Denver has been fortunate enough to have its fair share of exclusive fashion exhibits come through the Denver Art Museum, such as the Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective in 2012, and now, Brilliant: Cartier in the 20th Century. The latter of which featuring over 165 pieces of Cartier jewelry throughout the course of the 20th century, from 1900-1975.
Funded in 1847 in France, Louis Cartier began as a jeweler for royalty. His pieces were worn by royals such as Princess Marie Bonaparte and King Edward VII of England. Cartier made specialty tiaras, including a notable tiara reflecting a laurel wreath that Princess Marie wore as she married King George of Greece.
Cartier soon started to evolve into making jewelry for the extremely wealthy, such as the socialite Mary Scott Townstead who favored the elegance and luxury of his pieces.
It takes about 3,000 hours to make one necklace and involves the collaboration of designers, jewelers, cutters and setters. Beginning in the early 1900s, Cartier documented each and every one of his designs by archiving each plaster mold used.
At the turn of the 20th century, America and Europe began to mingle and exchange ideas, as well as materials. This marked the end of the use of traditional materials, leading Cartier to use new, innovative materials such as platinum.
In addition to jewelry, Cartier began to expand into making clocks and watches, in an attempt to revive France’s greatness in that area. Cartier became known for his “mystery clocks”, clocks with transparent dials to hide the mechanisms. Along with various styles of watches, such as the “Tank”, a model with over 30 varieties that is still produced today.
Cartier also began to create men’s accessories to add to his repertoire of goods. These included pocket watches, cigarette holders and suit adornments, such as cuff links and would traditionally be gifted to men as a gift of affection or achievement.
What made Cartier unique was that he was a jeweler who designed with the times, responding to what the current events were, what consumers demanded and what industry influencers such as Vogue magazine had to say regarding fashion trends.
An example of this is when Vogue forecasted yellow gold as a trend in the 1930s, in which Cartier responded by incorporating the material into his jewelry at the time.
Cartier went on hiatus during World War I in 1914, before reopening in the 1920s, during the height of the Art Deco movement. Showing at the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts in Paris, Cartier was the only jewelry designer among the other haute couture designers. His pieces reflected a lot of the Art Deco design motifs such as bold geometric lines and lavish ornamentation. The 1920s was also the age of the flappers, and therefore Cartier designed specific pieces such as sautoirs, bandeaus, dangle earrings, buckle broaches and strap bracelets to reflect the liberating dress of flapper women while still preserving the lightness of touch that his pieces had.
Cartier had an international presence. He liked to use themes centered on motifs from other cultures, surrounding current world events of the time. In the early 1920s, around the time of the finding of King Tut’s tomb in Egypt, Cartier designed jewelry with Egyptian motifs. The looks were clearly influenced by ancient Egyptian architecture and even used native materials, such as lapis lazuli, orange coral and turquoise.
After World War I there was an influx of Asian art influence in Paris, which Cartier reflected in the pieces of the time. He used carved jade and lacquer panels in his designs, in addition to depicting motifs that were common in Asian art, such as dragons, clouds and cherry blossoms.
This influence continued with India and Persia, since they were under British rule, the Indian princes would often go to Britain, taking their own stones, such as emeralds, and get them set in platinum, making their own custom designed pieces.
The most well known is a multi-stone necklace worn by Sir Yadavindra Singh, Maharaja of Patiala in the early 1940s. The piece was passed down from his father, who was the original designer and owner.
At the dawn of the Great Depression, there was a wave of “exotic fantasy” that served as an escape for many who suffered from the stock market crash in 1929. This jewelry was characterized by the use of multicolored stones, which became known as the “Tutti Frutti” style. This was a more whimsical style that, unlike the elegant diamond jewels of decades past, lent itself to the idea of distraction with an underlying message of optimism.
In the latter half of the century, it was apparent that smoking was “in-style”; therefore, Cartier saw the need to provide stylish accessories. Objects such as cigarette holders, lighters and vanity accessories graced the marketplace as smoking grew in popularity among the elite post-World War II.
The museum’s exhibit also highlighted the birth of Cartier’s panther motif: it was born in the 1940s when Jeanne Toussaint took over the design department of Cartier. To her, the panther represented a modern, assertive woman, and it continues to be a motif of Cartier to this day.
The last section of the exhibit featured influential, international and iconic women who owned and endorsed Cartier jewelry. This list included celebrities and royalty such as Elizabeth Taylor, Princess Grace of Monaco, the Duchess of Windsor (Wallis Simpson) and Daisy Fellowes. These women were all known for wearing various custom designed Cartier pieces such as tiaras, necklaces and rings, in addition to building a personal jewelry collection during their lifetime.
This exhibit tells a wonderful story of how the jewelry company grew and came to be one of the major jewelers during the 20th century. Cartier was brilliant in responding to historical moments and trends, and it is reflected in the designs of the jewelry and other timepieces during this era. Cartier is now recognized internationally as a fine jeweler known for many signature pieces, not just the extravagant necklaces and tiaras it started out with.
Brilliant: Cartier in the 20th Century runs through March 15 at the Denver Art Museum, and tickets can be found at www.denverartmuseum.org.