Most people who buy Cartier items pay tens, even hundreds of thousands of pounds for the elegance and craftsmanship in a watch or piece of jewellery. But many Chinese government officials received them in return for favours. And as the story of Chinese corruption unravels, it is becoming clear how these very expensive brands were used as bribes.
But these days, says Arnaud Bamberger, Cartier UK's 67-year-old executive chairman, sales in China of the elegant watches have fallen – thanks to a government crackdown on corruption.
"The watch made an easy gift and this business was booming," he says. "A lot of officials received very important watches. The price of each watch could be around 20 times their annual salary. [But] there has been a slowdown in the sale of watches to China as a result of an anti-corruption law."
Mr Bamberger will not supply figures, but says the company's sales in China have levelled off. However, markets elsewhere in Asia, Europe and Russia remain strong.
Customers of Cartier, the French-based watch and jewellery company and No2 to Rolex in global luxury watch sales, are numbered among the super-rich.
The cheapest Cartier timepiece sells for £2,000 and is likely to be a well-engineered item, but made of steel. The most expensive can cost several hundred thousand pounds and contain platinum, gold and inlaid gems.
This "haute horlogerie" is made in Switzerland and consists of pieces of jewellery that happen to tell the time, says Mr Bamberger,
He sports a Tank-styled Cartier on his wrist, but says he has a private collection of some 40 watches accumulated over his 37-year career. The Tank has a classic design modelled on the watch worn by the company's founder, Louis Cartier.
Mr Bamberger, an engaging Frenchman, describes himself as a "salesman to important clients and an ambassador". He sells to royal families, captains of industry and the playboy rich. Photographs of him guiding the Queen around company events adorn his walls and office mantelpiece.
"We still have a few royal families on board, thank God," he says.
"I regularly see some of the big names in royalty. I have the Royal Warrant so I still sell a few products to the Royal Family. It is my job to ensure that they buy one day. I am very fond of the Queen."
He has lived in Britain for 20 years and professes to be an "Anglophile". Recently elected president of the French Chamber of Commerce, a trade body in London to promote French companies, he considers himself one of the lucky few.
"Not many French people have been accepted by the British. I am one of the few that have. We need smaller companies to get into the British market, which is a difficult market.
"The French are quite talented, you know. They have a tradition about luxury and craftsmanship. They care about the quality of the product."
But he regrets that so many French entrepreneurs have left their home country.
"We are running through a tough time. There are huge taxes in France under the Socialist regime.
"I am sorry to see so many people flying away from France. They are entrepreneurs. They don't want to be taxed so heavily.
"I hope we can grab back quite a few of these talents. They don't want to be killed by taxes."
Purchases of the most expensive Cartier products by the super-rich have compensated for a decline in the lower-priced products during the recession.
"People have not known where to invest in today's low interest rate environment, and they have turned to buy something that doesn't devalue," Mr Bamberger says. "It is like buying gold."
The secondary market in Cartier products is also strong – its watches hold their value. The company has had to raise its retail prices to respond to the strength of the gold price, but prices will not fall to reflect its collapse.
"It is very rare that we bring down the price of the product", he says.
Prices are based on long-term investment in commodities – including gold, platinum and diamonds – and price reductions usually only occur when taxes in a country change.
Luxury makers are restrained in their capacity to diversify creations, says Mr Bamberger, and Cartier has no plans to expand its products range outside expensive watches and jewellery.
"We could not make haute couture. Our legacy is not making handbags. We are a traditional watchmaking and jewellery business and we respect the craftsmanship of what we sell."
The need to promote the Cartier name to emerging markets was the goal of a short film for television and the cinema last year.
Mr Bamberger says: "We felt we had to promote Cartier's DNA globally, especially in emerging markets, so people know what Cartier is. It was about romancing our products, giving the historical background."
In the film, called L'Odyssee de Cartier, a panther moves from St Petersburg to China to an Indian palace and finally to Paris, where Cartier was founded.
The panther lands on Place Vendôme – the location of a major Cartier shop in Paris's high jewellery centre – and meets model Shalom Harlow at the Grand Palais.
One critic called the prize-winning film "a visual spectacular of cutting-edge special effects".
Mr Bamberger expects the company will return to the screen in the next five years. He adds that, as with everything else, Cartier will take its time.
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