In 1847, Louis-Francois Cartier founded what is now known as the Cartier SA watch company when he took over the workshop of his watchmaker master. Later, in 1874, Louis-Francois's son Alfred Cartier took the administrative reins of the company. It wasn't until his own sons, Louis, Pierre and Jacques were in control, however, that Cartier became established as the worldwide brand it is known to be today.

One of the first major turning points for the Cartier brand began in the form of a complaint. Alberto Santos-Dumont, a Brazilian pilot and aviation pioneer complained about using pocket watches while flying to his friend Louis Cartier. Pocket watches were neither reliable nor practical, and required too much attention to operate, therefore posing major interruptions during the process of piloting a plane. Louis Cartier heard a challenge in this complaint, and in 1904 he designed a flat wristwatch. Not only was Santos-Dumont very satisfied and impressed, but so were many of Cartier's own clients. This early popular design was named the "Santos" in honor of its inspiration, and this model is still known as the first wristwatch designed for men. One wristwatch had previously been designed by Patek Phillipe for a woman.

Still responsible for the Paris branch of the company, Louis Cartier moved to the Rue de la Paix in 1899, where he became known for producing some of the company's most beloved designs. Some of his inventive marvels included the "mystery clocks" which were thusly named because their inner workings were hidden from view. He also spent this time designing elegant wristwatches intended as fashion statements, and cutting edge art deco models.

In 1907, Edmond Jaeger offered to supply the movements, or internal timekeeping mechanisms, for Cartier watches alone, and a contract was signed to secure this business arrangement. Next, Cartier established a New York branch in 1909. When he decided to move locations within New York in 1917 to the Cartier company's current location of 653 Fifth Avenue, Cartier acquired the mansion located there by offering its previous inhabitant, Morton Freeman Plant, $100 in cash in addition to a pearl necklace which was worth $1 million at the time. The Cartier company now had branches in St. Petersburg, New York and London. It was already one of the most successful producers of timepieces in the world. By the early 1920's, the Cartier company was beginning to authenticate its own watches by stamping four digit reference numbers on their works, usually on the underside of a lug. To this day, many collectors will not accept a Cartier watch as genuine unless the watch features these reference numbers.

In 1964, Pierre Cartier died, and the Cartier children of the next generation, Jean-Jacques, Claude and Marionne who were also heading the Cartier affiliates in London, New York and Paris respectively, sold these businesses. Joseph Kanoui led a group of investors who bought the Cartier company in 1972. In 1974, however, Cartier London was bought back, as was Cartier New York in 1976. Finally, in 1979, these branches were condensed to create "Cartier Monde" which controlled all branches.