Published in Private Edition 23:
‘Make me one just like it, but work quickly because it grows fast.’ The Latin-American actress, Maria Felix, had waltzed into Cartier’s Paris boutique with a baby crocodile in a jar and demanded a bejewelled replica. It was 1975.
In over a century of trendsetting design, Cartier had created the largest animal jewellery collection in the world and was well used to receiving unusual commissions. A few months later Felix received her necklace of two gold baby crocodiles to drape around her neck or wear separately as brooches. One was decorated with 1 023 yellow diamonds, the other with 1 066 emeralds; the head, tail and feet all articulated. They made an exceptional addition to her other Cartier pieces, which included an articulated snake made of platinum and white gold. Encrusted with 2 473 diamonds, it doubled as a necklace and centrepiece.
Both form part of the Cartier Collection, from which 540 pieces were displayed in the recent ‘Cartier: Style and History’ exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris, organised and curated by the Réunion des Musées Nationaux. The Salon d’Honneur was discreetly illuminated to give full impact to the kaleidoscopic effect of the jewels projected onto its high-volume ceiling and styled to trace Cartier’s artistic development from the mid-19th century to the 1970s. Cartier pushed the limits of design with a brave departure from the classics. Their geometrisation and simplification, the mixing of diamonds with more than one other coloured stone, and the use of platinum turned the industry on its head.
‘People were crazy about everything exotic,’ says an exhibition guide. ‘The Cartier brothers’ extensive travels, interactions with different cultures and discoveries of precious stones reflect in their creations.’ Chinese and Japanese art, Russian ballet costumes, Fabergé eggs, Egyptian antiquity, Indian maharajas, feminine independence, evolving fashion, royal fetishes and heiresses’ whims played a role. Less is more was a firm theme.
Dubbed ‘the jeweller of kings and the king of jewellers’ by King Edward VII for their craftsmen’s ability to delight royalty around the globe with their initiative, Cartier also displayed loan items from Queen Elizabeth II, including a flower brooch with a 23.60-carat pink diamond at the centre and the tiara Kate Middleton wore for her wedding to Prince William. Another historic piece represented, with its original drawing, was a ceremonial necklace ordered by Sir Bhupinder Singh, the Maharaja of Patiala, in 1925. It incorporated the largest number of gems ever used in fine jewellery (supplied by the Maharaja himself), and featured the 234-carat yellow De Beers diamond, surrounded by nearly 3 000 diamonds and other precious stones.
‘For this exhibition, the curators looked for things that illustrate a certain provenance,’ says Cartier Collection curator Pascale Lepeu. ‘American heiress Daisy Fellowes, for example, loved our colourful “Tutti-Frutti” pieces from the ’20s. These were made with carved stones of unexceptional quality, so their value rests in their design and rarity. And the ruby-and-diamond necklace given to Liz Taylor by her third husband, Mike Todd, as a reward for “doing something wholesome like swimming laps” has a charming story behind it.’
During his time as first director of the Cartier Collection, the late Éric Nussbaum was able to buy back 75 percent of the pieces on display in Paris. Now, additions to the Collection are assessed by their innovation and rarity rather than their age and Cartier limits its purchases to between 10 and 20 pieces per year. It’s a waiting game. ‘It’s like a puzzle; we look for the missing pieces to be fully representative of Cartier’s history – garland style, 19th century, Art Deco, watches, clocks, objects… In December we bought a very important brooch that completes our collection of Egyptian items,’ says Lepeu.
It took two decades to acquire Duchess of Windsor Wallis Simpson’s famous flamingo brooch. During the first sale after her death ‘prices went mad’ and Nussbaum could only afford her diamond-and-sapphire brooch featuring the iconic Cartier panther. Commissioned during the Second World War, when gold and precious stones were in short supply, the brooch was made with stones from some of Mrs Simpson’s bracelets. Its value is high, but not because of the gems. ‘It’s more because of who it belonged to. It’s a work of art,’ says Lepeu.
While the modern Cartier business is focused on watches and jewellery, the Collection gives equal weight to its precious objects. ‘I love to see people discovering not only jewels, but little things you might have in your handbag or at home… It’s a very interesting facet; Cartier is unique for that,’ says Lepeu.
The exhibition highlighted Cartier’s prowess in the history of watchmaking through its display of jewellery watches dating from the 19th century, pocket watches, classic wristwatches and mystery clocks. ‘We’re proud to have a Santos from 1912 and a Tank watch from 1920, a year after each was first released,’ says Lepeu.
Rudolf Valentino famously refused to remove his Tank watch for his film role as an 18th-century sheik, and Andy Warhol was one of many who won’t wear a watch merely to tell the time. ‘Actually I never even wind it. I wear a Tank because it is the watch to wear!’ he said.
Sixteen of the Collection’s mystery clocks, the largest number ever exhibited, created another focal point among Cartier’s flagship creations. The workings of these ‘marvels of watchmaking’ were dreamed up by Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, who was a watchmaker before he was a magician. Much like his famous illusions, the mechanisms are hidden, their workings undisclosed for many years. The mystery is in the way the hands are connected separately to two transparent disks that initiate their movement. It takes a year to make just one masterpiece.
Lepeu has the privilege of caring for a collection money can’t buy. ‘Nothing is for sale,’ she says. Some historic pieces can still be secured through another collection, Cartier Tradition, a commercial activity dealing with vintage pieces for collectors. ‘Recently we exchanged a mystery clock for the same one in Cartier Tradition because it had belonged to Evalyn Walsh McLean, former owner of the Star of the East – an incredible 94.80-carat pear-shaped diamond – as well as the 45-carat blue Hope Diamond,’ says Lepeu.
The Collection is based in Geneva and pieces can only be viewed in museums. Next on the itinerary is an exhibition in the US, followed by one in China. ‘People really love seeing the Collection. It’s fascinating – you don’t even think about how much the items cost. It’s the history of the French savoir- faire,’ says Lepeu.
Its effect is far-reaching. Our guide discovered an elderly visitor gazing at the 1929 portrait of American heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post and her daughter, Nedenia (Deenie) Hutton. Also known by her stage name, Dina Merrill, she said wistfully: ‘I am the little girl in the painting. Being asked to pose for portraits meant more time with my mother.’