Inside the Cartier archive | Panthers on the prowl | precious jewels

Cool, understated elegance that belies inner sparkle and sizzle.

As Cartier launches the latest iteration of its emblematic panther design, Susan Skelly explores a vast archive that is as much a reflection of 20th-century social history as it is of the premium jeweller’s sparkling gems.

It’s an icy, grey, drizzling Saturday morning in Paris and the doors to the Grand Palais have just swung open. In an instant, the overcoats are four deep around showcases exhibiting 600 of some of the most significant pieces of jewellery of the past 167 years.

There’s a hushed reverence punctuated by gasps of glee and recognition – the Halo tiara worn by Catherine Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, on her wedding day; the Duchess of Windsor, Wallis Simpson’s jewelled panther brooch; actress Marie Félix’s crocodile necklace (she is said to have turned up with a real baby croc as a model); the diamond and rock crystal bracelets Gloria Swanson wore in 1950’s Sunset Boulevard; the famous mystery clocks.

Cartier: Style And History, which bedazzled the City of Light in the winter of 2013, underlined the nexus of power, wealth and jewellery – and the way jewels hold a mirror up to the society they adorn. It was also a celebration of curiosity and creativity, of the entrepreneurship of Alfred Cartier, the artistic acuity of his first son, Louis, and the pioneering spirit and business acumen of Louis’ brothers, Pierre and Jacques, who set up shop in Paris, London and New York.

Cartier | Alfred, Louis Pierre and Jacques

Insights into the process that established the Cartier name, however, occur not in the dazzling hall of the Salon d’Honneur, but in the more austere archives that occupy the top floors of the grand Cartier flagship store at 13 Rue de la Paix, just off the high-jewellery centre that is Paris’ Place Vendôme.

In an era when families in the business of luxury goods are being wooed by behemoths (Cartier has been under the Richemont luxury goods umbrella since 2012) history is everything. Stories are the currency of legend. Like Hermès, Van Cleef & Arpels and Chanel, archives are luxurious history books. Here, in the attic, some 30,000 glass-negative photo plates, stored in white acid-free paper inside charcoal-grey boxes document thousands of pieces of jewellery. Shallow drawers of caramel oak hold plaster moulds that highlight the intricate detail and impressions of the finished product. Hefty ledgers (up to 15kg each), with disintegrating steel bindings, neatly and meticulously record clients and their orders. Other, slimmer volumes are the personal records of individual clients, insights into the creation of masterpieces. There are records of some 300,000 stock pieces alone. Violette Petit, Cartier’s international archives manager, estimates there would be the same again for special orders.

Wearing white gloves (and without a skerrick of jewellery), Petit gently turns the pages of a small register for special orders, with designs sketched on tracing paper, annotations and handwritten ear and wrist dimensions. In the centre is a simple circle. What is it? “Wallis Simpson’s wrist,” says Petit.

The archive documentation is used to verify the authenticity of Cartier pieces. These days, Cartier buys back as many items as it can get its hands on, either for its Collection Cartier (not for sale) or Cartier Tradition – vintage designs that have a market. Since 1983, Cartier has been assembling The Collection Cartier, a selection of jewels, watches, clocks and precious objects. The pieces in it have been shown in premium museums around the world, from New York to Beijing.

As Pierre Rainero, Cartier’s image, heritage and style director, said in an interview with Cartier Art magazine last year: “The archives bear witness to the deep continuity in our way of working, ever since the early days. Creative committees always went about things the same way: draughtsmen presented their drawings, one by one, to the workshop heads, sales staff and their studio heads, Jeanne Toussaint, Louis Cartier. Creative responsibility was shared. And it still is.

“The historical documents we have also convey Louis and Jeanne’s open, international spirit. Thanks to client commissions sent to Paris by Pierre Cartier from New York and Jacques from London, the creations of the workshops on Rue de la Paix kept in touch with changing lifestyles and taste.”

Louis Cartier was the creative – he found inspiration just about everywhere he looked – and he signed off on everything. Jacques travelled a lot, he had the connections with the maharajas and the Asian market. Pierre was the businessman who set up new markets.

The library was in Louis’ office: there are rare editions, books on 16th-century Rome, and Persian, Byzantine, Islamic and Japanese art. One of Petit’s favourite pieces is a spray of diamonds, Branches de Fougeres, inspired by a drawing in one of Louis’ books, a rare edition of Japanese art by Samuel [Siegfried] Bing titled Le Japon Artistique. The page still has a bookmark in place.

