Cartier attaches this diamond ring right to your finger

Cartier has carved has carved out quite a niche in its 170 years in the luxury retail business. It makes jewelry – often very expensive jewelry – and has a long history of selling to royalty. King Edward VII called Cartier “the jeweler of kings and the king of jewellers” and for his coronation in 1902 he ordered no fewer than 27 tiaras from the company. After all, it’s good, as Prince Harry will tell you, to have spares.

Of course, Cartier’s product line is not one that requires annual hardware or software updates. Still, technology is in everything these days, and even non-tech fashion brands are eager to keep up with the times. For years now, brands like Gucci and Burberry have been at the forefront of the luxury sector’s serious flirtation with e-commerce, investing in games, among other things. Now Cartier is looking to reinvent retail with augmented reality. Not with your regular AR, mind you. It didn’t come at a scratch for the company. No, Cartier decided to try to create its own virtual shopping experience.

Photo: Cartier

An AR trial program, which Cartier calls “The Mirror Glass,” created in partnership with software developers Jolibrain and Blue Trail Software, is being tested in several of its stores around the world. At this early stage, it allows customers to look at digital rings that aim to convincingly simulate the real thing on their hands. So far, there are 13 rings available in the Looking Glass program, with prices ranging from about $3,000 to $200,000, though Cartier says more are on the way — and, naturally, it’s considering moving beyond rings to cuffs, bracelets, and, yes, possibly watches.

Companies including Ikea and Zenni Optical have AR modes that approximate how their digital products might look in the real world. Gucci has released an AR feature for Snapchat that lets people try on its shoes. TAG Hauer tested AR watch demos more than a decade ago. However, unlike all these others, the Cartier AR venture is not accessible from the comfort of your phone. This is a personal in-store experience only. Despite the era of uncertainty brought on by the pandemic, Cartier is redoubling its efforts to get bums in its stores, the bait being an augmented experience you just can’t get from the comfort of your own couch or study.

Cartier has experimented with mixed reality before, of course. In 2019, the company tested a surveillance booth that depicted jewelry as rotating holograms. It is clear that Cartier has an interest in mimicking the presence of its very expensive products. Because its goods are made from rare, expensive gems and metals and are often one-off pieces, the company naturally can’t just FedEx something from store to store, from country to country, whenever a potential customer is interested. When you have armored trucks, armed guards, store guards and the like in charge, transporting such items around the world inevitably takes a lot of resources. However, if you could just make a piece appear in the shop – as if by magic – you could save a lot of time, money and (probably) carbon emissions. The problem is, in order to make the sale, you have to make the illusion appear really good.

Andrew Haarsager, the head of Cartier’s retail innovation lab, sat me down at a desk in Cartier’s San Francisco store to show me how the technology works. It’s a no-nonsense setup. Looking Glass is a lamp, albeit a very stylish lamp, located in the corner of the desk. Inside is a camera that casts video to a large iPad sitting next to it. A desktop computer case rattled quietly on the floor behind the desk, powering the resource-hungry program. The technology uses GANs or Generative Adversarial Networks, which are commonly used in creating deep fake videos.

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