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“It’s a mansion.”
This is a line that comes up a lot when discussing the recently renovated Cartier store on New York City’s Fifth Avenue. Indeed, the now 44,000-square-foot landmark space that has served as the jewelry company’s North American flagship store for nearly a century was originally a home. Designed in 1904 for Morton Plant, the son of a railroad tycoon, and his first wife, Nellie, on the site of a former Roman Catholic orphanage—on land owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt—the four-story marble and granite Italian Renaissance manse (with a grand staircase to accommodate a bustled ball gown) was yet another stately home on Millionaires’ Row.
But around the turn of the 20th century, the area was changing. Homes were becoming Waldorf Astorias and stores—the Vanderbilts’ became Bergdorf Goodman—and the rich were moving uptown, across from Central Park. By 1917 Plant was a new widower with an even newer wife, Maisie. They started building a home up on 86th Street. Shortly after the wedding, Maisie stopped by Pierre Cartier’s store, four blocks up Fifth Avenue from their 52nd Street home. There she saw a double-strand Oriental pearl necklace with a $1 million price tag (about $16 million today). Cultured pearls did not yet exist, so pearls were more valuable than diamonds. Plant called Pierre, grandson of founder Louis-François Cartier, and traded the mansion for the pearls, plus $100.
Almost a century later, the Plant mansion underwent its third, and most significant, renovation. “Houses are memories and dreams,” says architect Thierry Despont. “I wanted to put back the memories.” Based in New York and known for his recent renovation of the Ritz Paris, Despont spent four years on the store. Putting memories back in a Landmarks Commission–protected Beaux-Arts mansion takes a lot of work. “The mansion,” he says, “was a bit of a maze.”
“The whole flow wasn’t as optimized,” Cartier’s North American president, Mercedes Abramo, says diplomatically. As the boutique’s manager from 2008 to 2011, she would know. “We’ve spent many years thinking about the mansion’s next phase.”
What the company—since 1988 a part of the Richemont group, which also includes Van Cleef & Arpels, Panerai, and Chloé—wants next is simple. Now that Cartier sells fragrances, handbags, home goods, and paper goods in addition to jewelry fine enough for royalty and Oscar winners, it hopes to welcome every level of Cartier customer at one place. And, trust us, having quintupled the selling space, there is now a room for everyone, from the first floor, where the high jewelry is shown, up to the VIP area on the sixth floor, for private events and custom, hundred-million-dollar orders. In between, there are rooms dedicated to famous Cartier clients—Princess Grace of Monaco’s yellow oval room, a leather-walled men’s watch room for Gary Cooper. A digital-screened room is dedicated to fragrances, and on the second floor is a stationery room. The fourth floor is for home goods and leather bags, lined in the same red leather as Cartier jewelry boxes.
The mansion is also a home for the VVVIP customer. Halfway up the first flight of stairs on the grand staircase (“We brought it back!” Despont nearly screams with excitement. “Can you believe it was gone?”), a push on the oak paneling gives way to a secret door. Once open, a mezzanine area is revealed, closed off by velvet curtains. It’s here that modern-day Grace Kellys and Gary Coopers are shown Cartier’s multi-million-dollar treasures, away from the eyes and cell phone cameras below. “Or not,” says Despont. “The curtains draw back. Some people want to be seen in a mansion, you know.”
653 Fifth Avenue; 212-446-3400; cartier.com.
Tucked away on the second floor of the Cartier mansion, between the Princess Grace and Elizabeth Taylor rooms, is a 160-square-foot Valhalla for people who still buy stamps. The only one in the world, the Stationery Salon is where Cartier’s taut, 96-pound paper goods are ordered and can be embossed with nearly anything—from a new name to an old family crest. To herald the new store, Cartier has released a series of note cards celebrating New York City, including the brand’s panther pulling a King Kong on the Empire State Building. Set of ten note cards and envelopes, $125.