Happy Valentine’s Day! Big Girls Need Big Diamonds …“Cartier and America” exhibition at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor delivers
World over in February, couples celebrate Valentine’s Day with thoughts of love and tokens affection. Red roses, chocolates and poetry are standards but fine jewelry takes “Be my Valentine” to another level. A trip to the Legion of Honor’s spectacular “Cartier and America” exhibition which runs through April 18, 2010 will set you back $20.00 ($40.00 for two) but it will fill that longing to browse amongst jewels of rare artistry and to learn about the famous people who possessed them and about Cartier, the French company that made it all possible. Marking Cartier’s 100 years in the United States, the exhibition features a spectacular array of some 300 objects from the Belle Epoch (1899-1918), Art Deco (1918-1937), pre and postwar periods and beyond. ranging from one-of-a- kind stunners like the Star of Africa diamond to white diamond suites, to the highly-colored exotic creations of the 1920s and 1930’s, to mystery clocks whose hands seems to float in air. And, pure luxury aside, ARThound would be remiss not to mention the cuteness factor of Cartier’s dogs and small animals for the vanity, carved of stones like smoky quartz, amethyst and rhodonite.
Curated by Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s, Martin Chapman, Curator of European Decorative Arts, the exhibition is as much about breathtaking design and engineering as it about the social history of America’s wealthy—the famous “haves” who, during the heydays of American capitalism, were obsessed with European aristocracy and refinement. American who married royals, heiresses, Hollywood stars, and other notables all considered Cartier essential in affirming their status and giving them an essential edge out-blinging one another. A fascinating aspect of this show (which is not traveling after its run at the Legion) is that Chapman had full access to Cartier’s extensive archives and included as much detail as could be found about prominent San Franciscans and their connections with Cartier. And several exquisite pieces that have never been exhibited before—the Duchess of Windsor’s diamond encrusted Flamingo brooch, her panther bracelet, Grace Kelly’s engagement ring—shine brightly at the Legion alongside more well-known Cartier classics.
Should you question the placement of jewelry in a fine arts museum or the inappropriate whiff of commerce surrounding any Cartier exhibition, FAMSF patron and board chair Dede Wilsey—who lent a bracelet—will answer that it is not the stones per se– but the technical skills that Cartier craftsmen brought to their work that make these luxury jewels worthy of exhibition in any museum in the world. After examining these pieces close-up, their design, refinement and engineering are certainly worthy of high art. It is regrettable that the highly-skilled members of the Cartier design team remain anonymous under the ever-powerful Cartier brand. When the company was formed, these artisans started out at age 14 and labored for 10 years with Cartier before they were able to work on a piece alone. Nowadays, they start at age 21, after studying at design school.
Cartier in Paris—a bold move to establish a signature style
Founded in Paris in 1847, the House of Cartier originally sold a wide range of luxury goods made by others, including luxury jewelry made by several local Parisian ateliers. Everything changed in 1899, when it moved to rue de la Paix (right next to Worth, the most influential Parisian fashion house), set up its own design studio at these new headquarters and developed a signature style for its own jewelry.
Cartier rejected the popular Art Nouveau style which was deemed static and incapable of much evolution in terms of unique jewelry production and introduced its “garland” style inspired by the neoclassical style of the neoclassical-period which emphasized tassels, ribbon-bows and dangling glittering diamond pendants. Cartier’s biggest and most risky move was introducing platinum over the traditional gold and silver as its preferred setting material. Platinum’s greater stability allowed more diamonds to be set in a piece in a small area and enabled the number of articlulations to be increased without endangering the global solidity of the piece. It was also tarnish-free. Tiaras could now hold thousands of tiny diamonds. With the advent of electrical lighting which transformed the interplay between light and jewels and the availability of relatively cheap small diamonds from the new finds in South Africa, Cartier’s risk-taking paid off. Cartier quickly became a de rigueur destination point for European royals and for wealthy Americans visiting Paris whose conspicuous consumption was targeted towards emulating European aristocracy.
Even as the royal courts of Europe were undergoing their final moments, Cartier was outfitting American women with diamonds mounted in the refined Louis XVI style inspired by French royal jewels of the 1700’s. The early galleries house a dazzling array of Cartier tiaras, brooches, pendant necklaces and stomachers (brooches worn over the breast or stomach in the 17th and 18th centuries). Mrs. Townsend’s “devant de corsage” “Rose and Lily corsage ornament” commissioned to Cartier Paris, 1906 -is exceptional in its craftsmanship. 3-D sprays of blooming lilies are entwined in a garland of lifelike roses; it is sculpted entirely diamonds in the taste of the late eighteenth century.
