Pierre Cartier, the Man Who Made Jewelry for American Presidents

This is the story of three brothers and an empire. In the early 20th century, the grandsons of the founder of Cartier were busy building their family name. Louis was in Paris, Jacques in London, and Pierre in New York City. To sell his jewelry in the United States, the latter sibling mingled with celebrities, titans of industry, and presidents, and created a network of alliances. During World War II, he stood with Pétain and Roosevelt before supporting de Gaulle.
Pierre Cartier, 1910. Courtesy of Francesca Cartier Brickell

A French flag flies over Fifth Avenue in the heart of Manhattan. It marks the entrance to a six-floor mansion, a jewel of the Gilded Age. Visitors step through the wrought-iron door and walk upstairs to the salons, recently restored by French architect Thierry Despont. Each one is named after the house’s illustrious clients, including Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Gary Cooper, and Andy Warhol. Welcome to the Cartier Mansion, the palace from which Pierre Cartier strove, in his own words, to “promote and develop the closest economic and cultural relations between the United States and France.”

Out to Conquer America

In 1902, Cartier enjoyed unrivalled popularity throughout Europe. As soon as he was crowned, King Edward VII of England granted the Parisian company the title of official supplier to the crown and proclaimed Cartier, “jeweler to kings and king of jewelers.” This recognition paved the way to the house’s successful future; turn-of-the-century America was teeming with millionaires and the nouveau riche, who formed a huge potential clientele. Recently married to Elma Rumsey, a Missouri heiress and relative of J.P. Morgan, Pierre Cartier moved to New York. “This city is full of contrasts, breathtaking energy, and activity, but nothing is finished,” he wrote in 1909. “Everything is under construction.” For the family, it was the start of a prodigious American career.

The Hope Diamond, 1958. © Ullstein Bild/Getty Images
Pierre Cartier and his wife Elma aboard the France, bound for Europe, 1928. © Bettmann/Getty Images

On Fifth Avenue, the youngest son opened the first French high jewelry store in the United States, complete with its own design workshop. “We can launch French luxury in New York City,” he wrote to his brother, Jacques. To make a name for himself in the land of Tiffany, Pierre Cartier had leaflets detailing his services distributed in all the city’s luxury hotels, from the St. Regis to the Waldorf Astoria. In 1911, he made headlines by selling a gemstone that was said to be cursed, the Hope Diamond, which inspired the jewel in the film Titanic. This 45.52-carat diamond, which once belonged to Louis XIV, was stolen in 1792 and is now on display at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. It made Evalyn Walsh McLean, heiress of The Washington Post, very happy. The final sale price was 180,000 dollars, or 5.8 million today!

A few years later, the Cartier couple and their daughter Marion, born at the Plaza in 1911, were visiting France when World War I broke out. Pierre opened the gardens of his Neuilly-sur-Seine estate to the nearby American Hospital and donated his German Mercedes-Benz to the French armed forces. Called up for military service, he served as a colonel’s chauffeur before being discharged in 1915 following bouts of appendicitis and diphtheria. The Cartiers returned to the United States, zigzagging across the Atlantic to avoid German submarines. The country had not yet entered the war and business was booming.

A Showcase on Millionaires’ Row

Back in New York City, Pierre Cartier realized that his Fifth Avenue store was too small for his ambitions. He set his sights on a space a few blocks south, at number 653, a mansion capable of rivaling his brothers’ establishments in Paris and London. But the building was not for sale; it belonged to railway tycoon Morton F. Plant and his wife Maisie. As luck would have it, Mrs. Plant had fallen in love with a natural pearl necklace she had seen at Cartier, estimated at one million dollars (over 24 million today). So the story goes, the couple agreed to part with their property in exchange for a check for 100 dollars… and the famous necklace!

