Louis-François Cartier founded Cartier in Paris in 1847 when he took over the workshop of his master. In 1874, Louis-François' son Alfred Cartier took over the company, but it was Alfred's sons Louis, Pierre and Jacques, who were responsible for establishing the brand name worldwide.
In 1904, the Brazilian pioneer aviator, Alberto Santos-Dumont complained to his friend Louis Cartier of the unreliability and impracticality of using pocket watches while flying. Cartier designed a flat wristwatch with a distinctive square bezel. This watch was liked by not only Santos-Dumont but also many other customers. Thus the "Santos" was born. This was Cartier's first men's wristwatch.
Louis retained responsibility for the Paris branch, moving to the Rue de la Paix in 1899. He was responsible for some of the company's most celebrated designs, like the mystery clocks (a type of clock with a transparent dial and so named because its mechanism is hidden, fashionable wristwatches and exotic orientalist Art Deco designs, including the colorful "Tutti Frutti" jewels.
In 1907, Cartier signed a contract with Edmond Jaeger, who agreed to exclusively supply the movements for Cartier watches. By this time, Cartier had branches in London, New York and St. Petersburg and was quickly becoming one of the most successful watch companies in the world. The Baignoire and Tortue models (both of which are still in production today) were introduced in 1912, followed by the Tank model in 1917. This, designed by Louis Cartier, was inspired from the newly introduced tanks on the Western Front. This line too has survived, with over thirty varieties made since.
In the early 1920s, Cartier formed a joint company with Edward Jaeger (of Jaeger-LeCoultre) to produce movements solely for Cartier. Thus was the European watch and clock company born, although Cartier continued to use movements from other makers. Cartier watches can be found with movements from Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet, Movado and LeCoultre.
Pierre Cartier established the New York City branch in 1909, moving in 1917 to 653 Fifth Avenue, the Neo-Renaissance mansion of Morton Freeman Plant. Cartier acquired the mansion from the Plants in exchange for $100 in cash and a double-stranded natural pearl necklace valued at the time at $1 million.
Among the Cartier team was Charles Jacqueau, who joined Louis Cartier in 1909 for the rest of his life, and Jeanne Toussaint, who was Director of Fine Jewellery from 1933. After the death of Pierre in 1964, Jean-Jacques Cartier (Jacques's son), Claude Cartier (Louis's son), and Marionne Claudelle (Pierre's daughter) — who respectively headed the Cartier affiliates in London, New York and Paris — sold the businesses.
In 1972, a group of investors led by Joseph Kanoui bought Cartier Paris.
Cartier merged in 1981 with "Les Must de Cartier", and Perrin was appointed Chairman of Cartier SAA and Cartier International. The next year, Micheline Kanoui assumed responsibility for jewellery design and launched her first collection "Nouvelle Joaillerie". In 1984, Perrin founded the "Fondation Cartier pour l'art Contemporain" (the Cartier Foundation of Contemporary Art) to bring Cartier into the twenty-first century, by forming an association with living artists.