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Cartier, jeweller of kings to luxury watchmaker

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May 2020


Cartier, jeweller of kings to luxury watchmaker

Today, Cartier is one of the leading Swiss watch brands. Along with Rolex and Omega, it occupies the highly coveted segment of “accessible luxury”, i.e. high-end watches sold in large quantities, which generate juicy profits. While, at the beginning of the 21st century, Cartier is one of the standard bearers of Swiss watchmaking throughout the world, this has not always been the case. The company started as a jeweller, its trade since it was founded in 1847. However, how it made the transition into mass production of luxury watches is not so well known. The archives of Europa Star shed light on a few major stages.

C

artier is a traditional luxury company. It started as a small-scale family company making jewellery for the aristocracy and the upper-middle classes. It was in this context that the famous Santos watch was launched in 1904.

However, Cartier did not have its own watchmaking workshop, and subcontracted manufacturing to renowned Swiss manufacturers. Up to the 1970s, only a few hundred Santos watches were produced.

Only a few hundred Santos watches were produced up to the 1970s..

Jewellery is Cartier's historical core business.
Jewellery is Cartier’s historical core business.
©Europa Star, 1951
Cartier launched the Santos-Dumont watch in 1904.
Cartier launched the Santos-Dumont watch in 1904.
©Europa Star 1981

However, the family firm ran into financial and managerial difficulties. In 1972, a group of investors and managers, led by Joseph Kanoui and Alain-Dominique Perrin, took over the business. Their main strategic decision was to reposition Cartier as an accessible luxury brand, introducing the “Must de Cartier” concept in 1973.

The launch of accessories such as lighters (produced under licence since 1968 by a company managed by Perrin) and watches enabled Cartier to expand its customer base, generating a sharp rise in profits. The Santos timepiece was relaunched at the end of the 1970s, alongside a communication strategy that gradually established the brand as a credible watch manufacturer. The Santos became one of the jeweller’s iconic products. The company even staged the ceremonial destruction of counterfeit Cartier watches in front of the international press, to further strengthen the brand’s watchmaking credentials.

The main strategic decision of Joseph Kanoui and Alain-Dominique Perrin was to reposition Cartier as an accessible luxury brand, introducing the “Must de Cartier” concept in 1973.

The Must de Cartier line was launched in the 1970s. The Santos model was incorporated in 1981.
The Must de Cartier line was launched in the 1970s. The Santos model was incorporated in 1981.
©Europa Star 1981
The destruction of Cartier counterfeits under the eyes of the press, staged by Alain-Dominique Perrin, in the presence of architect Jean Nouvel and artist César.
The destruction of Cartier counterfeits under the eyes of the press, staged by Alain-Dominique Perrin, in the presence of architect Jean Nouvel and artist César.
©Europa Star 1992

Kanoui then took over Cartier’s American and British subsidiaries, which he merged into Cartier World (1979). In the same year, the company moved to Villars-sur-Glâne in the canton of Fribourg, where it founded Les Must de Cartier SA, responsible for overseeing the production and sale of Cartier accessories. However, Cartier required new capital to ensure its continued growth, and Joseph Kanoui entered into a partnership with Anton Rupert, who bought the company and created the Compagnie Financière Richemont in 1988. Kanoui became one of the key figures in establishing Richemont as one of the giants of luxury watchmaking.

The repositioning of Cartier as a watch company also required gaining control of production infrastructure, which the brand decided to gradually bring in-house. Although Joseph Kanoui had been based in Geneva at least since 1980, and the service subsidiary Cartier SA was founded there in 1988, the decision was taken to set up a watch manufacture outside the city.

The repositioning of Cartier as a watch company also required gaining control of production infrastructure, which the brand decided to gradually bring in-house.

In 1996, Vacheron Constantin was brought into the new watchmaking group being formed around Cartier, under the supervision of Joseph Kanoui.
In 1996, Vacheron Constantin was brought into the new watchmaking group being formed around Cartier, under the supervision of Joseph Kanoui.
©Europa Star 1997
Cartier is particularly renowned for its so-called shaped watches. This is a model from the Cartier Libre collection.
Cartier is particularly renowned for its so-called shaped watches. This is a model from the Cartier Libre collection.
©Europa Star 2005

Watch components had been produced since the 1970s in a factory in Villars-sur-Glâne (Fribourg) and in 1990 Richemont founded a new company in Saint-Imier (Bernese Jura), the Compagnie des Technologies de Luxe (CTL) Horlogerie, which was transferred to the neighbouring village of Villeret in 2002. It assembled watches for Cartier, but also for other brands of the Richemont group, notably Baume & Mercier and Yves Saint-Laurent.

In 1992, Cartier also founded the watch manufacturer CEC in La Chaux-de-Fonds, in cooperation with Ebel, which had been manufacturing Cartier watches under licence since the early 1970s. The takeover of Ebel by InvestCorp (1994), followed by the departure of its director Pierre-Alain Blum (1996), led to the separation of the two partners (1998), with Cartier opening its own factory in La Chaux-de-Fonds (2000). The process of internalisation was complete: Cartier had become a watchmaker in its own right.

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