Cartier display shows critical role of jeweler over 166 years

One of the most famous brands in the world of luxury goods, the great jewelry house of Cartier has also played a prominent role in the history of the decorative arts. Cartier designs, from classic pieces worthy of royalty to radical Art Nouveau creations, Cartier has been at the center of changes in taste and social codes.
And now, a huge exhibition featuring 600 pieces of jewelry, watches and clocks and other objects as well as dresses and accessories, advertising photographs, engravings and fashion magazines are going on display at the Grand Palais in Paris from December 4 to February 16, 2014 to give visitors an idea of the art and influence of the jewelry giant.
"The history of the house of Cartier from its foundation in 1847 until the 1970s is an opportunity to open the door to a laboratory of forms and enter into the workings of a sophisticated company which creates jewelry and accessories for their intrinsic beauty as well as for their social function," the museum says in presenting the exhibition.
"Cartier seduced the most elegant personalities of the 20th century with jewelry, clocks and watches, and refined yet practical objects. The jeweler’s creations are shown in the context of changing usages and styles. By looking at the sources of each step in the house’s history, the exhibition aims to put Cartier’s stylistic choices into perspective."
More than 300 preparatory drawings, numerous archival documents (stock registers, book of ideas, drawings relating to the shop in the rue de la Paix, photographs, plaster casts and so on) take visitors behind the scenes. The curators of the exhibition, describe it as the most important ever devoted to Cartier, and one that "neglects none of the activities that built its reputation, presenting all types of objects from ceremonial jewelry to the most personal pieces: vanity cases, cigarette cases and wrist watches, three emblems of modernity."
Among the many outstanding items on display are diadems which illustrate the virtuosity of the jeweler's craftsmen while there are also many mysterious clocks, including a spectacular ensemble of 15 pieces.
The pieces on display come mainly from the Cartier collection, supplemented by 18 loans from public institutions in France and private collections. A prestigious ensemble of about 20 pieces, some official and others more personal, from the Prince of Monaco’s collection reveal Princess Grace’s elegant taste. Visitors will also get a glimpse of the tastes of Marjorie Merriweather Post, the heiress of a huge cereal empire, and a great collector of Russian and French art and the most assiduous customer of Cartier New York.
The exhibition presents several emblematic figures in Cartier’s history: important customers, actresses or heiresses such as Barbara Hutton, Marlene Dietrich, Liz Taylor, Maria Félix as well as Indian Maharajahs, and others who left their mark on history in one way or another such as Daisy Fellowes, Mona Bismarck, the Duchess of Windsor.
The first exhibition to be held in the newly restored grand reception room of the Grand Palais, Cartier, Style and History, the exhibition tells the story of the celebrated jeweler, creating a different atmosphere for each section.
When he took over Adolphe Picard’s workshop on Rue Montorgueil in Paris in 1847, Louis-François Cartier was just another goldsmith and jeweler. In 1859 he moved to premises on Boulevard des Italiens, known to be a glittery neighborhood. In this shop, he and his son Alfred built up a loyal clientele that included not only newly affluent businessmen but also eminent figures from Napoleon III’s court, such as the countess of Nieuwerkerke and, later, Princess Mathilde.
Little of the jewelry actually sold by Cartier in the years 1860-1880 has been identified, but the items in the display demonstrate the eclecticism of that period. As Cartier steadily rose to his status of “jeweler to kings,” cameos and ornamental chains gave way to jewelry in the so-called “garland style.” These lavish pieces, made possible by the discovery of South African diamond mines in the late 1860s, played upon the opulence of the gemstones and stylistic allusions to France’s ancien régime.
The opening of new premises at 13 Rue de la Paix in November 1899 was a watershed in the history of the house of Cartier. This move, suggested by Louis Cartier (who entered the firm in 1898), made it possible to meet the growing expectations of a rich, cosmopolitan clientele. Cartier simultaneously established close links to the Worth fashion house, the first great name in haute couture. The Cartier showroom, decorated in a neoclassical spirit, projected the elegant image of the firm itself.
Stock was no longer limited to the supply provided by independent suppliers, as had been the case in the 19th century, but was henceforth the fruit of Paris workshops working exclusively for Cartier. House designers, meanwhile, were prompted to seek inspiration from the books and antiquities that Louis Cartier placed at their disposal. The evolution of the Cartier style immediately emerges from the pages of the “notebooks of ideas” in which many sketches were made.
In its initial phase of expansion, the Cartier firm followed the eclecticism of the day. By the end of the century, however, it had assured its supremacy by resolutely opting for a Louis XVI style. Louis Cartier’s enthusiasm for late 18th-century art was surprising at a time when the “Marie-Antoinette revival” was already old-fashioned and when avant-garde circles were exploring radical alternatives, such as Art Nouveau.
Neither the airy naturalism of Art Nouveau nor the graces of Rococo were adopted by Cartier, which preferred the more serious Louis XVI style. That style, perceived as the height of French classicism, was in vogue among a cosmopolitan clientele.
