Looking underneath the luxury: The Cartier Charitable Foundation

Looking underneath the luxury: The Cartier Charitable Foundation

Helping hands

Text: Angelyn Kwek


There’s more to the Cartier name beyond dazzling first impressions, and its one that runs deep with an altruistic mission. With a strong belief in social causes, we get the inside word on how the maison’s Charitable Foundation gives back in a big way

The word association game whenever Cartier is mentioned is usually along the lines of  'coveted', 'luxury' or even 'Love bracelet' but here's a lightbulb moment: Cartier is #goals when it comes to corporate social responsibility.

Nearly five years ago to the date, the Charitable Foundation was established in Geneva, Switzerland, and as an autonomous arm of the maison, has since sought to improve the livelihoods of the most vulnerable across the globe. Initiated by the ambition to promote women's rights, alleviate poverty and encourage responsible fairtrade practices in the jewellery industry, Cartier has actually been in the philanthropic game for a lot longer than half a decade. Its curriculum vitae for charity include being a founding member of the Responsible Jewellery Council in 2005 to promote accountability among jewellers, as well as launching the Cartier Women's Initiative Awards to empower female entrepreneurs.

Chaired by commitment and consciousness, the Cartier Charitable Foundation is the next-level manifestation of the maison's social awareness and humanitarian efforts, which structures, centralises and coordinates the programmes Cartier supports. By collaborating with recognised NGOs and United Nations agencies, Cartier not only strategically maximises the Foundation's budget for long-term sustainability, they also endeavor to tackle problems that parlay the expertise of each organisation in their respective fields. The partnership roster reads impressively with names such as Doctors without Borders, Action Against Hunger, UNICEF, Keep a Child Alive, and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies — among many others.

In the spirit of all that's good and benevolent, the accomplishments of the Foundation comprises on-going work in securing basic services (drinking water, primary healthcare, shelter or education), responsibly managing natural resources to create resilient agricultural systems, championing social and economic development for marginalised women, and providing emergency response in regions with natural disasters or disease outbreaks. Impossibly ambitious, you say? Indeed. But as a brand that has always reached for the stars, hear it from the Foundation's executive director, Pascale de la Frégonnière, and board member Gregoire Blanche — who is also Cartier's regional managing director overseeing Southeast Asia and Ocean — on what it means to truly change the world.

The Cartier Charitable Foundation is a remarkable platform that has revolutionised positive change since 2012. Can you share with us some of achievements that have touched you on a personal level?
Gregoire Blanche (GB): I was approached to set up a foundation to coordinate all the charity work done by the maison, and the task seemed extremely daunting because I had no clue how to go about this. The only thing I could build [the Foundation] on at the time were actually two components: One, my knowledge of the maison — the values and what really drives us; our history and everything we had already accomplished both as a business and as a patron of different causes — and second, my management skills. Then I look four years down the road at what has been accomplished... and that would be my answer; seeing that what was originally an idea and desire to how it has made an impact today. So it's the journey for me, which obviously will keep going on.

Pascale de la Frégonnière (PF): I have a more personal kind of fulfillment that I get from doing this work, as I'm also a mother. I was pregnant in a war zone before, and I had my children — who were one and three then — with me in Iraq, and the situation was very difficult. To see other children close in age to my own suffering; it was horrifying. Then you understand that if you can do something about it, you need to do it.

Cartier Charitable Foundation

So now when I visit a project where we support children in very remote, rural areas where we will conduct health screenings and provide treatment, I think it's a great accomplishment. The organisation we're working with has managed to get a team of surgeons that will set up a surgical camp locally three to four times a year to treat all the people in need of medical assistance, and most are children. To see these doctors who are so committed — they're devoting their time and not making money on this — and I've also visited the families before and after surgery; you're just like, 'this is so worth it, no matter the cost'.

It's like the pride of a people showing us they can turn on the tap to get clean water for their families. It's wonderful, and it's not something you gift to them, it's something they've earned, something they've worked for, something they deserve — it's quite fascinating.

Is it like your life's work coming true to you in a sense?

PF: Yes, definitely. I mean, I've had some colleagues at work who say, "I can't see it in these pictures," when I'm just showing them photographs, and that's because it's just too overpowering at times. And the images do not fully encompass the terrible conditions. But it's true that we're dealing with situations that are at times extremely difficult, and making a difference there is worth it.

Do you have an inspirational figure you look up to that has spurred you on in this line of work?
PF: I've met a number of people from the United Nations that were doing an incredible amount of work. My ex-husband had worked with Mother Teresa, and said when she couldn't get things done, for example, getting food to some people, she'd call on this or that person, and say, "it's time to do something". Mother Teresa was just the tiniest woman that had an incredible strength, and she managed to make world leaders make decisions that they wouldn't have made if it weren't for her calling. She was just so genuine about everything. When you hear of stories like that, when you come across people that are so dedicated, it's fantastic. And more than knowing famous people, when I go to the slums of Pune in India to visit an organisation that takes care of HIV-positive patients — and of all staff are HIV-positive too — at the end of the day they come up to me and say, "you're not too tired?" when they're the ones that are giving their lives to help others — that is simply admirable.

