All About Pearls; History: Buying the Cartier Building

Pearls have been involved in dramas as exciting as any daytime soap opera! Today we visit another historical chapter in this chronicle about pearls, which, oddly, starts with a building.


Cartier Headquarters, NYPresent Day Cartier NY Headquarters

The Cartier Building is one of the most well known landmarks in New York City. It is also sometimes known as the Morton F. Plant House and was pretty famous under that name as well. The story about how the building traded one name for another is what we are interested in today. It involves a strand of pearls and $100, and a rather remarkable couple.

 What was this strand of pearls that caused a building to change names? It was a natural, double-strand Oriental pearl necklace composed of 128 flawless matched natural pearls that had taken years to match, priced at $1.2 million in 1917. This breathtaking necklace had just arrived in NYC after touring Europe, being exhibited in cities such as Paris and London. In fact the necklace was causing quite an uproar, with women coming from all over just to admire it. And Masie was one of the women who very much admired it. Mae (Masie) Caldwell Plant was the second wife of Morton F. Plant, and used to getting what she wanted.


Morton F. Plant House, circa 1910Morton F. Plant House, circa 1910

The building involved was as spectacular as the necklace. It was a five-story mansion built in the Neo-Renaissance style in 1905. Built of granite and marble and finished with all the magnificent detailing of the style, it was so modish that it instantly became a landmark on “Millionaire’s Row”. But by 1916, stores and businesses were starting to encroach, and with it, the customary traffic and noise such commerce brings. The Plants began construction of a new mansion, an “interpretation of an Italian Renaissance palazzo”, and put their old mansion up for sale, coincidentally for $1.2 million.

And what do we know about Morton F. Plant and his wife Masie? Plant had originally built the 1905 building with his first wife, Nellie, who passed away in 1913. Shortly after her passing, he met Masie, 30 years his junior and already married. Rumors abound as to how this barrier to their relationship was overcome. Some say Plant, 61, paid off Masie’s husband to divorce her. Others say that Masie caught her husband with another woman and sued for a divorce. Whichever was the truth, Masie and Plant married less than a year after Nellie’s passing.

The same sort of hearsay surrounds the trade of the pearls plus $100 for the mansion. It is said that Pierre Cartier was already looking for new headquarters for his NYC store when he noted Masie Caldwell Plant’s interest in the pearl strands, and approached her husband. Others say that Morton Plant noticed his wife’s interest and was the one to broach the deal with Cartier. And still others say that Masie, having received a gift of $8 million from her husband upon their marriage and used to getting what she wanted from him, walked in to Cartier and set up the deal herself.


Masie PlantMasie Plant wearing the $1.2 million Cartier natural pearl necklace, pre-1918

Sadly, Morton Plant passed away just a year after Masie obtained her necklace and they had moved into their new home. Even so, Masie enjoyed the company of two more husbands after her loss of Plant; and through it all she continued to enjoy her pearls. After her death in 1956, her prized pearls were auctioned through Parke-Bernet. Unfortunately, with the advent of Mikimoto’s cultured pearls, the value of Masie’s pearls had dropped like a lead ballon, selling for a mere $170,000.



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