Rapaport Magazine

Iconic Creations

A new exhibition highlights Cartier’s trendsetting designs of the twentieth century.

By Phyllis Schiller
Diamond, emerald and platinum necklace worn by Countess of Granard, Cartier London, special order, 1932. Cartier Collection. Photo by Nick Welsh, Cartier Collection © Cartier.
Brilliant: Cartier in the 20th Century” at the Denver Art Museum (DAM) puts the many distinctive designs of the famous jewelry firm into a historic and societal context. Covering the seven decades from 1900 through 1975, the displays showcase 255 outstanding objects, including jewelry, timepieces and decorative accessories.
   The stellar pieces on view — many from the Cartier Collection — are divided into several sections that form a thematic through line reflecting both the epic events that occurred in the twentieth century and the style trends that defined the decades. Actual design drawings as well as a “workshop” illustrating the processes that go into creating the jewelry round out the exhibition, which runs from November 16, 2014, through March 15, 2015.

The Spirit of the Times
   According to Margaret Young-Sánchez, the museum’s Frederick and Jan Mayer Curator of Pre-Columbian Art, the 1900s seemed the natural starting point. “1899 marks a turning point in the firm’s history. That was when Louis Cartier joined the firm as a real partner and had an important influence.” It was also when the firm moved to Paris’ fashionable rue de la Paix. “I think those two things are indicators of the firm’s ambition and what it hoped to become. The company really launched itself at the very beginning of the twentieth century with the aim of becoming the preeminent jewelry house in the world.” In 1909, the company opened its New York store, further solidifying its international influence.
   In “Aristocracy and Aspiration,” objects from 1900 through 1918 include the premium platinum jewelry adorned with diamonds that Cartier excelled in, as well as pieces accented with sapphires, rock crystal and pearls, and enameled decorative items. It tells the story, says exhibition curator Young-Sánchez, of Cartier’s early clientele, “the European aristocrats and then the Americans and others who were trying to join their ranks. Cartier’s store on the rue de la Paix was right next to Worth, the most important couturier of the era. So ladies ordered their dresses from Worth and then they went next door to Cartier and ordered their jewelry at the same time. The extravagance of that era is expressed in the jewelry that was produced, which was incredibly large and detailed with gorgeous stones. By 1914, the Ballets Russes was really popular and styles were changing, which was the genesis of the Art Deco style.”

Influence and Innovation
   Highlighting a bold new look, the Cartier pieces in “New Outlook: Art Deco,” illustrate the period’s new styles of jewelry, such as bandeaus and sautoirs, and the use of materials such as jade, coral and black onyx, as well as a stronger emphasis on colored stones and geometry.
   “Foreign Fascination” covers the years from the 1920s through the early 1930s. Post-World War I events, including the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, added a more exotic layer to Cartier’s Art Deco creations, which incorporated imported jade, lacquer and faience and illustrate influences of Egyptian, East Asian, Indian and Persian styles. A grouping Young-Sánchez calls “Exotic Fantasy,” which includes Cartier’s famed tutti-frutti jewelry and its mystery clocks, draws on foreign traditions but isn’t faithful to any of them. Instead, the diverse design elements together create something “completely novel.”
   The “Art of Smoking,” one of three thematic sections that span several decades, uses objects by Cartier from 1907 through the 1940s to illuminate the rise of cigarette smoking in the twentieth century. Cigarette cases range from classic gold cases for men through elaborate inlaid jeweled versions for women. Cigarette holders were equally stylish as were decorative desk sets that would include perhaps a clock and a spot for cigarettes and a lighter.
   The “Masculine View” highlights men’s items, a subject that often gets “a little overshadowed,” says Young-Sánchez, because the woman’s jewelry is so spectacular. “Cartier made really wonderful men’s items — stylish, elegant but a little understated — for a long time, going all the way back to its beginnings and including pioneering work in wristwatches.”

   Covering the mid-1930s through the 1950s, the “Age of Glamour” is the most stylistically diverse period represented, with the most interesting mix of materials. What ties it all together, says Young-Sánchez, are the incredibly lavish designs of the pieces, including the signature piece of the exhibition. “The jaw-dropping platinum and diamond necklace, made for an American woman who became the Countess of Granard in England, has a dense, ornate setting with an absolutely huge rectangular flat emerald in the center of it.”
   The final thematic section, “Icons of Style,” focuses on the illustrious clientele — European royalty, the elite of American society and the glamourous stars of stage and screen — who bought Cartier jewelry. One such celebrity client was Mexican movie star Maria Félix, who commissioned astonishing pieces, says Young-Sánchez, including “a necklace that consists of two crocodiles, completely three-dimensional and articulated and made out of gold. One is studded with yellow diamonds and the other, with emeralds.” Also on view are many other pieces, as famous for their exemplary style as the women who wore them. Included are the Duchess of Windsor’s panther brooch sitting on top of a huge sapphire and Elizabeth Taylor’s ruby and diamond necklace presented to her by her second husband, Mike Todd.
   The Cartier firm, sums up Young-Sánchez, was intimately “intertwined with the history of the twentieth century on multiple levels. What I think is fascinating about Cartier is how attuned the company was to the desires and aspirations of the times and how it always managed to stay in the forefront, a true innovator not only in jewelry style but even in things like marketing. The twentieth century was a period of constantly changing technology and increasing internationalism and Cartier took advantage of it all to build the company into a global phenomenon.”

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - November 2014. To subscribe click here.

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