Cartier?s Archive: Home To Hidden Treasures
Posted by minibraceletstores on March 9th, 2015
Sophisticated collectors know that the essence of a brand is frequently found not in what is sold out front on the velvet trays but in what lurks unseen in house archives or the back drawers of its designers. For proof of this, consider the British couple who traveled in 1938 to Paris, where a kindly old shopkeeper at Cartier gave their girls a small present. For their favorite doll, each received a parure of brooch, bracelet, and necklace in coral, lapis, and gold, all set in a miniature, monogrammed leather case.
Before you tote your hopeful daughters off to Cartier Paris, it should be said the couple were King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, in town to help shore up
Anglo-French relations. Their two little girls were, of course, the present queen and her sister, Princess Margaret, and the Barbie-size jewels were given -- in the name of the children of France -- by Louis Cartier himself.
You can still see the photo album of the princesses’ gifts in the Cartier archive, above the shop that Louis opened in 1899 at 13 Rue de la Paix with his brothers, Pierre and Jacques. Today, in the boutique downstairs, the discreetly rich mull over this season’s designs, watched over from the top of the stairs by a portrait of Alfred Cartier, son of the firm’s founder. The atmosphere is of good parquet, tasteful gilt, and money.
Up on the fifth floor, however, the air is of scholarship -- orderly shelves of boxes labeled, for example, “Voyage Égypte 1933,” in an old-fashioned hand, a roomful of meticulous drawers holding treasures brought back by the frères Cartier from their trips around the world. The company’s archives hold records of just about every piece ever made in its Paris workshop, often with a plaster mold and photograph to go with it. The collection of negatives alone weighs some eight tons.
We couldn’t resist a look. Cartier’s archivist, Violette Petit, carefully lifted an album of photographs from a box marked “Visite Royale 1938.” Besides documenting the princesses’ doll jewelry, there were black-and-white photos of a wax dummy’s hand, waving that light-bulb-unscrewing wave of British royals and wearing the platinum watch that Cartier had made for the future Queen Mother. This was only fair. Her own mother-in-law, Queen Mary, already had a dollhouse full of working, 1/12th-scale Cartier clocks, now on show at Windsor Castle.
And that’s our essential point. The Cartier archive unveils an unusual view of world history in objets de vertu (literally, “objects of virtue”). “In this one,” said
Petit, with the air of knowing her domain, “we have records of the lunar module from 1969.” There, a foot or so high, was the Apollo 11 moon lander, its spidery legs, capsule, and U.S. flag remade in solid yellow-and-white gold, lacquer, and enamel. “When the three astronauts were doing a world tour, they stopped in Paris,” Petit explained. “The Figaro newspaper decided to commission a gift for each of them, and got Cartier to design it.”
The paper’s readers were “asked to contribute to the cost -- 10 francs, 20 francs, whatever they could afford -- with two of [the readers] making the presentation.” Inside each Apollo capsule was a microfilm list of all the contributors. The piece was given to astronaut Michael Collins, and Cartier bought it back for just under $56,000 when it came up at auction in 2003. Petit paused, thoughtfully. “I believe the Armstrong family still has theirs,” she said.
That the Apollo landers were made in France for U.S. spacemen has a certain historical resonance to it. In the early 1900s, the frères Cartier decided to divide the world and conquer: Jacques set out for London, eventually opening the shop that still stands on Bond Street, while Pierre headed for New York. It was Pierre who, in American fashion, hit on the potential of creating jewelry for publicity reasons.
In 1927, the Cartier workshop at 653 Fifth Avenue turned out a replica of the Wright Whirlwind engine that had powered Charles Lindbergh’s plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, across the Atlantic that year. It took a while for the Paris and London boutiques to catch on to similarly using precious metals for Cartier’s public-relations image, but, as the lunar modules show, when they did, they did so in spades.
OUR EYE WAS DRAWN to a photograph of a vampish young woman. She was Cartier’s celebrated creative director, Jeanne Toussaint, known as la panthére (the panther). In addition to being a director, she was Louis Cartier’s mistress -- this was France, after all -- and she lent her nickname to the line of panther jewelry made famous by the Duchess of Windsor.
