Francesca Cartier Brickell on the history that connects Cartier jewellery and India


Francesca Cartier Brickell on the history that connects Cartier jewellery and India

The untold story of a glittery past

By Francesca Cartier Brickell  January 28th, 2020

As part of my book research, a couple of years ago, I re-traced the journey of my great-grandfather, Jacques Cartier, in India and Sri Lanka, re-discovering the magical history that connects Cartier and India. Jacques was the youngest of the three Cartier brothers who had shared a dream, to turn the small Parisian jewellery store their working-class grandfather had founded into “the leading jewellery firm in the world”. Instead of waiting for foreign clients to visit them, the brothers resolved to travel abroad, each of them representing Cartier in a different corner of the globe. Jacques, visited India many times in the 1910-39 period and came to admire it enormously. 

My grandfather Jean-Jacques Cartier was the last of the family to own and manage a branch of the world-famous firm before it was sold in the 1970s. 

Jean-Jacques Cartier, the author’s grandfather

Retracing his steps: Arriving by boat into Mumbai (then Bombay) for the first time in 1911, in his diaries, Jacques recalled how the coastal metropolis appeared on the horizon from afar as a “veiled lady”, only vaguely visible through the haze caused by the cotton refining plants. I was able to stay in and visit many of the same places Jacques had stayed—from the Taj in Mumbai to Maidens Hotel in Delhi—and was startled by the similarities with his descriptions almost a hundred years ago. 

Jacques Cartier inspecting and buying gems from Indian traders

The Maharaja connection: From Patiala to Baroda, to Indore to Nawanagar, Jacques had visited many of the Indian royal families and it was particularly moving for me to be welcomed so warmly by some of their descendants. I learnt wonderful stories of how the Maharaja of Kapurthala, for whom Cartier made a magnificent emerald turban ornament in 1927, was such an ardent Francophile that he not only communicated with the Cartiers in their own language but even wrote his diaries in French! 

On his visit to the Delhi Durbar in 1911, he befriended several maharajas

Rediscovering ancient jewels: On his trips to India, Jacques was sometimes asked to sketch royal jewels in order that he might come up with new designs for remounting them in a more modern Western fashion. On the trip, I took those sketches with me and it was a moment of real excitement to see first-hand some of the very same jewels that lay behind the sketches =—such as the stunning diamond aigrette that Jacques sketched in the palace of Baroda in 1911. 

A stunning diamond aigrette that exactly matches a sketch by Cartier in the Palace of Baroda

His prized creation: Jacques was very much an artist and India had a vivid impression on him: “Out there everything is flooded with the wonderful Indian sunlight…one does not see as in the English light, he is only conscious that here is a blaze of red, and there of green or yellow”. It was this light that inspired Cartier’s colourful Tutti Frutti jewels, where carved emeralds, sapphires and rubies sit boldly side by side. 

A Cartier art deco ‘Tutti Frutti’ brooch inspired by Indian designs

The source of gems: Jacques loved gemstones and travelled around with his pouch of trusty “killer stones”: a Burmese ruby, a Kashmir sapphire, a Colombian emerald, and a Golconda diamond. He would use them as comparison stones when buying from dealers in crowded markets or from maharajas in palaces or from gemstone mine owners next to the sapphire pits. In time, thanks to Jacques’ gem-buying expertise and his loyal links with the Indian dealers, Cartier soon became renowned as the jeweller with the best-coloured gemstones in the world. 

Cartier in Sri Lanka in 1926 

The links between Cartier’s history and India are so profound—it could even be argued that India saved Cartier. The Great Depression was terrible for luxury brands and some of them went under, and one of the reasons Cartier did not was because those commissions from the maharajas were reaching their peak in the late 1920s and ’30s. Since Jacques visited India a century ago, the country has obviously seen incredible social, political and economic change, and yet many of the qualities that he admired in this remarkable country remain timeless. 

Jacques with his wife Nelly at an Indian palace on one of his visits 

The author goes through photos of the three Cartier brothers with their father

A selection of photographs of jewellery craftsmen taken on Cartier’s gem-buying trips to India

A photo of Laxmi Vilas Palace, sourced from the Baroda Royal Collection

The Cartiers is being published in India this January by Penguin Random house 

Photographs: Jonathan James Wilson