In this bygone era of luxury steamship travel, glittering balls and society debuts, American socialites such as railway and coal heiress Mary Scott Townsend of Washington D.C. ordered elaborate diamond-studded tiaras and wore them. In fact, Cartier’s archives reveal dozens of orders for diamond-studded tiaras from the 100 or so Americans who married into British aristocracy– and thus were technically entitled to wear them–and from others who had no European royal or aristocratic marriages. Martin Chapman explains in the exhibition catalog that tiaras remained fashionable with America’s upper crust up until WWI but there are several instances of Americans, like Marjorie Merriweather Post (Post cereal fortune heiress and formerly Mrs. E.F. Hutton) who had no connection to royalty but wore tiaras through the 1950’s and 1960’s. These women complimented their tiaras with substantial bling that covered their head, neck and bosoms so that they literally became top-heavy with diamonds.
A 1909 photograph of Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt III shows her wearing it all– a stunning Cartier diamond-set rose brooch from Princess Mathilde, the cultural icon of France during the Second Empire, a necklace she commissioned from Cartier in 1909 of huge hexagonal diamond pendants, and a grand “Russian style” Cartier tiara from 1909.
All that survives from her necklace is a single hexagonal
pendant, which at 4 3/4 inches in length is substantial in itself. Thanks to Cartier’s thorough records, explained Chapman, we can reconstruct how most Cartier pieces looked in their original forms. From the early 1900’s, a photograph and a plaster cast of each piece was made as it left the Cartier workshop in order to enable craftsmen to copy, repair or alter the piece at some future date. The plaster cast of Vanderbilt necklace is displayed beside the portrait, along with the pendant. These extensive archives also reveal the fascinating and successive transformations a piece of jewelry went through due to change in ownership or evolving taste.
Because many pieces from the old world were sold through Cartier to the new world, Cartier served as a bridge between the old European and the new American aristocracy explained Pierre Rainero, Cartier’s director of image, style and heritage. Some of the famed jewelry of Empress Eugenie, wife of Napolean Bonaparte III, was sold off by Third Republic and bought and traded by Cartier. Marie-Antoinette’s famed pear-shaped diamond earrings were purchased from Cartier by Mrs. Marjorie Merriweather Post in 1928
Post was one of Cartier’s most important American clients. Her stunning emerald and diamond pendant shoulder brooch from the 1920’s, which graces the catalog and exhibition poster, is one of the most spectacular pieces Cartier ever made, incorporating fabulous Indian carved emeralds, one of which dates from India’s Mughal era. She had Cartier New York alter its top to the buckle in 1928.
Cartier’s New York Store—paid for in pearls
To accommodate its clients, Cartier opened branches in London (1902) and New York City (1909). After securing a rather blasé second floor space on Fifth Avenue, Pierre, the second of the three Cartier brothers, finagled the Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street Plant townhouse for the Cartier flagship store from financier Morton F. Plant. Plant sold his mansion for a dollar and a stunning two strand Cartier natural pearl necklace valued at $1,000,000, which he gave to his wife. The New York store initially attracted clientele that included Gilded Age heiresses like Evalyn Walsh McLean, Daisy Fellowes, Barbara Hutton and a bevy of Vanderbilt women, all of whom deemed Cartier the essential measure of refinement.
The San Francisco Connection
Exploring the connection between San Franciscans and Cartier was a priority of curator Martin Chapman. The only San Franciscan found in Cartier’s Paris archives with a San Francisco address is Mrs. Newstatter, wife of a clothing manufacturer on Market Street, who in 1908 purchased a diamond studded choker with a big pendant underneath. There are, however, indirect connections to San Francisco.
American-born Lady Granard, the 8th Countess of Granard, was raised in San Francisco as Beatrice Mills, the daughter of financier and philanthropist Ogden Mills (Mills College, Millbrae). She was a regular client of Cartier London and was particularly fond of enormous tiaras, ordering three between 1922 and 1937.
