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An Indian Love Affair

For Cartier, the India connection is so strong, it’s almost a part of its identity

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Do you know when the first Cartier office was set up in India?” Pierre Rainero asks me with a smile. In 2008, I reply hesitantly. “Wrong. In the 1920s,” he informs me. “Cartier set up an office in Delhi in the 1920s to help acquire precious stones and pearls from India,” says Rainero.

Rainero is the director of Image, Style and Heritage at Cartier and I am sitting in his office in Paris having just returned from a visit to the oldest Cartier boutique on Rue de la Paix, above which are housed the Cartier archives — a treasure trove of information for jewellery and history buffs alike.

“The India connection for us is very strong. In many different ways, India is at the heart of Cartier culture and style. It’s not just that we have historical links with India but the country has been a very important source of inspiration for Cartier creations,” he explains. “We were the ones to introduce the Indian way of making jewellery in western jewellery. That gave birth to what we call now the Tutti Frutti collection, which is a mix of different carved stones, not to mention emeralds, rubies and in some cases, sapphires. Using carved stones is directly linked to Indian culture.”     

It was in 1911 during the Delhi Durbar that Jacques Cartier visited India for the first time. “Fascinated by the richness of the Indian civilisation and its jewellery culture, he brought back not only spectacular precious stones from his travels but also a wealth of inspiring, creative ideas,” says Violette Petit, International Archives Manager at Cartier. But Cartier’s association with India dates from before Jacques Cartier’s visit to the country. “It was at the beginning of the 1900s when Lord Curzon gifted some jewellery to the King and Queen. The Queen asked Cartier to remount the jewellery,” explains Rainero.

With an association dating back more than a century, it’s little wonder that Rainero says India is almost a part of Cartier’s ‘vocabulary’.

Turning the Pages of History

“This here is the Delhi Durbar album,” says Petit as she puts a gigantic album in front of me. It has portraits of all the Maharajas who attended the coronation ceremony of King Edward in Delhi in 1911. It was probably given as a souvenir to the attendees including Jacques Cartier. For him it was like a rolodex of Indian royalty and nobility — a list of all potential clients.

Over the next few decades — especially the period between the two World Wars — several Indian Maharajas including the Maharaja of Patiala, Bhupinder Singh, had become important clients for Cartier.

As per the Cartier records, the Maharaja of Patiala bought over a 100 items from Cartier including high jewellery, watches and even small-ticket items such as pens and stationery.

“Cartier became the favoured jeweller for other Maharajas as well, such as Baroda and Kapurthala,” says Petit. “We have records showing how in the early 1930s there was a wedding in one of the royal families and Jacques Cartier flew a designer to India to do the Maharaja’s bidding,” explains Petit. “But the whole situation became a bit comical because when the designer reached the Maharaja’s estate, the Maharaja had gone off hunting. The designer had to wait for weeks before the Maharaja returned. Meanwhile, Jacques Cartier and his representative in India kept exchanging letters enquiring when the designer would return,” laughs Petit.

It’s letters like these and several others that make the Cartier archives in Paris a cache of information, providing a peek not only into the evolution of one of the greatest jewellery houses but also history. “We have 160 years of product history with us,” says Petit proudly. The oldest record dates back to 1850, just three years after Louis-François Cartier founded Cartier in Paris in 1847. In 1874, Louis-François’ son Alfred Cartier took over the company, but it was Alfred’s sons Louis, Pierre and Jacques, who were responsible for establishing the brand name worldwide in the 1900s. In 1902 Jacques Cartier opened the London boutique, while in 1909, Pierre Cartier set up the New York one. Today, Cartier has 280 boutiques worldwide including one in Delhi.

“The core of the archives is the documentation of the product. So we keep everything that documents the product itself. It can be an original design, a photograph, detailed information on the pieces, etc.,” explains Petit as she displays a glass plate negative. Cartier started photographing production in 1901. Before 1901, there was no photography, but designers made detailed sketches in the books that are part of the archives.

“We have albums showing photographs of all the products that have been made by Cartier in Paris from 1901 onwards. We have all the original negatives. They were glass plates then. We have more than 40,000 of them. We had the entire collection digitised and the level of detail is very impressive,” says Petit.

Besides the details of the various products crafted by Cartier, the archives also contain pieces of paper that were probably filed away for accounting purposes. There is, for instance, a bill dated 2 November, 1911 from the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Bombay for Rs 144, in the name of Jacques Cartier.

There is also an album of pictures clicked by him on his first visit to India. Besides Delhi, he visited Agra, Jaipur, Patiala, Baroda, Surat, Indore, Bhopal and Mumbai. “The album is not labelled so that is frustrating,” says Petit ruefully even as I flip through it, fascinated at the slice of history it provides.

Jacques Cartier realised how important India was both for sale of jewellery as well as a source of precious stones and also pearls that came from Bahrain to Mumbai. “At that time, pearls were more expensive than diamonds. The pearls were fished in Bahrain but transited through Mumbai. Jacques went there to understand how the market worked,” explains Petit. He visited India every two to three years and stayed for a few months. Most documents from those trips are at the London archives, informs Petit.

A Piece of Heritage

As the fortunes of the Indian princes and maharajas dwindled, their jewellery, once worn with much pride, found its way to auction houses and private sales. Some simply vanished.

“We have the complete portfolio of all that was made for the Maharaja of Patiala. A few exceptional pieces came back over the years through auctions, but a large number were destroyed. Of all that we made for him, there is still a lot that never reappeared,” says Petit.

In Maharaja of Patiala’s case most of the stones used for the pieces were provided by him including a 234 carat DeBeers diamond that was the central stone in a huge necklace made by Cartier for him. “This particular necklace and choker that was made in 1928 reappeared in 1998. A London dealer had it and he sold it to Cartier. But the central stone was missing. It had been auctioned off by itself in the 1980s,” explains Petit.

In order to conserve its heritage, in 1983, Cartier started buying exceptional pieces that came in the market for its own collection. Pieces from the Cartier collection are displayed at different museums across the world.

From being both the king of jewellers and the jeweller to the kings, has Cartier lost its importance in India, or has India lost its importance for Cartier? “The situation today is very different. It’s not because we have solid historical links with India that today Indians are aware of Cartier. Because not only, can history be forgotten, but there is also a notion of relevance. If Cartier creations are not shown or exhibited to the Indian clientele, there is no way for contemporary Indians to perceive that idea of relevance of our creations and offer. Today, we have one boutique in India, in Delhi, but in fact our most important connections with Indian clientele are abroad, where they travel. It can be traditional destinations, in Europe as well as America as far as New York is concerned, but also and it’s quite new, the Middle East. So we do have Indian customers but mostly abroad,” says Rainero.

And the Indian inspiration? “That’s permanent. The Indian component is a part of the Cartier style, it’s deep in our roots, in our identity,” he smiles.  

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