French ambassador Bernard Vernier-Palliez proposed a toast to Nathalie Hocq, chairman of Cartier International, in town to inspect the recently opened 111th Cartier store, this one in Chevy Chase.

"You have shown that a team of youngsters can lead one of the good old names to success," said the ambassador, turning to the slender, dark-haired Hocq, 32, at the end of a Cartier fashion retrospective and candlelit dinner for 425 earlier this week at the Pension Building.

Welcoming her guests, the cordial but businesslike Hocq noted, "The House of Cartier started 136 years ago this week. Happy birthday to us." For Hocq, the visit here was just a stopover on one of her almost continuous 'round-the-world working trips. In just a few years, the fast-moving Hocq has polished the Cartier image and reminded people of the prestigious jewelry house in its heyday.

Hocq's father, Robert Hocq, was an entrepreneur who convinced Cartier to license a cigarette lighter that was too classy for his own line of middle-price lighters. The lighter was such a success that Cartier shareholders made Robert Hocq president of the company.

Nathalie Hocq had resisted working for her father, but his manufacturing business began to interest her with the Cartier link. So she finally joined her father's firm. "I told him to give me no title, nothing. Just let me work in some place where no one else works. I told him, 'You have nothing to lose.' " When her father became president of Cartier, he hired his 21-year-old daughter. A few years later, however, her father was struck and killed by an automobile after lunching with Nathalie. She was made president and chief executive officer of Cartier.

The Cartier business, founded in Paris in 1847, was built on fine jewelry, much of it for royalty. Louis Franc,ois Cartier had commissions from Napoleon's court, and by the turn of the century Cartier was the crown jeweler to the British throne and had appointments to the court in Russia, Italy, Egypt, Morocco and more. "If they have become the jewelers of kings, it is because they are the king of jewelers," said King Edward VII of England, who ordered 27 tiaras from Cartier for his coronation in 1902.

Louis Cartier, grandson of the founder and a great exponent of Art Deco, changed the look of jewelry, according to Nathalie Hocq. "He had been selling to kings and queens and his clients started asking for other things. Le tout Paris had parties, and he was asked to make small gifts to give away at parties," says Hocq, who found, to her surprise, belts, boudoir accessories, even shoes with jewels in the company archives. Louis Cartier is credited with introducing platinum in jewelry, making the first wristwatch (for Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont) and designing the much-copied "Tank" watch, as a tribute to the American tank corps.

Hocq was not brought up surrounded by jewels. "My father started losing his family when he was 14--all he inherited was a chair," she said in her suite at the Four Seasons before the dinner. "We have no aristocratic blood in our family." But it was not difficult getting used to wearing jewlery. She wore a gold-and-diamond bracelet; three rings, including the classic Cartier three-gold ring, and a belt with a gold chain. "I always liked art and beautiful things," she says.

At the age of just 15 1/2 she passed her baccalaureate and took her university degree in Paris from Dauphine University, where she studied economics and management at night so she could work during the day. "Besides," she said, "those courses are so theoretical and slow." Through a newspaper ad, she landed a job with a market research firm as an interviewer, replacing a woman who was ill. "They gave me the worst suburb, running up and down stairs knocking at doors; 80 out of 100 snapped the door in your face. That was a good start," she said, smiling. "Women are not so liberated as in America. At age 16, unless you want to work in a factory, it is tough to find a job. I was happy that woman got sick."

While finishing the university in three years, she assisted the publicity head at a large advertising agency in Paris, then went to Switzerland to work for a company specializing in mergers and acquisitions. In 1972 her father was made president of Cartier and she joined the company, too.

"I started analyzing everything, talking to everyone and, little by little, I discovered things to be done," said Hocq.

Her most important discovery at Cartier was that there was one designer in the company and he was not designing in the traditional Cartier style. "There is a Cartier style like there is an aeronautical style or a Japanese style. It is difficult to describe, but there are reference points. I had to study the excellency of the past, go back to the source."

With the help of the ministry of culture she tracked down an 80-year-old former Cartier designer and two former craftsmen. "If you let the craftsmen disappear, you can't train young people," she said. The old designer now comes in two days a week to work with the 14 designers on the staff. "I wanted the follow-up of traditional style plus innovation of the young," says Hocq.

Apparently her plan works. Hocq now concentrates on marketing in the 90 countries where Cartier is sold. "I travel all over. I'm basically everywhere." She had just come in from Europe with a suntan she had gotten during a weekend in Morocco. Her French braid was a bit undone, her pleated front shirt slightly wrinkled. "I feel like a suitcase," she said.

But Cartier, which had declined in prestige before her father took over, now is a highly profitable business, with $270 million annual sales. As a result of its success, the company spent $1.5 million in legal fees. "If your design is good," she said, "everybody tries to copy it."