While you might instantly associate Cartier with fine-jewelry craftsmanship and celebrity style, the brand has also worked diligently to translate its jewelry codes into exquisite timepieces since 1888. In an exclusive interview, Savoir Flair’s Founding Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, Haleh Nia, sat down with Pierre Rainero, Cartier’s Head of Heritage and Style, at Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) to discuss the brand’s vision.
Nia first interviewed Raneiro last year in Milan and, in the year since, Cartier has released some daring new designs, like an update on the famed ‘Panthiere de Cartier’ jewelry-watch style and a polished reboot of the beloved ‘Santos de Cartier’ watch. In this interview, Raneiro explains why Cartier refuses to compromise its aesthetic vision for the millennial generation, why you’ll likely never see a Cartier museum, and what makes the storied brand relevant today.
Last time we spoke, we discussed how Cartier is reinventing fine jewelry. Now, we notice the trend of revisiting old icons from the past and relaunching them for the present. What is the ideology behind this strategy?
We don’t think of it as a strategy. It’s natural to us because it comes from the idea of looking for strong design in general. And when we say the design is strong, it’s for different reasons. First, it has to be different, distinctive in the field where it appears – whether it’s the field of watches or jewelry – and [it must] express Cartier’s aesthetic value and style.
The other dimension of a strong design is something that Louis Cartier himself talked frequently about: a good idea is a ‘mother idea’, meaning one idea should be able to give birth to many different ideas, interpretations, and variations. For example, the ‘Santos’ style was born with a square shape and round angles and, from 1904 onward, there were many different interpretations that came. That’s why I said it’s not a new strategy; it’s in our genes and in our values to work with designs that are originally strong. Our mission is to keep them alive, to always evolve them.
Is it usually the case that you are responding to demand in the market?
Not necessarily. As you know, it’s a paradox in a way because there is a huge pressure for novelties. There is a value given to what is new, and I understand that because it’s a way of going forward, inventing new things. But it could be seen as a paradox because, on the other hand, people like to recognize what they know and trust what they’ve shared previously.
That’s why there are both demands at the same time, and that’s why Cartier is so well appreciated because, when you think of it, our objective is to propose new objects that are still related to our signature style. The best comment we can get at Cartier is, ‘Oh, it’s very Cartier!’
While other watch brands are known for their mechanism, Cartier is known as a creator of shapes. What are some of the new shapes we can expect from you?
We work in two different ways in terms of shapes. Of course, you have pure geometrical shapes, so this is one way. Another way is expressive shapes; we take an inspiration and express it through the design. For instance, when we create the ‘Chinese Tank’ watch, it referenced decorative arts in China, and there you have an immediate reference to Chinese design. When we create the ‘Roadster’ watch, for instance, it was a direct reference to the design of automobiles. Ultimately, it’s a combination of geometry and expressive design at Cartier.
While we are the creator of unique watch shapes, it doesn’t mean that movement is something we don’t consider. We like the poetry of movement. For instance, when we create a skeleton, we play with the most important element – the bridge where all the parts are attached – and let’s say the bridge is made of Roman numerals in this case. Only Cartier could do that. We even invented a skeleton in which the bridge was the head of a panther. We take the opportunity of creating a quality movement to make a statement in terms of design.
In your past 30 years at Cartier, what have you found to be the difference between the male market then as opposed to now? What do you see as a transition in the way they live?
I think the idea of more freedom in terms of behavior. What is modern is the freedom. In fact, there is no more dictatorship in terms of behavior the way it used to be in the past. You had to behave in specific way in the ‘50s and ‘60s, for example. In modern times, you can choose the way you want to dress. If you want to be overdressed in a casual situation, you can – there is no problem. And this is new. There is no longer one prescribed behavior that is the example everyone has to follow.
I think it’s the vision of our founders to always look forward.
What about brand loyalty? Do you see a difference between 30 years ago and now? Do people buy a watch because they fall in love with it, no matter the brand?
I think, of course, you fall in love with an object because it’s beautiful or because you can imagine yourself wearing it. Then, because it will cost minimum investments because of the quality, people think twice. If I buy this object because I like the design, is the brand behind it consistent with the object? Is it really authentic given the work of that house? And that notion is important. It doesn’t mean someone will not change from the one brand to another, but every time I think of the notion of authenticity, I buy this object from that brand.
You’ve been credited with saying, ‘Everything we design at Cartier, we think of in terms of permanence.’ What is it that makes a Cartier piece a forever classic and a permanent icon?
The idea of authenticity is central. In order for an item to be ‘very Cartier’, it must correspond to our values in terms of design and balance of proportions. That notion of ‘very Cartier’ is insurance for the future; this object will remain as an element of permanence. For example, Louis Cartier’s design of the ‘Santos’ watch [first created in 1904] is relevant even more now.
I have people who are the specialists of this world and say, ‘I would like to buy one ‘Santos’ from 1979 and another from 1982.’ So they do appreciate what we do now, but they still have in mind something from the past that is iconic for them – well beyond the year of its creation. The notion of originality interests people.
So when you look at something from the past, it’s not necessarily nostalgia – it’s a matter of permanence.
Yes, and not only that, I think there is no nostalgia at all at Cartier. In fact, I think it’s the vision of our founders to always look forward.
It’s interesting you say that. I think of Cartier as a brand very much in the present, but there are also so many archival photos and materials to discover.
I know, but we shouldn’t see it as models. For today, they are just examples of the past. There were people in the past who decided to wear Cartier because it was the epitome of modernity at that time. Of course, it’s unbalanced. We are discreet and we don’t talk about our current clients. In the past, people were more relaxed and showed off what they were wearing and buying. Today, it is different.
Let’s just say that my legacy would be the idea of being demanding with ourselves.
Is the millennial important to you at all?
New generations, in general, are. They have always been. The only difference now is that the changes in behavior are more quick.
Is it difficult to adapt?
Yes, but it’s not about moving all the directions to pretend to be there. The idea is to never forget who we are, and I think the best way to attract and convince people is to stick to what we are. Even in terms of communication, we can be contemporary, but we must remain Cartier.
You are known as the ‘guardian angel of Cartier’ and will clearly leave a lasting legacy, but if you were to do one more thing in your career, do you think you would ever launch a museum of Cartier?
No. Why? For different reasons. A museum means that something is static or dead on top of the fact that displaying personal objects is really bad. Every single creation has to be worn to be really appreciated. When you think about it, jewelry is linked to movement and it means that you will play with light, stones – even your watch is beautiful when you move.
So when you see the object in the window, there is a challenge because you see the design, but not all the assets. I think it creates a barrier. I don’t like the idea of a museum because it sounds like a cemetery. Also the brand museum is a very centric vision, it’s yourself given the vision. I prefer to see others commenting on what we create, rather than ourselves. Also, there is a very pragmatic aspect of this: we don’t see any successful brand museums.
So what would you like your legacy to be?
I prefer to be contacted by the directors and creators of museums to talk to them and see their point of view. That’s the best way to talk about our legacy. I like to look at Cartier’s contemporary creations because it puts the idea in my mind that we have built our legacy for the future from a continuous past, carrying forward the original vision to the present. It’s all about continuity. Let’s just say that my legacy would be the idea of being demanding with ourselves.