The state of luxury circa 1900

Letters

Been enjoying being lost these past few weeks in the family archives. Just emerged from a trip to Belle Epoque Paris when Cartier wasn’t nearly as well known as it later became and my ancestors were focused on building their business.

What’s clear, and perhaps surprising, from these letters is the sense of camaraderie and friendship between them and other luxury family firms of the time. There are thoughtful telegrams from the Van Cleef and Arpels families – for example, on the birth of my grandfather in 1919, or on my great-great-grandfather’s death.

There are many heart-felt letters from the then incredibly famous haute-couture Worth family and the world’s best furriers – not exactly politically correct today but back then fur was the height of luxe – the Revillons (both of which became linked in marriage to the Cartiers).

There’s even a warm invitation from the head of Tiffany in Paris offering to host the wedding reception of my great-grandparents (his wife was my great-grandmother’s sister).

All in all, there’s not that bitter competitive rivalry between these families that you might expect – there’s a sense that they were all in it together. Of course, at a time when the aristocracy still held the power, these families were essentially way down the social scale: mere shopkeepers with ambitions.

Today it’s the famous fashion designers and international jewellers holding the elite parties that later appear in the glossy magazines, back then, they’d have been lucky to be invited!

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