(About a 3.5 minute read)
I was walking up 5th Avenue yesterday, and as I passed Cartier, festively-adorned with a giant red bow, I remembered a tale about the Cartier Building that I will never forget. My sister and I had popped into the flagship store a few years back just to browse, and later wound up being coerced (very willingly, I might add) into trying on diamond engagement rings, and chatting it up with the loveliest salesman. He was a true historian, telling us stories of New York dating back to the 1900's. If we could have pulled up a chair and poured a cup of tea, we would have. Thirty minutes later, we were completely invested. I mean, I had a 10 carat emerald cut diamond on my finger, so I couldn’t really walk away. Our ears perked up when he said,”Did you girls know that this flagship building was bought in exchange for just a double strand of pearls?” We both looked at each other in disbelief and said, ‘No. This MANSION ON FIFTH AVE? For a pearl necklace!?’
Well, if you’re as curious as we were, here’s how the story went…
In 1909, Pierre Cartier, grandson of founder, Louis-François Cartier set off for New York City to open a small NY headquarters on the fourth floor of 712 Fifth Avenue. Many of you might know the building, as it is currently the home of Henri Bendel (for only about another month, as it is sadly closing it’s doors come January). Within just a few short years, Pierre Cartier was making a name for himself among the elite inhabitants of “Millionaires Row.”
Millionaires Row: The name for several blocks of Fifth Avenue during New York’s Gilded Age. It was home to some of America's most prestigious families, namely the Vanderbilts and the Astors. The homes were massive to say the least, some even taking up full city blocks. If you get a chance, do a quick Google search, and you will be wowed to see what 5th Avenue looked like just over a century ago.
One summer day in 1917, a woman by the name of Mae Caldwell Manwaring (Plant) strolled into Cartier’s shop and fell in love with a double strand of pearls that was in his shop window. Because of the rarity of natural pearls, they had become the symbol of the well-to-do socialites along Millionaires Row, and Ms. Maisie, as she was known, HAD to have these pearls.
Pierre Cartier put a price of ONE MILLION dollars on the necklace, which was not even outrageous for the time. Apparently, back in the early 1900’s, cultured pearls were extremely valuable and even more rare than a diamond, because each pearl had to be carefully harvested by divers. This particular necklace happened to have 128 perfect pearls, and it had taken years to find enough to create the necklace.
So, who was this woman that couldn’t live without this million-dollar necklace? Well, Maisie Plant, was the new wife of Morton F. Plant, American businessman and son of steamship and railroad tycoon, Henry B. Plant. They had married just 10 months after the death of Morton’s first wife. If that isn’t juicy enough for you, Maisie and Morton had a 30-year age gap, and Maisie was still married when their fast and furious romance began! It is said that Morton paid her former husband EIGHT MILLION dollars to ensure their divorce!
The same year Maisie (seen above) set her eyes on those pearls, the Plants were planing to move from their 6-story Neo-Renaissance style mansion at 653 5th Avenue on Millionaires Row, to an even larger mansion they were building on 86th Street and 5th Avenue. Because of the commercial buildings going up in the area, many of the families, once residing in midtown, decided uptown would be the new crème de la crème neighborhood. From what I understand, what we now consider “Uptown” was considered “the country” even though it was just 30 blocks North.
I would imagine news of the Plant's new residence traveled fast through these short blocks of 5th Avenue, because somewhere along the way, Maisie must have begged good ol’ Mort for the necklace, and Pierre saw an opportunity and jumped at it. He presented the Plants with a proposal.
‘I give you the necklace. You give me your 5th Avenue mansion.’
As I mentioned, the necklace, was valued at $1 Million, and according The New York Times, the building was valued at $925,000. Seems like a perfectly fair deal to me. (Insert eye roll ;) Unfortunately, not shortly after the sale, the value of pearls took a nosedive. In 1957, the pearl necklace apparently sold for only $181,000 at the auction of Maisie's estate. Well, hindsight is 20/20 I guess, because the swap was made without a second thought, and on July 21, 1917 'The Real Estate Record And Guide' reported that the deal was done.
"The Morton F. Plant dwelling at the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street, has been sold to Louis J. Cartier, of Paris, and Pierre C. Cartier, of New York, jewelers, who, several months ago leased the property for their business. Ownership was transferred last Saturday for $100 and other valuable considerations."
I guess those pearls were the “other valuable considerations.” Quite the understatement!
As the outstanding mansions of Millionaires Row were torn down to make room for commercial retail shops, I revel in one part of this entire story. Pierre promised that he would keep the integrity of the building and facade intact, and I am happy to report this mansion at 653 5th Avenue, now known as the Cartier Building, currently stands with landmark status in New York City.
Surely a romantic gift that went on to become exceptional New York History.