Cartier: Style & History Exhibits the Sparkle of Legends

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On my last visit to Paris, I was lucky enough to see Cartier:  Style & History, the largest exhibition of the master jeweller’s couture works to date.  In all honesty, I was blown away by how well this exhibit was done.  The craftmanship involved in Cartier’s couture jewellery makes each piece a work of fine art.

Louis Francois Cartier established his eponymous jewellery store in 1847 in Paris.  Cartier became quickly known for fulfilling the fantasies of the mega-rich heiresses, actresses and royalty who commissioned couture pieces to bedazzle society.

The Cartier exhibit is massive with approximately 600 pieces of jewellery, desk and dressing table items and other opulent incidentals.

The jewellery tracks the nuances and fashions of the periods during which they were commissioned, such as Art Deco or the fascination with Ancient Egypt, India and China.  They also give an insight into the owners’ tastes, quirks and foibles.

The exhibit starts with a revolving display of famous tiaras, among them the Halo tiara worn by the Duchess of Cambridge at her wedding.  Because nothing spells filthy rich like a sparkling tiara (or two or five).


And the tiaras kept coming, fast and furious, throughout the show.

Presumably when a society lady wanted to buck the trend on tiaras, she’d go with a jewelled comb.

diamond comb
diamond comb

The leather-bound sales ledgers detail the sales and records of customers.  This exhibit shows alongside the jewellery, the invoices, drawings and plaster casts that tell the backstory of some of the pieces.  Each design starts off as a pastel drawing and then gets cast in plaster to create a mould for the final creation.  Each piece is painstakingly crafted and can take hundreds of hours to finish.

I also liked the photographs, portraits and film clips which showed the owners wearing their prized possessions.  There is a nice family portrait of Marjorie Merriweather Post (American heiress to the Post cereal fortune) wearing jewellery probably equivalent to the gross national product of a small Caribbean nation.  Another mother-daughter portrait shows Queen Elizabeth II wearing a flower brooch with the flawless 23.6 carat Williamson pink diamond in the center.

Cartier definitely seemed to work with a plethora of American heiresses which would fit with the times.  The newly-moneyed Americans would have been fascinated with the French flair shown by Cartier artisans.  No discussion of wealthy Americans would be complete without mentioning a Vanderbilt.  The cigarette case shown below of gold, platinum, enamel and diamonds was made in 1932 for Mrs. W.K. Vanderbilt.

This necklace was in Cartier’s Tutti Frutti style and was made for Daisy Fellowes.  Daisy inherited her American grandfather’s fortune (inventor of the Singer sewing machines) which helped finance her love of Cartier pieces.  Her favourite piece was apparently this Tutti Frutti necklace made with emeralds, diamonds, sapphires and rubies.

Shown alongside the jewellery also are some of the couture outfits which are just as intricate and bespoke.

flapper dress
Evening dress from 1924 detailed with gold and pearls

The Cartier stories are legendary.  One of the most famous items in the exhibit is the Patiala Bib Necklace.  The story goes that the Maharaja of Patiala dropped by Cartier in Paris with his servant who was carrying a bucketload of gemstones.  Cartier were instructed to make something suitably traditional and yet reflecting the Art Deco of the times which would outbling the other maharajas.  Cartier artisans described the instructions as a ‘challenge’ but they rose to the occasion.

In the 1970’s Mexican actress Maria Felix showed up at Cartier with a baby crocodile in tow.  Cartier made 2 jewelled crocodiles for her which can be worn together as a necklace or separately as brooches.  Weighing it at a total of 60.02  carats of diamonds and 66.86 carats of emeralds, these crocodiles could be considered upcycling in the style of the rich and famous.  The ear clips made for Maria Felix below were so heavy that they were worn around her earlobes for support.  Lucky she had two, so her head was evenly balanced!

A selection of Princess Grace’s jewellery, including her 10.47 carat emerald-cut diamond, has been loaned to the exhibit too. The engagement ring is absolutely stunning (and massive).  I’m pretty sure Quasimodo would have gotten a ‘yes’ if he’d proposed with that ring.  She loved it so much she wore the ring for the filming of High Society!

Elizabeth Taylor had quite the collection of Cartier.  Her third husband Mike Todd gave her the diamond and ruby necklace.  Richard Burton gave her the famous La Peregrina pearl for which Cartier created a necklace.

Elizabeth Taylor necklace
Elizabeth Taylor necklace

The panther became Cartier’s emblem since the 1920’s when it was pioneered by Jeanne Toussaint, the company director at the time.  They became all the rage when Wallis Simpson became a fan with her iconic panther brooch balanced on top of a walnut-sized sapphire.

A panther on a sapphire made for the Duchess of Windsor (1949)
A panther on a sapphire made for the Duchess of Windsor (1949)

Wallis Simpson would have been an ideal Cartier customer.  Her motto was “if you can afford it, then there’s no pleasure buying it.”  That also sounds like the motto for people who racked up thousands in debt before the credit crunch.  Unlike those poor suckers, Wallis Simpson was married to a former King of England whose family would rather pay than deal with more bad publicity.

Jeanne Toussant also designed Wallis Simpson’s flamingo brooch.  What is it about society women and brooches??  Do they run out of space on their body to display jewellery?  I’ve always associated brooches with rich old ladies, an attitude which itself shows how times have changed.

Cartier:  Style and History is on at the Grand Palais until the 16th of February, 2014.  The exhibit shows the amazing detail, artistry and craftsmanship involved in couture jewellery that photos simply cannot do justice.  If you have the chance to visit Paris, this exhibit is a total must-see.

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