But there was much more to Toussaint than just the panther bangle. During the occupation, with Gestapo officers stalking the Rue de la Paix, Toussaint designed a small brooch of a bird in a cage, to be worn by patriotic Frenchwomen as a sign of resistance. She then ordered a caged bird placed in each of Cartier’s windows.
If the Germans noticed this act of rebellion, they left Cartier largely alone, and on the day Paris was liberated, in August 1944, Toussaint’s brooches were removed from the windows and changed from caged birds to freed ones, made in the red, white, and blue of the French tricolor. (A liberated bird brooch, once belonging to Princess Margaret, sold for $24,288 in 2006.) One Cartier client, Françoise Leclercq, took jeweled resistance even further. When the Jews of Paris were ordered to wear yellow stars, Leclercq, a devout Roman Catholic, ordered Cartier to make her a five-pointed gold star, which she wore throughout the German occupation.
Three decades before, the jewelers had taken part in another moment of history. Among the most faithful clients of the shop on the Rue de la Paix were members of the Russian imperial family -- patronage that mightily annoyed the Cartiers’ main rival in St. Petersburg, Peter Carl Fabergé.
Always adept at knowing their market, the Cartier brothers quickly picked up on Russian demand, and from 1907 to 1914 they opened seasonal boutiques in St. Petersburg, catering to the local custom of giving small tokens of jewelry at Easter and Christmas -- bijoux that would eventually become popular with Cartier’s non-Russian clients, as well.
Among the bijoux we found a charming pig. The thumb-size porker, carved in 1905 in pink rhodonite with rose-cut diamond eyes, is oddly lovable. Less so, perhaps, are the green nephrite elephants standing on a lump of rose quartz, although this strange object did at least have a function.
“You pressed the middle elephant on your dining room table and it rang a bell in the kitchen,” said Petit, straight-faced. Then, as if by way of explanation: “This was made in our workshops in England. At Cartier London, all the designers and artisans had to be British. In Paris and New York, they were French.”
But the interesting thing about many of the designs in Cartier’s archive is less what they say about the rich than about the backroom talents who made them. Like the caged birds, these objects were dreamed up by Cartier’s designers for the shop itself, rather than for individual patrons. That gave them freedom to roam.
The European jewelers beavering away in Pierre Cartier’s New York workshop, for example, found some American habits amusing, which in turn inspired some equally droll responses. To the wine-drinking French, Prohibition in particular was hard to understand. So, around 1930, Pierre’s artisans produced a clock with an invisible movement housed in a bottle of Old Grand-Dad bourbon, which now sits in the Cartier collection.
“I think this must have been made in some secrecy,” said Petit. “After all, they could not very well have sold it in the boutique during Prohibition, hmm? I think this clock was, let us say, a kind of French in-joke on America.” An Old Grand-Dad Whiskey Bottle Clock, made in 1950, sold at Christie’s for $37,500 in 2009.
ONE ROOM OF THE archive is lined with drawers filled with objects that the Cartier brothers and their team brought home from their travels, after trotting the globe selling their wares to crowned heads.
Petit slid open a drawer, revealing a flash of iridescent blue -- kingfisher blue, in fact, from kingfisher feathers that were once woven into Chinese headdresses. Within a few years, Cartier was using kingfisher feathers in its own designs.
Petit paged through a portfolio of drawings, selecting one for a desk clock set with nephrite and rubies and made in the Paris workshop around 1925. The clock’s dial is a mosaic of kingfisher feathers. These are not in a Chinese style, though, but fashioned into a trompe l’oeil basket weave, the last word in 1920s Art Deco.
The clock may look like a frivolous thing, highly decorative, but it is also an unusual moment of the 18th century sliding neatly into the 20th, of East meeting West. It is, in short, a fine example of why the wisest collectors leaf through a brand’s archives for inspiration and ideas.
For that is where the unique talent and skill that define an atelier are revealed in their tiniest details, in the wittiest of pieces. And on that specialist knowledge, great collections are built.
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