Enlightened urbanism is not the first thing that comes to mind when a prestigious jeweler owned by a multinational luxury goods conglomerate throws open its doors. Yet with the reopening this week of the Cartier flagship on Fifth Avenue, after a renovation of more than two years, it is the city itself that reclaims a gem.
Last of the private mansions to remain from a time when that particular stretch of Midtown, just north of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, was a preferred address for New York’s moneybag set, the Cartier store had lost its luster over the decades, as indeed had Fifth Avenue itself.
A variety of factors drove the decision by Compagnie Financière Richemont — which counts among its holdings Van Cleef & Arpels, Dunhill, Chloé and many major watchmaking houses — to restore the 1904 landmark, designed by Robert W. Gibson as the residence of Morton F. Plant.
Chief among these was the muddle the old store presented to consumers. A typically bastardized New York conjoining of the grand neo-Renaissance house and a townhouse behind it on East 52nd Street, the pre-renovation Cartier store was a retailing warren, with departments and sales floors on a variety of uneven levels and corporate offices above.
Forbidding from the outside, and far from user-friendly to those bold shoppers who ventured in, the store was unrepresentative of the image the owners of a French firm founded in the mid-19th century aimed to project to moneyed consumers of the 21st.
“It became almost mandatory,” Pierre Rainero, Cartier’s director of image, style and heritage, said by phone from Paris. “The commercial space in that building was too small, and effectively the number of people entering the store needed more space.”
There was another consideration, one related to the democratization of luxury. “We needed the capacity to display all our collections in a right way,” Mr. Rainero said.
Importantly, those collections included both the extravagant jewelry the storied house purveyed to zillionaires and celebrity clients like Princess Grace of Monaco and Elizabeth Taylor and the countless amusing and somewhat less costly oddments that keep corporate coffers brimming.
It was Jacques Cartier, scion of the house’s founder, who once noted that the business of his family firm wasn’t limited to the creation of gorgeous diamond necklaces to “furnish” a woman’s shoulders.
Speaking to reporters at a 1929 exposition in Cairo, Mr. Cartier underscored a further need that privileged woman might have for powder compacts, mirrors, combs and even business cards that his company could happily provide with the “same stamp of originality and art.”
And it is Cartier’s subtle emphasis on its accessories business — as important a profit driver for that company as it is for many luxury labels — that struck a visitor given a preview of the store in the hectic days before its celebrity-studded grand opening.
Under the direction of the French architect Thierry W. Despont, the Cartier house has been wholly transformed into a thing of rational and distinctly Gallic beauty. Gone is the welter of counters, the uneven levels, the tiny dead-end salons and the corporate cubicles.
Replacing them is a luxuriant New York version of a grand Parisian hôtel particulier, rational in plan and replete with airy salons set in telescoping enfilade. Paneled in limed oak, adorned with gilded plaster Art Deco-style friezes, these rooms all surround a brand-new and theatrically grand central staircase flanked by private salons. And on each ascending floor, a shopper processes through the stations of the luxury-goods cross: accessories, stationery, watches.
From discreet mezzanine salons that are like V.I.P. skyboxes furnished with Louis XVI armchairs, a high-end client of Cartier will now be able, while weighing the purchase of costly baubles, to peer down discreetly at the tourists milling about the main sales floor in search of something, anything, they may possibly afford.
Where is the positive urbanism element in all this? Find it in the return of a bricks-and-mortar establishment to an avenue that Forbes once ranked as the most expensive street in the world and a section of Midtown whose parlous aesthetics (think Disney Store or Trump Tower) and once-flagging fortunes are experiencing a welcome revival.
“New York has been in danger of losing its sense of civic pride,” Mr. Despont said, while noting that among the ways urban centers have historically put a public face on civic identity is through the architectural grandeur of railway stations and retail emporiums.
Malls and the self-conscious monuments of modish architectural stars are “one way to kill cities,” he added. And at the very least, such places stand in ungainly contrast to the harmonious, continuous backdrop of an architectural ensemble extending from Rockefeller Center past St. Patrick’s Cathedral; past the renovated Cartier mansion; past the French-style travertine structure into which Harry Winston first moved in 1960 with $35 million in jewels; past the University Club, a neo-Florentine palazzo designed by McKim, Mead & White; past Henri Bendel’s etched-glass Lalique facade; past outposts of Piaget, Omega, De Beers, Mikimoto and other suppliers to what, in Edith Wharton’s day, would have been called the carriage trade.
The terminus of that particular stretch is, of course, the austere 1940 flagship of Cartier’s rival, Tiffany & Company, another handsome, historic structure standing foursquare and proud at an intersection some suggest renaming Bill Cunningham Corner to honor another valued New York landmark.