Jewel in the crown: 100 years of Cartier London’s workshops
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
It is not often that the heir to the throne can be seen nipping into the shops in London. But had you been passing New Bond Street at around 11am on 24 June you would have seen the Prince of Wales and his wife being welcomed to Cartier.
It even rated a mention in the Court Circular: “The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall this morning visited Cartier, 175-177 New Bond Street, to mark the centenary of the London workshop,” it read. And so, with a sentence of restrained Palace prose, the centenary celebration of English Art Works, Cartier’s London workshop and one of Bond Street’s best-kept secrets, got under way.
Three days prior to the visit of Their Royal Highnesses, I had spent the day roaming the upper storeys of Cartier’s New Bond Street maison, which include the floors above the showrooms and private client salon, where the archives of Cartier London are kept and where, in the heart of the West End, high above the streetscape of international fashion brands, a dozen or so seasoned craftsmen continue the tradition of London-made Cartier objects and jewellery.
Even the most cursory survey of Cartier London’s records – neatly boxed, shelved, annotated and cross-referenced in time for the celebrations – reveals that, when it comes to supporting Cartier’s London workshop, there are few more loyal patrons than the House of Windsor. In fact without the Prince of Wales’s Francophile great-great-grandfather it is possible that there would never have been a Cartier London at all.
One of Edward VII’s first acts as King was to suggest that Cartier open a London branch. It was good advice; Cartier received orders for 27 tiaras for his Coronation and, ever since, the Royal Family has had a habit of giving Cartier trinkets as presents. “Christmas at Sandringham was Dickens in a Cartier setting” was the evocative way in which the Duke of Windsor described the festive seasons of his childhood. In 1921, Cartier collected its fourth British Royal warrant. Where royalty led, society followed, so that same year Cartier opened a workshop to cope with demand – and thus English Art Works was born.
The jeweller also played its part in the abdication crisis when Edward VIII proposed marriage to Wallis Simpson with a Cartier ring featuring an emerald of more than 19 carats. And even though Edward and the rest of the family were to fall out, they remained united in their love of Cartier. The same year that Mrs Simpson received her engagement ring, the Duke of York, later George VI, presented his wife, later the Queen Mother, with the celebrated London-made “Halo” tiara – last seen bedecking the brow of the Duchess of Cambridge on her wedding day.
BEA (Before English Art Works) Cartier London was little more than a stockist of goods made in Paris, but with the opening of ateliers above the showroom on Bond Street, Cartier London soon developed a style and identity of its own. Tiaras played a notable part. Until 1958, debutantes were presented at court as part of a social season bristling with antiquated formality for which a jewelled headdress was non-negotiable. Cartier London became tiara central, as Pierre Rainero, the brand’s longstanding creative director, explains: “The number of tiaras made in London is much more important [than Paris], because the lifestyle in London required more tiaras much later into the 20th century.”
With tiaras part of the uniform (much like the schoolboy’s cap or the banker’s bowler hat), a necessity rather than a luxury, English Art Works became very creative in the manufacture of designs that could be dismantled and used as necklaces and brooches. The workshop also became known for its use of semi-precious stones such as aquamarine, citrine and topaz, a creativity that can be readily appreciated in the sales records, photographs and order books that Cartier’s London head of archive Jenny Rourke presides over in her West End eyrie. Witnessing the old ledgers seemingly at random, letting the history and glamour just spill out, I felt like Howard Carter (or do I mean Howard Cartier?) getting his first glimpse of Tutankhamun’s tomb.
“By 1928, we’re making pieces such as the Tutti Frutti bandeau,” Rourke offers as a running commentary as I pore over the pages. “It’s often credited as a special order for Edwina Mountbatten but she bought it from stock in late 1928, just before the birth of her second child, Pamela, and there’s a famous portrait of her holding the baby and wearing the bandeau as two bracelets; the design splits into three pieces and the two outer pieces form a bracelet. It was subject to an export ban in 2004, which is how it ended up in the V&A, and that is testament to the craftsmanship of the London workshops.”
She continues with barely a breath. “This one is now in the Al Thani Collection but it was originally commissioned by the Maharaja of Nawanagar in ’37, I think, possibly ’38,” she says, pausing to admire a jaw-slackeningly stunning ruby necklace. “It then came back into stock and was acquired by Gloria Guinness, who wore it at Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball and rebelled against the dress code. So it’s had quite a colourful history,” she says.
