier, who sold the company in the 1970s, 60 percent of Cartier’s designs featured natural pearls. This was largely made possible through a trip taken by Jacques Cartier, the youngest of the three Cartier brothers, in 1912 to Bahrain, which had earned the nickname “The land of pearls.”
At the time, the Cartier company had three major boutiques in Paris, London and New York, split between the three brothers. Brickell found their old letters in a trunk at her grandfather’s residence, and was moved by the brothers’ evident ambition and determination.
“The bond of the brothers was really striking to read,” she said. “They had this dream from a young age to build the leading jewelry firm in the world. It’s remarkable to have young boys turning their dream into reality. It feels like a fairytale, but it is actually the way it happened.”
Pierre and Louis are remembered as the design and business geniuses of the brand, while Jacques — a gemstones expert running the London branch — is lesser-known. He was reportedly a wise and spiritual man; he actually wanted to become a Catholic priest, not a jeweler. He also risked his life fighting at the Front during the First World War, despite having tuberculosis.
Jacques was an avid traveler, and his trips were vital for Cartier’s growth and innovation. He went to Egypt, where he bought little ornaments. In Sri Lanka, he visited mines and secured sapphires. India was another important destination, Cartier maintained close ties with various maharajas and the Indian love of bright colors would inspire Cartier’s jewels in the Twenties and Thirties, combining rubies, sapphires and emeralds together.
With the help of a translator, Jacques immersed himself in the places he visited.
“When he gets to the sapphire mines, he wants to check that they’re well-timbered and that the men are really safe inside,” explained Brickell. “He’s not just going in and going out and trying to get the jewels or get the best trade — he’s genuinely interested in people.”
When Jacques visited the Middle East, he was inspired by its unique architecture, drawing sketches in his diaries. “He’s looking at it with the eye of an artist,” said Brickell. “This is the thing about Jacques, when he visited a place, he didn’t just visit it and eat the food and meet the people. His library is full of books on the religions, cultures and costumes. He really wanted to understand the culture from the inside.” Eventually, architectural motifs from the region were integrated into Cartier’s clocks and cigarette boxes.
Jacques’ trip to Bahrain was triggered by competition from the Parisian Rosenthal brothers, who had already struck an exclusive agreement to purchase pearls directly from the source. Jacques agreed with Louis that he should stop in Bahrain on his way back from India to get some of the action too. “The best pearls came from the Gulf,” Brickell said.
It was Jacques’ first time in Bahrain, where pearl diving formed the backbone of the economy. He rode in pearl-fishing boats and spoke with divers, and apparently experienced some culture shock, particularly when eating while sat on the floor. There is a rare black-and-white photograph of him, dressed in a dapper suit and holding a cigarette, seated between four prominent Bahraini pearl merchants.
Jacques sealed the deal, and for many years after pearls generated a significant amount of Cartier’s income — the brand was promoted as “importers of pearls.” However, things went south when, years later, cultured pearls torpedoed the market and sent the value of natural pearls plummeting. “It was terrible for Cartier,” noted Brickell. “My grandfather thought that was worse than the Great Depression.”
Over a century later, Brickell embarked on the same journey to Bahrain, following the footsteps of her great-grandfather and using his intimate diary as a guide. It was also her first visit to the Gulf island. Asides from giving talks, she went pearl diving, and learned just what a difficult profession it is.
“The pearls come from the seabed. It’s not necessarily a glamorous start, compared to where they end up. It’s grounding to remember that,” she said.
Brickell had been in touch with some of the descendants of the pearl merchants in Jacques’ photograph, and eventually met up with them to recreate their ancestors’ image from 1912. “It was unexpectedly moving,” recalled Brickell. “I was quite teary, because all their families were there. It was just amazing to think that all of our ancestors knew each other. There’s this connection that survives through the generations.”
Described once as the “Jeweler of Kings and King of Jewelers,” Cartier has been famously worn by the likes of Jackie Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor and Princess Diana. Brickell believes that one of the key secrets to Cartier’s long-lasting success is the firm’s family values.
“They ended up building a loyal following of clients slowly, but also of employees,” she added. “They took care of their employees. They were so proud of working for Cartier.”
Brickell gave up her career as a financial analyst to write a book about her family’s remarkable history. Cartier was founded as a modest start-up with little money 175 years ago and it has survived pandemics, political revolutions, two world wars, and global financial recessions.
“It’s a story of resilience and ambition. It’s not all perfect. There’s family arguments and heartbreak,” said Brickell. “I wanted to share the story. I felt like I owed it to them.”