Treasure trove: an exclusive glimpse inside Cartier's Parisian atelier

Site: Anna McClelland

Image: Malika Mokadem

Cartier needs no introduction: the name of this high jewellery brand speaks for itself, writes Roza Sinaysky

At the pinnacle of the fine jewellery industry for 168 years (it was founded in 1847), Cartier's heritage, history and uncompromising craftsmanship have stood the test of time. Buro was given the rare opportunity to visit the jewellery house's prestigious Parisian atelier, usually kept under strict lock and key, for a guided tour by Cartier's image, style and heritage director Pierre Rainero.  

"This atelier is the most important out of all the Cartier ateliers," Rainero says. "This is where it all started over 100 years ago." An iconic building on 13 Rue de la Paix (just off the legendary Place Vandome) is where the house designs and makes all their unique custom pieces - it's also home to the largest collection of Cartier jewellery and timepieces worldwide. Around 100 people work here, with several additional ateliers around France, Switzerland and Italy.

Treasure trove: an exclusive glimpse inside Cartier's Parisian atelier (фото 1)

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There are over 60 jewellers who work here in 10 departments. Each one specialises in different jewellery-making techniques, from drawing to polishing. They all work with such dedication and have one very clear mission: to achieve a technically flawless and artistically exquisite piece of jewellery (which will later be sold for thousands or even millions of dollars). I have to admit that the silence in the halls was a little tense - I was afraid to distract the extremely focused staff, as all it takes is one wrong move and the whole jewel can be damaged. 

The jewellers are at the heart of the Cartier brand: without their talent and dedication the jewellery simply wouldn't be what it is. Many started working for the house as young as 14 - a very French approach to work. It takes 10 years of training to become a Cartier jeweler and the trainees don't get to work with anything precious, training with other materials until they're ready to handle the expensive stones.  "Our level of craftsmanship is the highest in the world so the challenges are very demanding for anyone who comes to work here," says Rainero.

Treasure trove: an exclusive glimpse inside Cartier's Parisian atelier (фото 2)

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Cartier's famous bejeweled leopard and crocodile pieces are made here - Rainero points out that aside from their sheer beauty, they must sit against the body perfectly. "The movement that comes with each piece, such as a necklace or bracelet, makes the jewel more complicated to engineer and execute," he says. "The final product is the perfect mix between the artistic skills of our designers and the engineering skills of our jewelers." Each piece is initially sculpted in wax and then the shape is made in plastic, and only after many technical tests can each piece finally be created in platinum. "Every piece is polished even before it's set in its final position, unlike many other brands where the jewel is only polished as a finished product," Rainero says.

On average, it takes about 500 hours for a unique piece to be ready. The prototypes are made by four people working together around a table - each employee is sworn to secrecy at this stage of the design process and can't reveal Cartier's clients' identities. The quality of the stones is crucial: they define the design of the jewel. The brand adheres to the strict rules of The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS), a system set up to ensure diamond purchases don't finance rebel movements. 

Treasure trove: an exclusive glimpse inside Cartier's Parisian atelier (фото 3)

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So just how does one go about ordering a custom piece of Cartier? "There are so many different kinds of orders: some clients will have an exact idea of what they want to make, some have no clue and others will want to recreate something of the house or a piece that was in their family for generations," says Rainero. "We love the challenge of making jewellery we have never done before." 

Take the archival pictures of past pieces lining the walls of the atelier: the exquisite designs include a ladies' pocket watch in the shape of a leopard's head, dripping in diamonds and precious gems, and the legendary phoenix watch, made from 18-carat white gold with emeralds for eyes, a pear-shaped and portrait-cut diamond that weighs 3.53 carats and 3010 brilliant-cut diamonds with a combined weight of 80.13 carats (worth, I later found out, a grand total of 2.7 million dollars).  

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Cartier has always been linked to powerful women and framed photos of all those who have proudly represented the brand through the years line the corridors: Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, Princess Diana, prima ballerinas, countless socialites and even Jeanne Toussaint herself. But just what defines the Cartier woman? "We get many requests from many people, but we only work with celebrities who understand the real value (not the commercial value) of what it is they wear," says Rainero. "They have to represent all the hard work of the people who worked on the piece." Only a select few make the cut - so far Cartier has eschewed dressing fashion bloggers and hordes of celebrities for the sake of exposure.

Because the greatness of Cartier, I conclude after my tour, is that they see all kinds of women as their muses: anyone who can really appreciate the brand, rather than whoever has the most Instagram followers or the biggest crowd of papparazi outside their door. And that's the kind of attitude that stands the test of time. 

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