A life-size Giovanni Boldini portrait from 1905, owned by the Legion, depicts one of the Cartier’s San Francisco’s clients of the Gilded Age, Virginia Graham Fair Vanderbilt, “Birdie,” the second of William K. Vanderbilt Jr.’s five wives. There are several pieces of her jewelry throughout the exhibition but it is not known if she is wearing Cartier in the portrait. She was born Virginia Fair in San Francisco and was the daughter of Silver King James Fair, (“Slippery Jim”) who made a fortune overnight off the rich Comstock Lode in the Virginia City, Nevada, the largest deposit of gold and silver ever found. In the late 1800’s, Fair (then Senator Fair) purchased the hillside at Mason and California Streets. After he died, Virginia and her sister Tessie built the famous Fairmont Hotel in 1902, the jewel in the crown of Nob Hill.
Art Deco: Cartier’s Shining Glory
During the interwar period,or ” Art Deco era” (1918-1937), Cartier established the repertoire of Art Deco for the upper crust with its display at the definitive Paris exposition of 1925, the world’s largest international fair dedicated to the display of modern decorative arts. Cartier did not exhibit with jewelers, but anchored itself in high fashion at the Pavillon de l’Elegance, alongside leading couture houses like Worth and Jenny and dictated the “new” style–tiaras worn low on the brow, long ear pendants, a large brooch at the bust and a necklace slung across the chest that fastened to the dress at the back. New geometric designs incorporated pearls and diamonds with strong bursts of specific color combinations—brilliant green from emeralds, a signature Cartier coral (in a unique shade between pink angel skin and the darker Mediterranean coral) and black onyx.
Exoticism was a strong force in Cartier design in the 1920’s and 1930’and was important as counterbalance to the hard-edged International Modernism of the 1930’s. A number of pieces on display are inspired by decorative arts of Egypt, India, China and Japan. The discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922, for example, inspired several Cartier pieces, artworks, that incorporated fragments of actual Egyptian artifacts. Three faience buckle-brooches, never exhibited together before, shine in their elegance, incorporating scarabs with deco style. One buckle was owned by Cole Porter’s wife, an important client.
The “tutti frutti” design that Cartier pioneered in its Indian style jewelry was coveted for its vibrant mix of emeralds, rubies and sapphires—these pieces seem to scream “I’m terribly expensive” and “I’m playfully beautiful.” The “Hindu” necklace commissioned by Daisy Fellowes, the Singer sewing machine heiress, in 1936 is unparalleled. Modeled after a 1935 Cartier design for an Indian maharajah—the necklace has over 1,000 stones—cut diamonds and sapphires and carved ruby, sapphire and emerald leaves imported from India. Interesting note—these jewels were made for and worn by males in India but experienced a sex change when they came to the West where they were coveted, custom-ordered and worn by American women.
Cartier actually established a trading post in Delhi, India in 1911, to buy emeralds and to solidify relationships with important Indian maharajas who were strong clients. Rainero explained that gemological studies have confirmed that “Indian emeralds” from the Mughal Empire (1556 to 1707) were actually mined in Columbia in the late 16th and early 17th centuries and brought to India by the Portuguese who controlled India’s harbors. The history of jewelry is thus entwined with world trade and economic history and sales transactions have been telling indicators.
Cartier’s magical mystery clocks are its largest and most complex artworks and eight are in the exhibition. On prominent display, as you first enter the show, is the Belikan Portique Mystery Clock in the form of a Shinto Shrine Gate, bought in 1923 by opera singer Ganna Walska, second wife of Chicago industrialist Harold F. McCormick (1872-1941),
inventor and manufacturer of the harvest reaper. This clock was the first of six in a series of portique style rock crystal gates created between 1923 and 1925. The clock is transparent and its platinum and diamond hands seem suspended in air as they float around the dial. How and where was the watch movement be hidden? Gazing intently at the front and rear of the clock doesn’t provide any clues. These mystery clocks were the result of collaboration between Louis Cartier and clockmaker Maurice Couët that started around 1912. The designs varied but there were five principle types that were produced in small lots with slight variations. The designs grew more complex and exotic over time, progressing to figural clocks which incorporated intricately carved Chinese figures, usually made of jade. The hands either floated on or behind glass with no apparent mechanism. In the case of the portique clock, the hands are mounted on glass discs and the disc is driven from the movement hidden in the lintel, above the pillars. A team of lapidaries, horologists, jewelers and designers spent up to a year creating a single clock. Today, just a few artisans know how to make this movement.