The Cartier Mansion opened its doors in 1917, with The New York Times running the headline “The Rue de la Paix Is Being Moved to Fifth Avenue.” To bolster its prestige, the jeweler shifted the entrance from 52nd Street to Fifth Avenue. He intended to make his new flagship store a must-visit destination, an embassy of French luxury where people came to be seen. The Romanovs, maharajas, and other dignitaries had their photographs taken there. The Cartier couple also hosted sumptuous receptions and exhibitions in the salons and ballrooms, including the first in the United States devoted to lacquer artist Jean Dunand.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs bracelet, 1937. © Cartier
Caged Bird necklace, 1942-1943. © Cartier

On the workshop floor, gemologists, stonecutters, and smiths used American pop-culture themes as inspiration. Their creations included a pin in gold, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires shaped like Mickey Mouse, and a silver bracelet with charms featuring Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney’s 1937 box-office success. Just two examples highlighting the house’s daring and its commitment to transatlantic friendship. Pierre Cartier celebrated this bond with a bronze clock that still stands over the entrance to the store, topped with a French cockerel and an American eagle standing guard on each side of the dial.

The “Cartier temple” propelled the jeweler to new heights. He was already close to captains of industry and movie stars, and soon became president of the Alliance Française in New York, the French Chamber of Commerce, and the French Hospital. This standard-bearer of France’s soft power was even appointed president of the House of Jewels at the 1939-1940 World’s Fair in Queens. Pierre Cartier attended every party, gala, and dinner in the social calendar, while also developing strong ties in Washington D.C. In 1924, he befriended President Calvin Coolidge, who attended the inauguration of a store in Palm Beach, Florida, and was also close to his two successors, Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The Jeweler and the President

In September 1938, along with 57 % of the French population, Pierre Cartier welcomed the Munich Agreement signed by Germany, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom, giving Hitler free rein to invade Czechoslovakia. The luxury entrepreneur considered that peace was always better than war. “That fool […] has wrecked business,” he once said of the Führer. Two years later, he applauded the armistice between France and Germany. He also admired Marshall Pétain, a veteran of the Great War like himself, who had his ceremonial baton made by Cartier in 1918.

In Paris, the jewelry house designed a pin depicting a caged bird in a sign of resistance. In London, it housed General de Gaulle’s Free French headquarters for a time (and designed the insignia for the Order of the Liberation). But in New York City, Pierre Cartier preferred the American wait-and-see approach, which recognized the Vichy government, while also providing financial support to organizations helping occupied France and the war wounded. He eventually sided with Henri Giraud, the general who won Washington’s support in 1942, and was the subject of several articles in France-Amérique. Our publication, which was staunchly Gaullist at the time, made no effort to hide its contempt for this “applauding puppet, grown fat on wealth and pride” who supported Roosevelt instead of de Gaulle.

A panther, a recurring motif at Cartier since the 1910s, in front of the boutique on Rue de la Paix in Paris, 2000. © Jean Larivière
The Cartier Mansion, at 653 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. © Ricky Zehavi

Pierre Cartier and FDR were close friends. They had spent time together since 1936 and exchanged views on the French situation throughout the war. The jeweler gave the president a watch in 1939 and, for Christmas four years later, a clock made of onyx, nephrite, and silver, complete with five dials showing “the hour of victory in the world, in homage to its architect, the president of the United States.” A letter accompanying the gift read: “My countrymen are particularly grateful for what you are doing for them, and we realize that it will be thanks to your efforts and marvelous leadership that France will again live.”

In 1943, Roosevelt sided with de Gaulle and Pierre Cartier followed suit. “Before the war was over […], Cartier would provide the French Resistance with more than 43 million francs (more than 9 million dollars today),” writes Francesca Cartier Brickell in her biography of the family. The New York house also designed the insignia for the French cadets training at U.S. airbases, while a series of pins in the shape of the Cross of Lorraine set with diamonds were sold at fundraising events in aid of Free France. One of these patriotic pieces was worn by Elma Cartier at a reception for de Gaulle in New York City in July 1944. When asked about his change of heart, her proud yet somewhat embarrassed husband simply replied: “I pledge my allegiance.”

In 1947, Cartier celebrated its 100th anniversary. A century after the company was founded and 30 years after the inauguration of the Cartier Mansion, the most influential French jeweler in the United States retired to Geneva, where he lived until his death on October 27, 1964. In an article published the day before a commemorative mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, The New York Times recalled the businessman’s words at the darkest hour of the war: “To me, France and America are sister countries and they will always remain so.”

Cartier: The Impossible Collection
by Hervé Dewintre, Assouline, 2023

The Cartiers: The Untold Story of the Family Behind the Jewelry Empire by Francesca Cartier Brickell, Ballantine Books, 2019.

Article published in the December 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.