"In order to do better, to have a greater impact on all the charitable work being done, we need to do it in a different way with a proper organisation."

GB: Well, I wouldn't go with any one famous. My mother is very involved with a lot of charitable work and through her — she's part of the contacts that I depended on — I begin to work on the Foundation. She's quiet and doesn't talk about her work, but she has taught me that though we might have our own lives, and we might be extremely fortunate in many ways, yet despite of all that, you'll always have a part of you which you've invested in others — that was what I learnt from her. So yes, she would be my inspiration.

What are some of the most challenging initiatives the foundation has implemented thus far, and the results of which have been astounding?
PF: One aspect is the sustainability of what we do. That is extremely challenging because you can put in your best effort, the best organisation but there are things that are just not in your control. Once the project is implemented, ideally you want it to keep renewing itself. And another one is to really understand that if you want to work on gender issues and enable women to have access to resources, and to be able to make their own decisions, you need to work with men. The work we do requires convincing the male half in order to support the women. We have on-going programmes in some countries where it's starting to show that they [the men] are supportive, and they're letting their women attend classes. But this is very slow, so there's still a lot to tackle, to better understand how we can focus on that and make it more efficient in helping and establishing some balance in these communities.

There's this quote from the founder and CEO of Educate Girls who said: "In India, a girl isn't an asset, a girl is a liability." So it won't take only women to change that, but it takes talking to men, involving them, and making them understand. We have many strategies!

Cartier Charitable Foundation

What are the future goals of the foundation? Is there a specific area you will be focusing your efforts on?
PF: What I would like to do — and this is a discussion that I'm also having with the Foundation board — is how we're going to progress. We can look back and see three full years of activities behind us, such as what we did well, as well as some things we want to improve on. Again, what we do is not perfect; we continuously need to improve and to get better and more efficient. I really want to work on building the sustainability of every project that we do, and to make sure that no matter how we look at it, it will benefit the people to be more resilient. We see how economic shocks nd climate-related changes happen all the time, and these will occur more and more. So how do we give people the capacity to withstand these changes? By giving them skills, better methods of producing food for their families — there are many aspects and I would like us to focus more on that because those are some of the major issues we have to face in the near future.

What did you think are some of the common misunderstandings of NGOs? And how does the foundation correct these public opinions? For instance, how do you think millennials view charity work?
GB: I don't know if we purposely have a mission to debunk that; I think it's more in the way of how we process and approach everything we do. I think there's a lot of management that goes into it. The approach is very thorough and business-like, actually. You have resources on one side, and you have issues and outcomes that you're seeking. What you try to do is to use those resources to maximise the returns. If I translate it into business terms, that's what it is. So it's not really tree hugging. It's limited resources that we apply and try to maximise as much as possible. And when you go on-ground, you can see the impact. This is where you get that really strong gratification.

It's really the approach, and even with millennials, all the tools that are available are being used to assess, measure and therefore improve what is being done. It's not a very romantic approach; it's a very rational approach. And if somebody speaks extremely well of the emotional aspects, that's all the more reason. It's also why Pascale got into charity work and the Foundation because she's very extremely well-versed in the world of NGOs, their programmes and knows how to manage them. I think that's essential. It's great to have a fantastic programme, but you need to be able to deploy it and implement it.

Cartier Charitable Foundation
So in a way you're also creating awareness.
GB: Yes. Indeed, the way we do it is two-fold. I was mentioning earlier on that not only do we support the programmes financially; we also give them the Cartier name. That is, the weight to the operations carried out on-ground carries the respectability and professionalism that we embody. Secondly, we're using the Cartier branding as a means to put focus on specific causes, which we believe are to be further supported. If there's more people going in the same direction as we are, then that's fantastic.

Will you ever think of involving the public? Will you ever recruit volunteers?
GB: We don't have the assignment of doing the work. Pascale is extremely proficient and extremely professional at identifying programmes and assessing the results. But I don't think we'll ever personally dig a well for water (laughs). That's not our calling, you know. Just like how Cartier went through the process from idea to conviction, the realisation is that in order to do better, to have a greater impact on all the charitable work being done — which are already in place — we need to do it in a different way, and set up a proper organisation with professionals running it. And Pascale knows that in order to address some key issues, such as women's empowerment or access to essential resources, requires professional people on the ground to do so. So there's that chain. If through our work we can inspire younger people to follow us and contribute to the cause, then perfect! That's also part of the mission. And that's the other element I was talking about: Cartier putting its name and reputation behind the specific programmes we support with the Foundation.

Cartier Charitable Foundation

To learn more about the Cartier Charitable Foundation and the programmes it supports, click here.