One of the greatest barter deals in history gave Cartier its Fifth Avenue home
It was the early 1900s, and New York City was in transition. Automobiles were taking over the streets, but horse-drawn carriages were still everywhere. Private mansions lined the heart of Fifth Avenue, an area once called Millionaire's Row that extended from the 30s to the 60s. Even though the skyline was not yet dominated by the iconic Chrysler and Empire State buildings, the city was experiencing explosive and revolutionary growth.
Entering this tumultuous world was Pierre Cartier, the charismatic 31-year-old grandson of the founder of the premier jeweler Cartier.
In 1909, Cartier established its first New York City location and was becoming widely known for fine, innovative designs for men and women.
By 1912, Pierre Cartier had become famous in his own right. He had already sold a tiara set with sapphires and diamonds to a Russian grand duchess and was the driving force behind Cartier's acquisition and sale of the best-known gem in the world — the 45.52-carat Hope Diamond. His name also regularly appeared in the newspapers alongside Elma, his American-born wife, an heiress and cousin of J.P. Morgan. By today's standards, he would be considered a disrupter.
But Pierre wasn't satisfied. Sure, he'd made his New York salon the go-to spot for the best in jewelry and timepieces, but he wanted more. He knew Cartier deserved a grand building worthy of New York City. The building had to be as exciting as the city itself and on par with the Rue de la Paix flagship in Paris and the first London boutique on New Bond Street. The building had to be welcoming, as if customers had been invited into his home.
That was when Maisie Plant, the new, young wife of Morton Plant, the railroad magnate, fell in love with a pearl necklace in Pierre's New York City salon.
The trade of the century
Described by The New York Times as "one of the finest" residences in the area, the Plants' New York City residence was on the corner of 52nd Street and Fifth Avenue. It was built in an Italian Renaissance style of limestone with marble accents.
When Maisie Plant fell in love with the natural, oriental pearl necklace, Pierre Cartier sensed an opportunity. Pierre, the savvy businessman, proposed the deal of a lifetime: He offered to trade the double-strand necklace of the rare pearls — and $100 — for the Plants' New York City home. The necklace was valued at $1 million, while the building was valued at $925,000, according to The New York Times.
The pearls were worth more than the Mansion at the time. Why were the pearls so costly? Cultured pearls had not fully entered the marketplace yet, which meant that each natural pearl had to be found by divers. It had therefore taken Cartier years to assemble the 128 graduated, perfectly matched pearls of Plant's necklace. Additionally, diamonds were becoming less valuable because of recent discoveries in Africa. Because of their rarity, natural pearls had become the symbol of the well-to-do socialite.
As the years went by, movie stars, royalty, and New Yorkers of every stripe gravitated toward the Mansion. It became New York City's showplace.
Now, 99 years after its opening, the Cartier Fifth Avenue Mansion has been restored.
Set to reopen in mid-September, it remains true to Pierre Cartier's vision: Its public spaces are regal but welcoming, as if entering a home. The salons still feature one-of-a-kind jewels, spectacular objects, and innovative timepieces. To this day, it remains a showplace.
Restoration was a multiyear process from the ground up. Since the Mansion is an official New York landmark, plans for the exterior had to be approved by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Much of the original oak paneling was refurbished and reinstalled with additional sections built to fit the new rooms. The available space is more than five times as large as the previous space, expanding from 8,600 square feet on two floors to 44,100 square feet on four floors.
More than 100 window treatments and 43 fabrics and leathers were custom-made for the walls, furniture, and draperies. Lead architect Thierry Despont created 35 unique furniture styles for the renovated Mansion.
The innovative spirit of Pierre Cartier remains a part of the newly restored Mansion. Every inch bristles with technology designed to offer a superior yet unobtrusive customer experience. It's a classic building in every way, but it's also up-to-the-minute.
The Mansion, bought for a double strand of pearls, became the city's jewel. Now, it's ready for the new century.