THE CARTIERS: Q & A WITH FRANCESCA CARTIER BRICKELL
By now you must have heard of the “The Cartiers: The Untold Story of The Family Behind The Jewelry Empire” written by Francesca Cartier Brickell, granddaughter of Jean-Jacques Cartier. Since the publishing of the book in November 2019 there have been dozens of interviews, book signings and events around this must read book for anyone who is interested in history, jewelry and family empires. (The Cartiers is now available on Amazon)
I have been in touch with Francesca since 2017 and occasionally we would talk about the progress of her book, so when in September 2019 I received the very anticipated email from her informing me her book is finally published and I will receive a copy soon, I was thinking wow she finally did it….it took her 10 years to put together a history of 4 generations with all the joy, hardships, troubles, successes and failures that make foundations of the brand we are all admiring so much. The Cartiers! Since November 2019 we were in contact to find a different angle of all the press and media presentations she had done so far and here is the result. I asked Francesca six questions that would go beyond the book and give us a glimpse into her life, without any further ado, here is my Q & A with Francesca Cartier Brickell:
- CG: We’ve been talking about ‘The Cartiers’ for years and you’ve been writing for a decade. How does it feel now that you’re holding this great book?
FCB: Yes, I remember when I started blogging, you were one of the first people that connected with me, thank you! As for when I finished the book, I was just frazzled. Due to publishing deadlines, I hadn’t taken a day off for over a year: I’d been waking up early to write, working late into the night, all weekend, not spending time with my kids, holidays cancelled, the works. So yes, when that Random House package arrived by courier from New York, opening it and holding that finished book was… quite something. It made the effort more than worthwhile. And I loved how the hardback turned out, not just the family stories in there, but also the visual details. My ancestors had created such beautiful pieces, so I wanted the book to be beautiful. I love how, when you open the front cover, you are confronted with a montage of long-lost family letters and telegrams, just as I was when I opened the trunk. I had no idea of the reach the book would have, I wondered if it was maybe just me and a few jewelry historian friends that would read it, but I have been bowled over by the response, from reviews and articles in brilliant newspapers and magazines, like the Economist, the New York Times and Hello Magazine, but also from readers as far away as Riyadh or the Philippines who took the time to tell me how immersive they found it, and how the three Cartier brothers came to life for them. That is an amazing feeling: to feel that the Cartiers – who I have lived with my own for the past decade – are now out there for others to get to know and hopefully draw inspiration from too”.
- CG: Tell us about the process of writing the book. Which part of the book were most emotional for you, and why?
FCB: Well, the book took about 10 years in total! Digesting the letters from the brothers was an enormous job but I also tried to study the social context – whether that was revolution and sieges in 19th century Paris or the growing emancipation of women after World War One (which impacted Cartier as more androgynous haircuts led to a range of bandeaus designed to be worn across the forehead etc.). Working out the structure of the book – how to best tell the story across timelines and countries – was a vast task and I had huge whiteboards all over the place while I plotted it all out. In terms of the writing, I would say the Introduction and the Afterword were the most emotional, as that is where I tell my own story. At the start, I describe my relationship with my grandfather, the holidays I spent with him as a child, and the promise I made to him as an adult to tell the family story. And then at the end I talk briefly about how this whole journey into my past has affected me. Because writing this book was not simply a job to me – it was a labor of love, something I felt a duty to complete. But it was also something that ended up being very rewarding and which – at the risk of sounding cliché – taught me a lot about myself. Through studying my ancestors, their relationships, their drivers and their character traits – both good and bad – I understood not only my grandfather much better but also myself, and even my children. And some characteristics that I berated myself for – like that perfectionist streak that sometimes stops me from doing things – are now something I can accept and even see as positive because, in a way, it is that same streak that led the Cartiers to create the most staggering jewels.”
- CG: How would you describe yourself in five words? And which of those are Cartier traits?
FCB: The five words I would choose are: curious, positive, family-focused, determined and lastly perfectionist! Those last two are definitely Cartier traits: “The Best is Good Enough”. In psychology, they divide people into satisficers and maximizers. Satisficers are people who are happy to settle for a good enough option, maximizers are people who strive to get the best out of every decision. Overall, maximizers achieve better outcomes than satisficers, but they are often less happy, because they tend to second guess themselves. The Cartiers were (and are!) maximizers. I’d say that’s most typified by my great-great uncle Louis Cartier, but they all had it, including my grandfather. A good example is the Mystery Clocks: these are clocks with a dial made from transparent crystal and the workings not visible. The clocks caused a sensation when they were first made because no one could fathom how they worked (even the salesman weren’t told). The clockmakers told Louis it was impossible to make one to his specifications but he persisted regardless. It took the Cartier workshop a full year to make the first one; a year is a long time! Louis kept sending it back and they were terrified of his exacting standards. But he made it happen, and he kept perfecting these clocks, eventually creating the figurine mystery clocks of the 1920s which are, for collectors, the equivalent of Faberge’s eggs. So Louis’ perfectionism led to unquestionable innovation, but it didn’t mean he was always happy, he could be frustrated and restless because his standards were so exacting.