Ganna Walska was a notable Cartier patron who was profiled colorfully in a 1934 Time Magazine article “Countess Reincarnate” describing her opera performance as one that “should be seen and not heard.” In 1941, she bought the Santa Barbara “Cuesta Linda” estate and transitioned it to “Lotusland,” a retreat with extensive botanical gardens. (See hilarious 2006 Wall Street Journal article “What the Diva Wrought.”) So determined was she to complete this magnum opus that she auctioned off her Cartier jewelry to finance and endow Lotusland.
Great Transactions– Historical Diamonds
Cartier’s legacy goes hand in hand with the sale and resale of famous historical diamonds—remarkable diamonds whose value goes beyond the tradtional perameeters of valuation because they are a part of history.
The Star of South Africa, prominantly displayed at the Legion, was the first important large white diamond to come from South Africa and is credited with turning the tides of fortune in South Africa . In 1869, it was picked up by a Griqua shepherd boy near the Orange River who traded it to a Boer settler for five hundred sheep, ten oxen, and a horse. It weighed 83.5 carats in rough crystal form and was cut into a 47.69-carat old style pear-cut diamond. The stone was later called the “Dudley diamond” after the Earl of Dudley who purchased it for his wife, Lady Dudley, who wore it as a hair ornament surrounded by 95 smaller diamonds. The stone was also owned by J.P. Morgan before it made its way in 1917 to Cartier, New York, and was reset as a magnificent brooch.
In 1912, Pierre Cartier sold the legendary 45.52 carat Hope Diamond–the rarest and most perfect blue diamond in existance–for $180,000 to Evalyn Walsh McLean. She was the wife of Ned McLean, wealthy publisher of the Washington Post, and the only daughter of Thomas Walsh, an immigrant miner and prospector turned millionaire. The diamond’s last private owner, she delighted in flaunting a jewel that many thought cursed and wore it flamboyantly until her death in 1947. Harry Winston Inc., of New York City, purchased her entire jewelry collection, including the Hope Diamond, from her estate in 1949 and in November, 1958, donated it to the Smithsonian Institution, where it almost immediately became its premier attraction. The Hope Diamond is not on display.
Richard Burton’s spectacular gifts of jewels to Elizabeth Taylor were media events that marked the 1960’s. His most famous purchase was the 69.42-carat pear-shape diamond, later named the Taylor-Burton Diamond from Cartier in 1969. Certified by the GIA’s Gem Trade Laboratory, the stone was graded as Internally Flawless, F Color. The diamond is not at the Legion but the story is worth repeating.
In a highly publicized auction, Burton bid on the necklace for Liz but was outbid by Cartier whose winning bid resulted in the stone initially being named the “Cartier” diamond. Right after the sale, Burton was determined to acquire the diamond from Cartier and offered to buy the stone. Cartier agreed to sell it to him under the condition that it could be displayed at its Chicago and New York stores as the “Cartier.” Of course, everyone in America knew the story, and more than 6000 people a day flocked to Cartier’s New York store to see Liz’s rock. Taking advantage of the terms of purchase that allowed them to re-name the stone, Liz and Dick re-christened it the “Taylor-Burton” diamond when they took possession. Liz wore the diamond the first time in public for Princess Grace’s 40th birthday party in Monaco, and the diamond’s transport was a media event in itself. In 1970, she had Cartier re-mount it into a necklace and wore it to the Oscars in 1970, where she was a media sensation. Following her 1978 divorce from Burton, Taylor sold the diamond for $5,000,000 to NY jeweler Henry Lambert and used part of the proceeds to build a hospital in Botswana. Its current owner is Lebanese diamond dealer Robert Mouawad.
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor– A Panther Phenomena
Wallis Simpson, the controversial Duchess of Windsor (1896-1986), was an American socialite whose third husband was Prince Edward, Duke of Windsor and former King Edward VIII of England. The King’s desire to marry a twice-divorced American with two living ex-husbands caused a constitutional crisis in England that ultimately led to his abdication in December 1936. After abdicating, he became the Duke of Windsor and married Simpson six months later, who became the Duchess of Windsor but was denied the style “Her Royal Highness.”
The Duchess made the Paris Couture best-dressed list in 1935 and remained there for 40 years, famous for her elegant but simply-tailored clothes and chic jewels. She was Cartier’s most important client during this period after her marriage and several of her masterpieces are at the Legion. “She was willing to be quite cutting edge,” explained Pierre Rainero, “ to wear things that other women would not wear and she wore then very well.” She amassed a huge collecion of important jewelry that was sold at auction in 1987 for a shattering $50 million.
