When it comes to timepieces, fine or otherwise, style is often not part of the package…at least not style as defined here by the Oxford dictionary, which goes something like this: a distinctive appearance, typically determined by the principles according to which something is designed. Of course, if one looks at Mirriam-Webster, one finds something a little more useful to the idea of style and watchmaking: a distinctive quality, form, or type of something. That one is succinct and perhaps best suited when it comes to introducing a man for whom style is his entire job…well, a part of it at least.
Helpfully, Pierre Rainero, Director of Image, Style and Heritage at Cartier, has published his own definition of style, which I have referenced on more than one occasion. It will now come home to roost, which I find most gratifying. “Style is the incarnation of a philosophy that conveys complex things in a simple way. It has its own sensibility, and thus becomes a way of anticipating, experiencing, and communicating feelings and emotions – style, perhaps, is simply the expression of a vision.” Rainero wrote that in his chapter in the Flamarion hardcover Cartier: The Power of Style (2010).
Combining image and heritage with style, and you might think that Rainero is the de facto creative or artistic director, but that is not the case. No such role exists at Cartier, although his title originally was Communication and Artistic Director back in 1999. In fact, Rainero has held a number of roles at Cartier since 1984, when he first joined. It was a time of change at the storied jewellery and watch firm, and Rainero has had a front seat alongside the great names of that time…Perrin, Cologni, Fornas… We sat down with Rainero to hear his story at Watches and Wonders Geneva 2023.
You have a rather impressive title, which you have held since 2003. Tell us about it?
Well, every day is different of course, because in fact I have many different things I’m involved in… The central responsibility, of course, and that explains all the other ones (as you will see), is my involvement in the creative process. So that’s effectively the style part of my title.
In 1998, Alain Dominique Perrin was President of Cartier and he had that role (as artistic director) without having the title – he was president, so he could do everything. In 1999, when he was leaving to become president of Richemont, he told me ‘you will be the artistic director.’
So, for a while I had the Communication and Artistic Director title, and very quickly I realized that it was not exactly what I was doing. For two reasons. First, I realized immediately that there are many people who are responsible in the creative process; in the making-of process of the artistic dimension of each of our objects. There is basically a synergy of talents. Probably I could already have known this (before taking on the role)!
Anyway, each of these creatives has an influence on the artistic part; you know that in jewellery, it is even more obvious than in watches.
So you knew that no one person could do the job?
It is not one person who could be entitled to (the entire creative dimension) because it is not true. The second reason (that my job was not exactly what my title said it was) was, in a way, really to have and share a vision of what a Cartier object should be today, and of course, in the near future, because we work some years in advance, depending on the category of items.
I’m not the creative because the creative part is on the side of the designers as it has always been since the time of Louis Cartier himself, and Jeanne Toussaint [the legendary fashion and jewellery designer]. Louis Cartier himself used to call them (the designers) the inventors.
Tell us about your portfolio as it is today, and what a typical day looks like for you?
So my role (today) is to discuss with the creatives (the inventors), at all stages, about which direction Cartier should go towards. (Together, we try to identify) what makes Cartier so different, with a historical approach (for example), and try to explain why the objects were like they were at that time. What was the philosophy behind those objects and how can or does this philosophy apply today. My interaction with the creatives is at all stages, even before the design brief.
Day by day, I have many questions arriving on my desk. Maybe I have a design head, the head of a studio, saying we are thinking of doing something, and what do you think about it. Or maybe they have a prototype to show me. These are the unscheduled meetings, but of course there are plenty of scheduled ones!
And by the way, the style part of my title includes my involvement in everything that is created at Cartier, like the architecture of the stores for instance. I’m also involved the same way with the architects and interior designers…I am the link between image and style because effectively the style of the store is a part of image-building, for example. As a consequence, I am also in charge of the cultural and artistic aspects of Cartier. This means all Cartier’s links with external institutions or schools all over the world. You know, so I travel a lot [before Watches and Wonders Geneva 2023, Rainero was in Mexico City for a Cartier exhibition and he went to Hong Kong the week after the fair for another exhibition scheduled to open there]. My work is not only with the curators (of the exhibitions) but also the backroom part, including contract negotiations and this sort of thing. There is also a permanent component to this because we are always in contact with some institutions, such as the Louvre in Paris, the British Museum and the Metropolitan in New York, because they have Cartier pieces in their (respective) collections (and may acquire historical pieces now or in future).
Why is Cartier’s history so powerful?
The history of Cartier and the production of Cartier both are so rich because (among other things) since the first years of the 20th century, we became the first real (watch and jewellery Maison) in the world. Meaning in terms of innovation (by virtue of being first), yes, but also just in terms of production. We became sort of an object of curiosity for the people of the whole world. A century ago, Cartier was so big that all the other jewellers were looking at it and calling it the ‘Firm’ because it was already something incredible. We had production already in London and New York so, as I used to say, it was really possible for a young guy to have an international career at Cartier in the early 20th century. It was really not so far from an international company of today. We were sending people to Hong Kong, to Tehran, to South America…we have all the reports of those people (the commercial reports).
It is incredible when you think of it, so that’s why there’s a richness in terms of production, and also different categories of products because Carter is so unique in this way…and also of having that watchmaking part as equal to the jewellery part. We also greatly improved the making of objects of many different kinds, and it makes Cartier one of the main actors in the decorative arts in the applied arts segment. There is also a human dimension to this story, and I’m not referring only to the Cartier family (in those early days) because very, very quickly the family needed a lot of people to manage the company.