- CG: What is your favorite historic Cartier piece?
FCB: I couldn’t name just one. I love so many of the pieces, like the mystery clocks or the Maharaja of Kapurthala’s emerald turban ornament or the royal tiara the Duchess of Cambridge wore on her wedding to Prince William, or even the simple trinity ring that I always wear. But one piece that I fell back in love with recently is the Mountbatten tutti frutti bandeau. It’s a brilliant design, made under my great-grandfather in London in the 1920s, as it could either sit flatteringly on the forehead or be split into 2 bracelets. (3 jewels for the price of 1 really!). In 1928, Jacques wrote to his brother Pierre telling him about a London charity fashion show that he was working on with Lady Cunard. “The idea” Jacques explained, was “to show what women with short hair can wear, both now and when they start to grow their hair again.” The days of pre-war big hair up-dos and heavy tiaras were over and the Cartiers quickly adapted their offerings to include a vast array of head-dresses, bejewelled hair clips and diamond crescents and circles to decorate tightly shingled heads. This colourful bandeau, comprised of carved rubies, emeralds and sapphires that Jacques bought on his regular trips to India, was one of 100 pieces that Cartier made for the fashion show but it was snapped up before it even made it to the runway. The buyer, Lady Mountbatten, was a strong stylish and well-connected woman who knew what she wanted when she saw it. She would also, rather aptly given her choice of the Indian-inspired headdress, go on to become the last Vicereine of India! If anyone wants to see it, the bandeau is in the V&A museum in London. I show some other wonderful Cartier pieces and talk about the Cartier style and “Never Copy, Only Create” in this YouTube video.
- CG: Pre-book you were traveling the world to find pieces of the puzzles, and post-book, you are touring for all these events. As a wife and mother, how do you manage work-life balance?
FCB: A bit of a mix really. When the kids were little and I was traveling for research, I often took them with me and now the book is published, I’ve been trying to take the children on book tours with me as I think it’s a fantastic chance to see different places. Recently they came to India which was incredible: in Jaipur Literature Festival, they were there, with my mother, in a crowd of thousands smiling up at me from the front row. But the reality is the work-mother-life balance is not easy. I’m sure if you asked my children, I didn’t always manage it that well! When writing, I had to close myself off from the world. I had all these different threads I was trying to weave together so I didn’t always have the headspace to let in the outside world too. I was at times so absorbed by my work that my children had to fend for themselves – my daughter became very good at preparing supper. I just wasn’t around for games or long bedtime stories or taking them out anywhere fun. Now that’s not ideal parenting and I felt guilty – but then again, it meant I finished the book. And, in the end, my children were truly delighted to see my dedication to them in the book. As I wrote each chapter, I told them about it: it could almost be a bedtime fairytale, a rags to riches story, with princesses, kings, cursed diamonds and new inventions thrown in for good measure. So, although it was tough, I think they appreciate the work that went into keeping the family history alive. Plus they have seen that, in order to create something, you have to put in the work – that’s hopefully a good life lesson.
- CG: What does the future hold for Francesca? What is the next chapter?
FCB: I’m not sure – people have asked for another book and yes, there’s more to the story of the Cartiers as I was trying to squeeze in 150 years of history and four generations into one book. But at over 500 pages, it is probably long enough to keep people going for now! It’s also being translated into quite a few languages, and I’m working on edits for the new paperback edition, which comes out next year. The thing is I keep finding out more, last month I went to St Moritz where I watched the terrifying Claude Cartier Challenge race for the Cresta Run, and while there, I happened to learn more about my great-grandfather mingling with characters like Coco Chanel on the slopes in the 1930s so I’ll look to add that in. Since the book launched, I have been doing lots of speaking events and signings all over the place. Writing was such a solitary period, so it’s been a fantastic contrast now to be able to share the story with others who are interested. Jaipur Literature Festival earlier this year in India was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever been part of – I found myself up on this colourful stage with the Princess of Jaipur and the head of Penguin India in front of a massive audience of thousands – and it just made me realise that I’m still learning what this book will lead to. Later this year, I did have a pretty packed schedule planned – events like a JCK keynote in Las Vegas, a talk at the V&A in London, an event in Dallas amongst others, and another book festival – but obviously now with Coronavirus, everything is on hold. Fortunately I am sitting it out with those I love – I am currently under lockdown in the South of France with my husband, children, dog – and chickens!
The Cartiers available now via Amazon and leading bookstores:
For more information visit the-cartiers.com