Rainero went on to explain that, usually, Cartier’s most daring objects were made for stock, and that special orders that adhere strictly to the request of customers are almost always “looking backwards. The Duchess of Windsor, however, fell under the category of a notable exception—a client whose strong character led to her strong pieces that were an expression of her character. The duke and duchess forged a special relationship with Cartier’s Jeanne Toussaint (1887-1978) who had been in charge of Cartier’s precious jewelry since the mid-1930’s and all the Duchess’s most important jewelry were collaborations between the duke, the duchess and Toussaint.
The Duchess’s Flamingo clip brooch (1940) is arguably her most famous piece of custom- designed Cartier jewelry and is exhibited at the Legion for the first time. The piece was fabricated from the Windsor’s own collection of bangles with the collaboration of Toussaint. The flamingo’s body and long stilt legs are of pave diamonds while the vibrant bristling plumage is fabricated of calibré-cut rubies, sapphires and emeralds. The attitude is “quite daring” in this landmark piece, explained Rainero. “It has a real sense of humor for a Duchess and it marks the end of certain period, as it was delivered to her just days before the Germans invaded Paris in June, 1940.” In the late 1980’s, the flamingo’s status as an icon was secured when it became a knockoff by costume jeweler Kenneth J. Lane The original was sold at auction in 1987, privately acquired.
Another of the Duchess’s iconic stunners is her diamond and sapphire panther clip brooch, bought as a stock item from Cartier Paris in 1949. The regal panther is crouched in a life-like pose on a perfectly round 152.35 carat cabochon star sapphire. It was this very panther that launched the “big cat craze, ” which swept up the duchess herself. Her 1952 Panther bracelet, also exhibited at the Legion for the first time, is set with calibré-cut black onyx and diamonds and is so finely articulated that it wraps around the wrist like fabric. Other jewelry collectors, such as Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton followed suit. She had Cartier make her a draping Tiger brooch and ear clips (also on display) of yellow diamonds and onyx resembling the ram’s skin suspended from the insignia of the Order of the Golden Fleece.
Flamboyant Jewels for Film Stars
The show’s final gallery includes some delightful short film clips of movie stars who, over time, garnered media attention as the new aristocrats and who famously wore Cartier. Their famous jewels are on display too. Gloria Swanson is wearing her Cartier diamond bracelets from “Sunet Blvd.” Tallulah Bankhead surrenders her Cartier for bait in “Lifeboat.” Gace Kelly polishes her 10 carat emerald-diamond engagement ring (from Prince Rainier of Monaco) in her last movie “High Society.” And, while poolside in Cap Ferrat, in 1957, a gorgeous young Liz Taylor, captured in a home movie, gleefully recevies ruby and diamond earrings, a necklace, and bracelet from husband Mike Todd.
María Félix, the wildly beautiful siren from the golden age of Mexican cinema, is famous for having turned down the small film roles offered by Hollywood’s Cecil B. DeMille with the reply, “I was not born to carry a basket.”
Félix found the perfect expression of her bold personality in the huge snake and crocodile pieces she commissioned from Cartier Paris. Her 1968 snake necklace, of platinum and white gold, is encrusted with 178.21 carats of diamonds and finished in the mille-gras.
Pure shock factor aside, the necklace demonstrates Cartier’s meticulous attention to detail. When handled, it mimics the slinkiness and weight of a real snake with hundreds of individual sections that are hinged internally. Its underbelly feels slithery due to gorgeous enameling that also protects the wearer’s neck.
Her 1975 detachable double crocodile necklace features two baby crocs—one of 1,000 yellow diamonds and the other with over 1,000 circular cut emeralds–that wrap around the neck with heads resting at the center of the throat. As the legend goes, one day in 1975, Félix visited Cartier Paris absolutely unexpectedly. She did not come alone but had a baby crocodile in a jar with her and requested that Cartier make her a necklace in the shape of the baby reptile and not to dally as it was growing by the day. In 2006, to pay tribute to Felix and her necklace, Cartier debuted its La Dona de Cartier collection, featuring the La Dona de Cartier watch, crafted in gold with half-moon, reptilian-like links, something on a more affordable scale for the masses. But, as we all know, the real Cartier, the Cartier of legends, does not cater to the masses.