In yesterday’s article, ‘Kings of Jewellers‘, we dived into lives of the founding brothers – Louis, Pierre and Jacques – of the prestigious luxury brand, Cartier. In ‘The Cartiers’, the author and Jacques’ great-granddaughter, Francesca Cartier Brickell followed how the brothers drove their shop from Paris to every corner of the globe.
What started as a search for champagne to celebrate the 90th birthday of her late grandfather, Jean-Jacques Cartier, Francesca ended up discovering a trunk full of letters which gave her a window of opportunity to peep into times of the Cartiers. But to write a history book, that too a family’s origin story, is no easy feat. How did Francesca do it?
When Francesca started, she couldn’t comprehend the task she had in hand. She had envisaged ‘The Cartiers’ as a story about a family through four generations. However, the more she started learning about characters for her book ‘the more she realised she also had to understand the social context in which they were operating’.
Her story is set across a staggering 150 years of history, covering ‘all the way from 1819 to 1970s, from Paris to St Petersburg, London to New York, Mumbai to Middle East with its rises and falls in each place along the way’.
Francesca agrees that it was overwhelming at times. ‘To deal with it, I had to break it down. I took it to step-by-step, chapter-by-chapter,’ the author says. Francesca recalls that she spent a lot of time structuring the narrative. ‘I had to keep crisscrossing from Paris to London to New York, so I spent a lot of time working on whiteboards trying to keep the overall thread as organised and clear as possible,’ she says
Francesca talks about her research. She sounds thrilled – for obvious reasons – as the characters she has written about ‘lived through exciting times’. She traced everything from ‘marriage of Napoleon III to Empress Eugenie, to Siege of Paris, the Russian revolution, two World Wars, boom time in America, India of the Raj, Great Depression, rise of Middle Eastern petro-dollars, all the way to the swinging sixties.’
Yet, Francesca didn’t want the book to be weighed down with too many information. So she tried to put sources and secondary details into endnotes which wouldn’t disrupt readers from following the story. ‘One month, I would be researching 19th century France – all courtesans, revolutions and sieges – and the next, I’d be immersed in British coronations and Indian durbars, then wrenched from tiaras and turban ornaments to trenches of First World War. And that’s only the first part of the book!’ she says.
As Francesca wrote the book, she kept asking herself, ‘How would I explain this event or that character in an engaging way if I was just having a chat with a friend?’ Even for the appearance of a minor character in her book, Francesca did a lot of background research. ‘I would have dug up their birth certificates, find out who they married, if they had fought in one of the wars perhaps, what they did in retirement and, where possible, I tried to speak to their descendants to add more personal colour,’ she notes.
‘There were four generations starting in the early nineteenth century, plenty of characters acting in multiple countries through over a century of ground-breaking world events,’ she says. ‘Of course, there’s a lot of information and history but there is also a lot of action and drama!’
Francesca felt that to pen down the lives of one of greatest jewellery brands was a subject that’s enough to keep history readers on hooks. ‘Obviously, it appeals to those interested in fashion, jewels and glamorous clients like Liz Taylor, Duchess of Windsor, Grace Kelly and the many Maharajas. However, it also seems to resonate with those interested in history as it encompasses so many world-shaking historical events through the lens of one family,’ she says. Francesca also feels it will attract those ‘interested in how to build and sustain a successful family business over generations.’
Why is it important to write a family history? ‘I think it’s important to keep stories alive for the next generation,’ Francesca believes. This strong belief inspired her book to be ‘a record for her children who could one day know about their ancestors’.
‘I don’t want them to see as just successful businessmen or jewellery legends but so they could understand that they were real people with the same hopes, fears, desires, and shortcomings as the rest of us,’ she says. ‘We may think that our time is unique but, as I discovered, so much of life and history is cyclical with highs, lows, unexpected disasters. To see how others have dealt with that in the past and how it worked can be helpful.’