Jewelers to Kings. The King of Jewelers. That was the reputation that preceded Cartier when the French jewelers opened their first American store 100 years ago.
Pierre, the second of the three Cartier brothers, found a site at 712 Fifth Ave. in New York. Unfortunately it was on the second floor, not an ideal location to attract customers to what was fast becoming the finest shopping street in Manhattan. But such was the draw of the legendary jewelers that customers flocked regardless.
Among them was the man who owned the last private mansion to be built in that part of town. In 1917, Robert W. Plant sold his home on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street to Cartier for $100 and a pearl necklace that was valued at $1 million. It was a gift for his wife, one of many society ladies who bought astonishing jewels at astonishing prices in an attempt to out-bling each other.
Thus began a very different kind of history for Cartier, one that is being celebrated with the opening this Thursday of "Cartier: 100 Years of Passion and Free Spirit in America." The exhibition at the flagship store (now a historic landmark) will feature 100 unique Cartier creations including many from private collections. The exhibit will be on view through May 21, after which it will move to the Beverly Hills Cartier from June 1-14.
Bernard Fornas, president and CEO of Cartier International, and Frederic de Narp, president and CEO of Cartier North America, will be present at the party along with a galaxy of stars including Jessica Biel, Anne Hathaway, Sir Elton John, Demi Moore, Her Majesty Queen Noor, Patti Smith, Martha Stewart and Justin Timberlake. But the guest of honor is famed photographer Bruce Webber, who will launch his new book, "Cartier I Love You: Celebrating 100 Years of Cartier in America." It will be available at bookstores in June, with a portion of the $95 price going to charity.
Founded in Paris in 1847, Cartier served all the crowned heads of Europe. But in America it attracted a different kind of royalty. At first it was Gilded Age heiresses and socialites like the Vanderbilts, Elsie De Wolfe, Anna Gould, Barbara Hutton, Daisy Fellowes (Singer sewing machines) and, most famously, Evalyn Walsh McLean. Her husband, Edward Beale McLean, heir to the Washington Post fortune, bought two of the most fabulous diamonds in history from Cartier. The Star of the East weighed in at 94 carats, and the blue Hope Diamond once owned by Louis XIV was 45 carats. To wear them both at once, Mrs. McLean had the Star mounted as a headpiece.
As times changed, movie stars became the new aristocrats. Society pages shifted their coverage to follow the activities of these glamorous creatures, and the photos in newspapers helped to spread the allure of Cartier to the masses. So did the appearance of Cartier jewels in movies such as Alfred Hitchcock's "Lifeboat," in which Tallulah Bankhead throws her diamond bracelet into the ocean and announces: "Sure we have bait -- by Cartier."
But it was the simply designed Tank watch that brought Cartier into the mainstream. Louis Cartier was supposedly inspired in 1917 by the Renault tanks and gave the first Tank watch to Gen. John Pershing, who led the American Expeditionary Forces into Europe. The watch broke with the era's taste for convoluted styles, and its clean, modern lines appealed to everyone from Rudolph Valentino to Clarke Gable, Fred Astaire, Warren Beatty, Truman Capote, Jackie Kennedy and Andy Warhol. It became the status symbol watch for generations, and it remains a classic in understated elegance.
Cartier, which was sold by the family in 1964, today produces a range of products that include perfume and handbags. To celebrate its 100th anniversary, the company has launched a new line of limited-edition jewelry. But it is the history that gives these products their cache. Richard Burton made international headlines when he gave Elizabeth Taylor the 69-carat Burton-Taylor diamond in 1969, one of many "significant" baubles he lavished on his wife. They don't make many like that anymore. Husbands, of course!
Marilynn Uricchio can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1582.