An exhibition at the Denver Museum of Art showcases the creativity and daring of the Maison Cartier.
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It’s not usual for great poets to turn their skills to promoting commercial firms, but that’s what Paul Claudel did in 1934 with The Mystique of Precious Stones, a book-length poem dedicated to his friend Pierre Cartier, one of the owners of the eponymous French jewelry house. “A particle of God, a flash of the light that created the world,” wrote the Catholic poet of his friends’ jewels, “spirit made matter to be held between the fingers, the invisible made substance and stone.” Poetic license? Maybe—and skeptics could cite the fact that Claudel’s son was married to Cartier’s daughter—but few who saw the products of the Maison Cartier could deny that they were poetic, long before Claudel’s pen touched paper.
Those who want to see for themselves don’t have to shell out tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars but only the cost of a trip to Denver, Colo., where the quite astonishing creativity of Cartier will be on view at the Denver Art Museum beginning on November 16 (running through March 15). Jewelry exhibitions have become almost commonplace in the museum world, with recent shows of Bulgari and JAR, among others, invading spaces previously reserved for the fine arts. However, the sheer range of Cartier’s creativity—watches, cigarette cases, vanity cases, clocks, hardstone carvings, tiaras, even a replica of the Lunar Module—goes far, far beyond what the casual observer would think of as jewelry. And the freshness and boldness of that creativity—the riot of candy-colored stones, the antiquarian references coupled with sleek modernist lines, the element of sheer fantasy—are second to none.
The show is titled “Brilliant: Cartier in the 20th Century,” and the time frame here is key. Up until the turn of the century, the firm, founded in 1847, sold jewelry, though not of its own design. But that changed in 1899, when Louis Cartier, a grandson of the founder, took over as director of jewelry operations. Cartier’s first foray into the 20th century was quiet, not radical, but it pointed the way toward the modernist future. In the so-called garland style, Louis took classic French designs from the era of an earlier, grander Louis (the XVI), and streamlined them by stripping away the curlicues of ornament. He was left with simple geometric forms, most notably a circle within a square. By 1904, while painters in other parts of Paris were getting ready to make art without figuration, the Maison was producing jewelry that can only be called abstract.
At the same time, Louis and his team of designers were by no means interested in jettisoning the past—then and for decades to come the firm would make many pieces that are direct reference to earlier periods of art, from ancient Egyptian sculpture to Mughal miniatures to Renaissance filigree. Louis even made a practice of stockpiling what he called apprêts, components purchased from antique dealers, such as bits of Egyptian faience for a clock or a page from a Persian book to go on the front of a cigarette case. These art-historical references would become particularly relevant during the Janus-faced Art Deco era of the 1920s and ’30s, when Cartier really came into its own as a designer. A 1927 neo-Egyptian striking clock, meant for a tabletop or mantel, has to be seen to be believed: covered with mother of pearl, lapis lazuli, carnelian, and enamel, it resembles a miniature Pharaonic temple, complete with mock-hieroglyphic inscriptions, incised and filled with gold; at the top, presiding over it all, a goddess spreads her green, gold, and blue wings.
The guiding spirit of that period was Jeanne Toussaint, known around the Cartier offices as “the panther” for her fierce and forceful nature, and probably because she introduced the popular jewelry pieces featuring big-cat imagery. A photo in the exhibition shows Toussaint sitting cross-legged on the floor, her chin held contemplatively in one elegant hand, amid a faux-Moorish setting, wearing a brocaded Orientalist caftan, a turban, and an ankle bracelet over black silk stockings, bedecked with long Cartier black-pearl sautoir necklaces—one of her innovations, aimed at the garçonne, or French flapper, whose straight dresses demanded such an approach. Also thanks to Toussaint was the “tutti frutti” jewelry style, in which varicolored carved gems were set in close proximity to each other to create a dense, delicious, almost edible texture. Bracelets and necklaces were particularly suited to this style, but the show also includes a tutti frutti brooch and even a beaded evening bag with tutti frutti trim.
Among Toussaint’s influences was modernist sculpture, and one of her signal achievements in this area was the Trinity ring, which combined three rings of white, rose, and yellow gold into one continuous braid. Among its devotees was the writer, artist, and filmmaker Jean Cocteau, who wore them throughout his life. Cartier’s relationships with prominent people in the arts were vitally important to the Maison’s status and development, and this inclination began before World War I. As early as 1909, Cartier produced elaborate pieces inspired by Schéhérézade, the Léon Bakst-designed production of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. At a Thousand and One Nights-themed party thrown by the fashion designer Paul Poiret in 1911, guests in ostensibly Persian garb wore Cartier jewels, which were duly reported on by the press.
Cartier’s romance with the East blossomed into fruitful client relationships with Indian princes such as the Maharaja of Kapurthala, who in 1926 commissioned an emerald and diamond turban ornament from the Maison. Another prince, Bhupinder Singh of Patiala, ordered a complete set of crown jewels for his Punjab kingdom, a commission that took three years to fulfill and merited a large-format brochure (included in the exhibition). The favor of Western celebrities was also valuable; Cartier’s first wristwatch, the “Santos,” was made to fit the particular needs of Alberto Santos-Dumont, the Brazilian pioneer aviator.
The curators of this show point out that the history of Cartier has special relevance to Denver, because one of the firm’s most famous clients was a native of that city. Evalyn Walsh McLean, whose father struck it rich in gold prospecting, bought the ill-starred but fabulous blue Hope Diamond from the firm in 1912, for a reported $154,000 (not at all the same as $154,000 of today’s money). Later celebs who publicized Cartier in their own persons include Elizabeth Taylor. In 1969 Richard Burton bought the jewelry-obsessed star a 69.42-carat diamond, which was then officially named the Taylor-Burton Diamond. The exhibition features several Taylor-provenanced pieces, including a gold and diamond ring in the form of a coiled snake—an example of the house’s penchant for predatory animal forms.
Among the delights on view in Denver are full-color preparatory drawings from the Cartier workshops, many of which are shown next to the corresponding pieces themselves. The drawings are really artworks in their own right, as well as a revelation of how the poetic inspiration of a great jewelry design can be “made substance and stone.”