“The Queen’s Hyderabad necklace is in this album.” Images of Her Majesty on banknotes including a Bahamian dollar bill show her wearing this wedding present from the Nizam of Hyderabad. “He suggested to the Queen that she might want to visit us to choose a wedding gift,” Rourke continues, but in a rare moment of fallibility she cannot locate the page with the photograph. “I feel like it should be in here but it’s not,” she says apologetically. “I’ve got five albums for this period so sometimes I lose track.”
Alas, some pieces are lost for good. We stop at an image of a Barbara Hutton necklace. It is no more. “The emeralds were put in the Paris tiara that she wears in the Beaton portrait,” Rourke explains. Remade by Cartier Paris? Sacrilege!
As well as the showstoppers that belong to the Royal Family or find themselves in museums and private collections, there is a less grand side to the workshop’s creative output. It’s a quirkiness that I am drawn to – whether it’s the Stewart Granger-commissioned gold-backed hair brushes, gold-fitted braces, or the thimble-like gold cigarette stubber crawling with enamel ladybirds that was bought by Puerto Rican actor José Ferrer.
Best of all are the London watches of the 1960s and 1970s, which reinterpreted the pop style of nearby Carnaby Street for a Bond Street clientele, leaving a legacy of such pieces as the Maxi Oval, the Pebble, the Octagon and the truly psychedelic Dalí-like Crash, the Paul Newman Daytona of Cartier except much, much rarer. Knowing my fondness for them, Rourke empties a file of old dial designs onto a table – it’s the equivalent of stumbling across the Dead Sea scrolls of Cartier watchmaking.
Alas, Cartier London watches have become so sought after that they are priced well beyond my means. Nevertheless, I have collected one or two vintage trinkets: a small clock, a money clip, a silver gilt shoehorn – humble objects that, thanks to the care of their craftsmanship and the use of precious but not extravagant metals, impart a sense of occasion to the most mundane and quotidian of actions. As such, I know how Peter Wilding felt when in February 1958 he confided to a friend that he had “not had a new cigarette box for months and I believe a new Cartier would restore morale”.
Wilding was a historian, author, aesthete, collector and friend of Ian Fleming. One day he and the creator of 007 were strolling along Bond Street when they stopped to admire some Fabergé boxes. Fleming said to Wilding, “I bet you couldn’t get boxes made like that again.” Wilding took up the challenge and began what jewellery historian Judy Rudoe described as his extraordinary collaboration with Cartier: 17 gold, enamel and gem-set cigarette boxes of such beauty that they are now in the British Museum. Wilding felt the connection to Cartier London deeply, referring to it as “my little jewellery shop”.
It is this level of connection that former craftsmen Davids Surtees and Basford recall when they speak about their days working in Cartier’s London workshops in its midcentury heyday. “We were making big pieces,” says Surtees, who started in 1956. “Big brooches, big necklaces and tiaras. There were deb balls every year and everybody had jewellery.”
Basford recalls a memorable job. “We made the brooch for the Queen with the big pink diamond in it. The Williamson brooch,” he says, remembering two examples of the same piece. “We made a real one and also a paste version, so that it could be worn at different times but looked the same.”
It seems no request was too recondite. There was, for example, the Asian potentate who had a weakness for wallets. “Everything you could make a wallet out of, he had it: snakeskin, crocodile… the corners were set with diamonds with clasps made of precious stones,” marvels Basford.
However, when Cartier passed out of the family the individual character that had once distinguished Cartier London from Cartier in Paris and New York became diluted. The brand began the journey that would take it to its current status as one of the world’s defining luxury brands. The workshop, which had now moved out of the historic New Bond Street HQ into less glamorous premises nearby, was still making jewellery, but this was largely stock pieces – tennis bracelets and the like – for Cartier Paris. And work dropped off during the financial crisis of 2008, so it was largely repairs, engagement rings, and of course the loyalty of the Royal Family that kept the workshop ticking over.
Nevertheless, under the guidance of Laurent Feniou, Cartier’s UK managing director, the workshop’s relevance is changing. “When we decided to refurbish the building the first thing we did was to return the workshops and the archives to their home at 175 New Bond Street,” says Feniou, who assumed the role in 2013. Feniou has been working quietly towards restoring some of the importance to the London workshops. In 2018, to celebrate the refurbishment, Cartier reissued a commemorative version of the London Crash watch and a silver cocktail shaker from the 1930s.
And this autumn, 175 New Bond Street will host an exhibition of Cartier London pieces, some of which will be for sale. Feniou hopes that, following the attention focused on English Art Works in its centenary, more London-made pieces will follow. Despite saying that such plans are some way off, he nurtures lofty ambitions: “My dream is that one day the London workshop will make Tutti Frutti necklaces like it did in the 1920s and 1930s.”