How Cartier Built an Empire by Claiming Indian and Islamic Art as its Own

From its Tutti Frutti collection to bejeweled cases, the French luxury jewelry house has long appropriated Eastern influences, calling it aesthetic exchange.

Sneha Mehta

March 29, 2022

How Cartier Built an Empire by Claiming Indian and Islamic Art as its Own
Tutti Frutti bracelet (Sotheby's)

At a fashion show in Paris in January, rapper Pharell Williams wore a pair of bejeweled sunglasses with drop-shaped lenses that he had “custom-designed.” The glasses marked the start of his much-anticipated collaboration with luxury jeweler Tiffany & Co. On closer inspection, design experts realized that the sunglasses were replicas of 17th-century Mughal spectacles with emerald lenses, which a Sotheby’s auction had featured in 2021.

People soon called out Williams and Tiffany & Co. for cultural appropriation. Only a month or so later, Tiffany & Co. got into trouble again. In February, French-headquartered luxury jewelry designer Cartier sued Tiffany & Co. because a former employee had joined Tiffany’s and allegedly took Cartier’s “high jewelry” trade secrets with her.

The situation is especially ironic because Cartier, since the early 20th century, has long used Islamic and Indian art for inspiration to create some of its most iconic and premium jewelry pieces. A Tutti Frutti bracelet, for example, featuring colorful Mughal-era stones, can sell for over $2 million today. The rise of Cartier — and the endurance of its brand — is in part due to its choice to coopt Islamic and Indian visual references. Cartier defined its aesthetic and built its very empire on these designs, claiming them as their own and changing Western luxury jewelry forever.