There isn’t a day, says Petit, who has been working with Cartier’s archives for 11 years, that she doesn’t unearth something new. One of her favourites is a beautifully penned letter she discovered two years ago, from Alfred Cartier, writing to Louis in 1908 from New York, one year before Cartier opened there.
“Rich in information, he is describing New York, everything is amazing, the city is being built. It’s very touching at the same time, as it’s also a personal letter. There’s a great spot where he’s describing Central Park from his hotel, The Plaza, where he is on the 16th floor, and says it looks beautiful, he can see the zoo and he says he feels as if he is sleeping on top of the Eiffel Tower.

“There’s a sense of excitement, it was an adventure – they were adventurers. When they went to Asia, they had no idea where they were going – they would do trips seven months in length. Part of my job is to share that, bring back the human level and show what it was at that time, as a family business – that entrepreneurial feeling they had. They were building the company.”


Alfred Cartier with sons. From left-right: Pierre, Louis, and Jacques.

And those Cartiers didn’t miss a trick. They were impressed by the Fabergé use of guilloche enamel, which had been acclaimed at the 1900 Exposition Universelle, and used it in their objets d’art, some jewellery pieces and watches. The house embraced platinum, the physical qualities of which enables delicacy and finesse of design. Japanese motifs such as the obi (sash) were stylised in diamonds and rubies. The influence of the Fauves and the Ballet Russe heralded abstract geometrical lines and juxtapositions of coral and onyx, jade and lapis lazuli, emerald and sapphires, ahead of art deco, when black enamel, onyx and steel took hold. Art nouveau jewellers made less-expensive raw materials cool. Exotic lands such as Egypt, India and Persia inspired the Tutti Frutti pieces in the 1920s and a host of new motifs, along with those from the Far East.

In the maison’s glory days, women of style, influence and wealth drove the demand for brilliant designs: socialites such as Grace Vanderbilt, Daisy Fellowes, Marjorie Meriwether Post, Wallis Simpson, Grace of Monaco, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, queens and maharanis.

Cartier understood the desire for one-upmanship and being first with the new – vanity cases that held lipstick, powder, mirror; buckles, lighters and cigarette cases; hair combs, hatpins, brooches and ornaments; teapots, parasol handles, letter openers, pincushion cases, ink wells and table bells. And few did tiaras better: confections of diamonds, pearls and aquamarines.

Cartier Celebrity | Panthers and Princesses

Animals were popular: butterflies, beetles, birds, snakes, dogs and cats. And, of course, the panther, a Cartier emblem. The panther motif – onyx and pavé-set diamonds adorning the bezel of a women’s wristwatch – first appeared in 1914, evolving to decorate smart vanity cases in the late 1920s. La panthère was the pet name of the avant-garde Jeanne Toussaint – who became the head of fine jewellery in 1933, but had been exerting her influence on accessory design since the 1920s – because that’s what she ordered for herself. The cat, in diamonds and onyx, turned up on her vanity cases and boxes, and sculpted in yellow gold on rings and bracelets.

A fabulous platinum, sapphire and diamond panther clip brooch with flashing yellow diamond eyes, atop a 152.35ct Kashmir sapphire cabochon was sold to the Duchess of Windsor in 1949. It was her second panther; she had, the year before, bought a gold and black enamel panther lounging on an emerald cabochon.

Pierre Rainero writes in Cartier Style And History: “The Duchess of Windsor immediately identified with the great cat, as did the whole of café society. The feline, whose appearance in the windows at Rue de la Paix had the effect of a creative ‘atomic bomb’, became the darling of women who were recognised for their fortune, style and original thinking.”


The Duchess of of Winsdor’s tiger lournette; panther vanity case (1928); a brooch pin designed for the Duke and Duchess (1937).

The new collection of panthers is just as fierce and fabulous. Launched by Cartier last month, it is a collection of 56 radiant pieces. Rings, bracelets and necklaces are all richly embellished with onyx, lacquer, tsavorite garnets, emeralds and diamonds. Just like their ancestors, these big cats appear to prowl and pounce with poise.

Wild things, indeed.

First published in Qantas The Australian Way Magazine, October 2014 – all images supplied 


Editor. Writer. Traveller. Keeping tabs on all things fab.

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Copyright © Susan Skelly 2020.