Cartier is well known for its watches and fine jewelry, but the French luxury goods company has used precious metals to make more than just accessories. Sitting in the lobby of 610 Fifth Avenue at Rockefeller Center is one of those other objects, a shiny sterling silver Cartier plane model. The miniature aircraft was fabricated by Cartier silversmiths in Paris and gifted to Rockefeller Center by the French government in 1933.
The airplane model is one of the many little-known stops on Untapped New York’s Secrets of Rockefeller Center tour. On the tour, you can get an up-close look at the plane and admire the craftmanship firsthand.
Secrets of Rockefeller Center
The silver Cartier plane is a to-scale reproduction of Le Point d’Interrogation, or “Question Mark” in English. Le Point d’Interrogation was a Breguet Br. 19 TF Super Bidon (super tank) made by a French aeronautics company. It was specifically designed for long-distance journeys. The plane had two wings – the top of which was larger and spanned just over 60 feet – a single engine, and two fuel tanks. It was painted a bright red and adorned with a large white question mark. In September 1930, French aviators Dieudonné Costes and Maurice Bellonte made history by flying the plane on the first nonstop, transatlantic flight from Paris to New York City.
Costes and Bellonte’s flight took a total of 37 hours, 18 minutes, and 30 seconds to complete. They took off from Aéroport de Paris – Le Bourget and landed in Curtiss Field in Valley Stream, New York. Their route was a reverse of that taken by Charles Lindbergh in 1927 on his record-setting flight. Lindbergh departed from Roosevelt Field in New York and landed in Paris. When Le Point d’Interrogation landed in New York, Lindbgerh was among the 25,000 onlookers and bearers of congratulations.
There are a few reasons why the airplane was referred as “Question Mark” (it was also called Le Rouge, or “the red one” for it’s bright paint job). It likely stems from the secrecy which surrounded the plane. Secrets of Rockefeller Center tour guide and Untapped New Yorker’s Chief Experience Officer Justin Rivers says one of plane’s sponsors was anonymous. The mystery donor turned out to be Francois Coty of the Coty fragrance company. This theory brings the story of the plane full circle back to Rockefeller Center, since Francois Coty’s perfume emporium was located at 714 Fifth Avenue (former site of Henri Bendel), just a few blocks from Rockefeller Center, while Cartier‘s flagship is just across the street.
Memorial Flight, the company that restored the original plane from 1997 to 2002, says “Question Mark” was a nickname that mechanics working on the plane used due to the covert conditions they had to work under. Another reason put forth for the name is that the innovative, and therefore yet untested, technology put into the plane could have had…questionable results.
A plaque next to the silver Cartier plane model in the Rockefeller Center lobby notes that it is “scientifically correct in every detail.” Though much smaller than the real “Question Mark,” this sculptural form is not that tiny. It measures 28 1/2 inches in overall length, stretches 48 inches from wing-tip to wing-tip, and reaches 10 1/2 inches in height. It is clearly adorned with the signature question mark of Le Point d’Interrogation and, if you look closely, you can see it is also engraved with all of the insignia and destinations that were painted onto the real plane.
The plaque also states that the model was a gift “for La Maison Francaise,” the building at 610 Fifth Avenue where it still sits today. La Maison Francaise is part of Rockefeller Center’s International Complex which is comprised of the British Empire Building and an International Building, along with the French one. It was a hub for French companies, though over time other various tenants moved in.
Cartier’s ties to aviation go beyond this one foray into model airplane building. It was a pilot who inspired one of Cartier’s signature pieces, the Santos de Cartier men’s wristwatch. This simple square watch was designed by Louis Cartier in 1904 for aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont, and is considered one of the earliest modern wristwatches and first pilot’s watch. Men usually carried pocket watches at the time, but fumbling around in a pocket and digging out a watch on a chain was not very conducive to flying planes. The Santos De Cartier watch is defined by its clean square face and exposed screws.
The original Le Point d’Interrogation is now on display in the Musée de l’Air and de l’Espace. The aircraft was gifted to the museum in 1938. The Cartier version of the plane can be seen in the black and grey lobby of 610 Rockefeller Center. See the plane and uncover more secrets of Rockefeller Center (including secret gardens, a room covered in gold, and more!) on Untapped New York’s walking tour of the iconic Art Deco site!
Secrets of Rockefeller Center
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