What sorts of people are you referring to, and are you ever surprised by what you yourself learn about the brand?
So they are less known to the outside world but we at Cartier know them. I’m talking about the directors for London and for New York, you know the succession of them (and the significant things they did for Cartier)… For instance, the help we gave to Charles de Gaulle during World War II was decided by the director, not by the Cartier family. This was just one of many examples, including Jeanne Toussaint [who was not a member of the Cartier family, but was appointed Director of Fine Jewellery by Louis Cartier in 1933; she remained with the firm until 1970, after the Cartier family had sold the business].
So you realise the power of those people…the artisans; it is an incredible number of people over the years. It is a human adventure, the story of Cartier, you know, and that makes it so rich. This also makes it difficult to apprehend everything about Cartier because as a commercial entity, what we keep in our archives is mainly linked to how the company works and the production; that’s already very important because it is the link with the clients. But you know, of all the dimensions of decisions taken to open a store or a market, we only keep what we have a legal obligation to keep. The information on personal interactions (and the human story of the people who worked at Cartier), we have almost nothing, or perhaps we have only a few things. So that’s why I see there are many, many things still to discover…including the reason why the name Ronde was given to this Santos model [a vintage watch worn by a Cartier employee who sat in on the interview], which is actually not round at all…I never received an answer to my question when I first joined in 1984, and I still don’t know!
Moving to watches and jewellery, how important is the feel of the pieces versus how they look?
In jewellery, ergonomics is key, and in fact our vision in terms of watchmaking and jewellery is linked (by this). It is a specific skill in jewellery (or to jewellery) in considering how the object will wear… it is not like making little sculptures, which is something that might come to mind (as being analogous). Jewellery is worn, and worn mainly by women, and also always in motion, which has enormous consequences for how the jewellers conceive objects. This culture (of creativity) from jewellery is also very important for watchmaking (because watches are also worn). So if we have a specific (identity) through our creations in watchmaking, it is because we were a jeweller before being a watchmaker.
I think being a jeweller first also gave us (a degree of) freedom in a way and that also makes it totally obvious when you think of the (initial) decision to go on shapes. In fact, we became the designer of shapes in terms of watchmaking, but there is a total logic there because we were not originally a provider of movements and we were not on the technical side; we were a creator of beautiful objects. For us, a watch was a beautiful object or had to be a beautiful object, and that is our vision and explains everything we do, till today I think.
What is a Cartier watch design that challenged you?
Well, the Ballon Bleu was for me one of the most interesting exercises I had to face in terms of creativity because we wanted a round watch, but typically Cartier, so it is a contradiction in terms. Because, you know, we were born doing all shapes but round (and thus known for our range of various shapes, as I said). Thus for Ballon Bleu, we said let’s think of this design as if nothing is impossible; impossible is not French!
So, we went forward and the idea was to create something like a pebble; the brilliant idea was to get rid of the (traditional) crown) by including it within the circular shape of the case (instead of protruding as it normally does) in a space that was like a bubble. Obviously, it is not a regular round watch because it is so bizarre to not have the crown present as usual. But the design logic is there, and the ergonomic presence of the watch, in terms of how soft it feels, is there. One thing I recall perfectly about this model is the design of the bracelet, which I thought should be elegant and serviceable, not adding something else in terms of creativity, or another point of interest.
How much of Cartier’s design philosophy, as far as watches go, can be tied back to 1904?
I think when you analyze the creations, the different creations in terms of watchmaking from 1904, the original design of the Santos (from the first piece designed in 1904, for aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont and then the production models in 1911) until (the designs of) 1917, and the 1920s…it is very, very interesting because you have that idea to design for the first time an object that contains a watch designed specifically to be worn on the wrist (as a tool).
That was brilliant because before that, a man could only wear a pocket watch linked with a strap on his wrist. The basis of the design for the watch Santos-Dumont would use was a square shape with rounded corners because we had pocket watches in this style. But, if we create an object, it has to have aesthetical validity; the Santos-Dumont of 1904 was valid as an object, but for Louis Cartier and his team it was not corresponding to the purest shape possible to achieve the objective (of being a great wristwatch). So we followed up with the Tonneau watch just two years (1906) later, which was bigger. That is why it was curved, because it had to follow the curve of a wrist. If it was smaller, it could be flat, so in 1912, we came up with the Tortue, which is the flat version.
Five years later, in 1917, it was the (now-famous) two parallel lines (that characterised the Tank). There is nothing simpler than two parallel lines that link up (the Tank Normale this year harks back to this original Tank). In 1922, Louis Cartier himself asked to get rid of that metal between the lugs, and to just have the two parallel lines and no metal (or as little metal showing as possible). So, in our archives, this Tank is suddenly called Tank Louis Cartier. Louis Cartier personally asked to do that and to produce that model, you know, and it was not often like this, where he interfered in the design process. So if that watch bears that name, it is because his will to modify it was very strong. The sense of purity here is really something very important, not only for Louis Cartier but for many people of this time. The two first decades of the 20th century, that’s where many revolutions happened in terms of design, art in general and many other areas, and Louis Cartier is part of this new era.
This article was first published on WOW Autumn Issue #70