During the recent Watches & Wonder Geneva exhibition, I secured a one-on-one interview with Cartier International’s CEO and President, Cyrille Vigneron. It was an exciting exhibition for Cartier, which released a world’s first mechanical wonder that was eight years in the making, some spectacular métiers d’Arts pieces using marquetry, miniature painting and more, and a world’s first “squishy” cushion watch made of gold mesh.
At the helm of Cartier for just over six years now, Vigneron is somewhat of a Renaissance man. Cultured, soft spoken and articulate, he discussed history, art, culture and global inspirations that have inspired Cartier over the years.
“Geography, art and other influences from around the world are all sources of inspiration that we continue to reinterpret and make contemporary. It can be something simple like the Tank, or geometric, Islamic, Chinese, but Cartier also has other inspirations, like floral motifs, the panther motif – figurative or not figurative — and other animals that spark our imagination. History runs in circles, culture moves in circles and we are part of those circles.”
With those inspirations in mind, Vigneron was eager to talk about Cartier design strategy and overarching themes. “We have three main parts to our watchmaking strategy,” said Vigneron. “The first is to remain true to who we are; everything we do starts with the design and then the technology has to support that design. We must make beautiful watches because we have a long history in designing beautiful shapes and aesthetics.”
Cartier’s first non-round watch shape, after all, was the Tank in the early 1900’s. Later came the Panther (square), the Santos (cushion-cornered square), the Baignoire (oval), and other distinctively Cartier looks, including the beloved Crash watch.
“We have a plurality of design, and each is exuberant, each is mysterious, each is innovative, and they all define Cartier uniquely. So, when it comes time to create something new, we don’t have the need to go out and start fresh. We just revitalize our past by taking a fresh look at everything we have done for the past 100years,” said Vigneron.
In particular, he notes the Crash unveiled this year with a colorful tiger-stripe motif, the Tank Chinoise with colored geometric motif on the movement parts, the triangular Privee’ bracelet watch that recalls the Rock Crystal bracelet worn by Gloria Swanson and the Coussin cushion-shaped mesh gold bracelet that actually moves when pressed with a finger.
“Of course, the Cartier Privee watches and special pieces should remain rare and be created only in limited quantities for those who want something truly different. They are a nod to the creativity we showcase when we have fresh eyes on the past,” said Vigneron.
In addition to staying true to its core design value and keeping limited rarities, Cartier also focus on on the complicated watch, which in recent years has predominantly been the skeleton or the mysterious watches. Of particular note this year is the Masse Mysterieuse, which was eight years in the making and features the entire mechanical movement housed inside the rotor. A world-first for the brand, this mechanical complicated timepiece is destined for watchmaking history books.
“We don’t start out with our research and design to make a vision we see as the end result. It comes more from open innovations. For example, with the cushion watch that is fluffy, we asked if our designers could find new materials and they opted to find new ways to construct materials we already had, like mesh. So, the product innovation comes in the research, but you never know what the end result will be. When we find something really interesting that we think will make a beautiful product, we go with it. Sometimes we make only one because we don’t know if it will sell or not,” said Vigneron, noting that the brand keeps the truly innovative watches exclusive.
He recalled the Cartier Revelation watch introduced a few years ago that features gold beads in it that formed a panther’s head. It was born of research into using fluids for design and was so wildly in demand that the brand introduced it to the collection — but can still only make 100 pieces per year.
Vigneron admits that the brand has waiting lists: something many of today’s collectors of certain brands with intense, long lists are complaining about. For instance, to own a Crash watch or a Santos Skeleton, there is about a two-year waiting list.
“We don’t want to have over visibility in the market. We believe in limited numbers of creatin watches to keep them are. If you don’t have waiting lists, the watch is not special anymore become it can be found everywhere. I think it is about waiting lists versus instant gratification, and I think waiting makes you cherish it longer and hold on to it longer.”
Ensuring that Cartier is part of the solution to important issues, as well, Vigneron has reinforced the brand’s commitment to certain initiatives (including creating the Cartier Women’s Initiative) and to the environment and biodiversity. Because the Panther is so important o Cartier, the brand has started initiatives to save certain endangered panther species, or to restore their natural habitats so they can grow. Such is the case with the desert panther in Saudi and the Snow Panther in China.
“We joined the UN Development Program, the Lion’s Share, where we work to share profits to support and protect iconic animals and their environment,” said Vigneron, noting that the brand rarely talks about its different philanthropic ventures. “Our policy tis to do first, it is not about communicating about it, it is about doing the direct funding and helping, doing due diligence first. We talk, but we walk more.”
(This article by Roberta Naas first appeared on her column on Forbes.com.)