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The Cartiers:
The Untold Story of the Family Behind the Jewelry Empire

by Francesca Cartier Brickell
656 pages
Ballantine Books
Published: Nov 2019

“The Cartiers” is Francesca Brickell’s biography of the family behind the iconic Cartier jewelry brand. Brickell is the great-great-great-granddaughter of Louis-Francois Cartier who founded the firm in 1847 and the granddaughter of Jean-Jacques Cartier who sold the last piece of the family business in 1974.

Long-fascinated by her family’s history, Brickell serendipitously stumbled across a trunk filled with her grandfather’s letters, telegrams and photographs while searching for a bottle of champagne in his cellar. Long thought to have been lost, this collection of historical jewels catalyzed a decade of research by Brickell and resulted in the most thorough biography of her lineage currently available.

Appreciating this biography requires no particular fascination with jewelry, high society or European history. All that is necessary is an interest in dexterous entrepreneurship, a fondness for internecine drama and the ability to be swept away by a lively and often enchanting narrative.

Brickell begins by reviewing the life of the firm’s founder – Louis-Francois Cartier (1819-1904) – and describing the circumstances of his nascent enterprise’s birth. As the narrative unfolds, subsequent generations of the family are unveiled and their personal stories are expertly intertwined with the story of the empire’s evolution.

The founder is followed by his son, Alfred, who later passes the baton to his three sons during a period of expansion: Louis-Joseph (Paris), Pierre (New York) and Jacques (London). Management and ownership of the business becomes a more complicated during the next (and last) phase of the family’s ownership.

Brickell is adept at injecting just enough social, cultural and historical context to explain both the opportunities and the challenges faced by the family and their burgeoning business. Readers enthralled by interpersonal drama will be entranced by her description of the family members’ strengths, personality quirks and predilections.

With a background in finance, Brickell is also able to analyze and articulate the firm’s evolving business strategy and reaction to new opportunities and threats. In fact, the biography is probably at its best when describing how Cartier evolved during times of great stress – shortly after its launch, during generational transitions, expanding geographically, and during times of war, recession and depression.

But readers expecting to consume weighty, hard-hitting business history such as is offered by Ron Chernow’s biography of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. or Steven Watts’s biography of Henry Ford may be disappointed. Because while this book proves instructive as well as entertaining, at times it feels a bit like the reality series “Shark Tank” in soap opera form.

In addition, readers who become gleefully lost in the intricacies of the jewelry trade or are consumed by Cartier family drama may become confused by the large number of non-family members who are critical to both the Cartier empire and the ongoing narrative. As these supporting characters’ lives become more complicated and consequential, they tend to blur together.

Overall, however, Francesca Brickell’s book is a lively, intimate, insightful and often endearing biography of four generations of the Cartier family and the jewelry business which bears their name. Well-researched, evidently objective and keenly attentive to the personal and financial aspects of the family business, Brickell has penned a family history which almost anyone is likely to enjoy.

Overall rating: 4¼ stars