Precious little objects were more conducive to whimsy than fine jewelry. These items were an important part of Cartier’s business at the turn of the 20th century, making it possible to develop a new Louis XVI style that became enormously popular. Russian royalty were regulars at Cartier’s Rue de la Paix showroom, where they sought little Fabergé-like objects and encouraged Cartier to expand its line. So in 1904 and 1905 Pierre Cartier traveled to Russia to recruit craftsmen able to supply the small hard-stone items that were so popular.
Around 1910, when artistic fever was at its height in Paris, fashion underwent crucial changes that had a major impact on the nature of jewelry. Head bands, sautoirs, and bracelets became the rage, straight lines henceforth dominated the female figure. At the initiative of Louis Cartier, who had encouraged his designers to adopt geometric shapes at an early date, the “modern” style imparted a new identity to the House of Cartier. Parallel to the “garland style” then in full swing, these abstract designs shared certain traits with the sober elegance of the Louis XVI revival, while normally being applied to smaller pieces of jewelry. In an original move for the jewelry world, Cartier launched an ambitious program of making timepieces, constantly seeking to combine technical innovation with artistic rigor.
Black and white, a sure sign of elegance, represented one of the main characteristics of Art Deco jewelry. Diamonds were usually combined with onyx, enamel, and rock crystal. Cartier then radically innovated on the most aristocratic piece of jewelry imaginable – a tiara – by making tiaras of steel. Spurred by Louis Cartier, the firm’s designers explored daring combinations of colors previously thought to be in poor taste, for example by associating sapphires and emeralds. Finally, the use of non-precious stones such as turquoise, agate, and coral lent jewelry a resolutely new image.
The International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts of 1925 lent its name to a style – Art Deco – that had been developing before the First World War but only blossomed afterwards. Cartier underscored its links to the fashion world and its difference from other jewelers by presenting its display in the Pavillon de l’Elegance. Cartier presented some 150 items at the exhibition, all in the “modern” style – jewelry, various accessories, and timepieces.
In the 1920s the infatuation with exotic motifs from Egypt, India, and the Far East – spurred by improved links in communication – influenced both fashion and jewelry. Even as the “modern” style was in full swing, Cartier jewelry of exotic inspiration displayed unmatched subtlety, largely due to the Cartier brothers’ extensive knowledge of those civilizations. Louis was notably a great collector of Egyptian and Persian art, and lent his designers not only his books but also his own antiquities, elements of which sometimes wound up in new creations. Jacques, who was running Cartier London, established close connections with Indian maharajas thanks to exchanges between Britain and its colonies. This process of assimilation yielded extremely original pieces of jewelry and fueled Cartier’s creativity for decades.
The 1909 opening of a branch of Cartier in New York, run by Pierre, the younger Cartier brother, was a commercial necessity. Following the opening of a London branch in 1902, New York was a shrewd choice at a time when a booming market was emerging for Cartier on the other side the Atlantic. The showroom, which moved to Fifth Avenue in 1917, featured “garland-style” jewelry that drew a large clientele keen to adopt French savoir-faire. Meanwhile, Pierre Cartier displayed an all-American sense of business by launching pioneering ad campaigns and sales catalogs, and by associating the firm with other brands. So whereas Cartier’s original clientele mostly came from the very wealthy elite, the marketing strategies of the New York branch paved the way for wider access to fine jewelry.
In order to appeal to a handful of clients fascinated by large gems, Cartier positioned itself in the diamond market. More a jeweler than a diamond dealer, the firm specialized in designing remarkable settings for certain historic stones. These operations thus required both the negotiating talent of the Cartier brothers and the outstanding skill of the workshops.
Nor were colored stones overlooked. Rubies, long considered the most precious gem in the world, have always had a special role, playing a regal part in exceptional items. Furthermore, in the 1930s Cartier adopted the semi-precious stones then appearing in the costume jewelry promoted by Coco Chanel. Aquamarines, citrines, and peridots notably permitted new color combinations.
Screen legend Elizabeth Taylor had a deep love affair with jewelry. Richard Burton gave her the Burton-Taylor diamond weighing 69.42 carats, previously purchased by Cartier for over $1 million. Burton also bought her the famous Peregrina, a legendary pearl found in 1579 and owned by King Philip II of Spain. She commissioned Cartier to make a necklace inspired by a portrait of Mary Tudor who, according to an inaccurate legend, allegedly received the pearl from Philip II as an engagement gift.
Princess Grace of Monaco posed for her official portrait in 1956 bedecked in several items of jewelry by Cartier: a diamond necklace, diamond-and-ruby brooches that could be transformed into a tiara, and an engagement ring featuring a diamond of exceptional purity. Press photos immortalized the couple’s visit to the Cartier store on Rue de la Paix in Paris, but the connection went back much further: insignia notably bearing Monaco’s arms demonstrate that Cartier had obtained a warrant as official supplier to Prince Albert I as early as 1920.
The first allusion to panther skin appeared in 1914, when a wristwatch made by Cartier Paris was pavé-set with an irregular pattern of onyx and diamonds. The panther, an animal already admired by sculptors, then became a favorite motif of Cartier designers, as witnessed by the worn pages of their copy of Mathurin Méheut’s Animal Studies. Initially evoked through the onyx-spotted pattern, in the years 1925–30 panthers took on a two-dimensional appearance on vanity cases: one panther is shown walking between two cypress trees.