Family Jewels

Fashion and its victims.
April 17 1997 3:30 AM

Family Jewels

The discreet charm of Cartier.

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Through Aug. 3, 1997

The , New York City

(Continued from Page 1)

As I stared into the cases, I often heard "Oh my God!" next to me or behind me, uttered in an undertone with a note of awe. I was tempted to misquote Mae West: "God has nothing to do with it, honey." Here we abandon him in the heady presence of treasures laid up on the earth, material wealth in its most concentrated and enduring form. A diamond bracelet mocks all the sables that wither and rot, the cars that rust, the champagne gone flat, and the claret turned vinegar, even the crumbling great houses and the faded great paintings--painstaking creations now fatally ripped, soaked, or burned. Lifeless from the start, jewels sneer at death, and they require zero maintenance.

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The Cartier operation kept its jewels on the move. The client might lose at cards, and the gold cigarette case with sapphires would be sold back to Cartier, who would promptly sell it the next year to another gentleman. A ruby-and-diamond necklace might have to go for inheritance taxes: Cartier would buy it back, dismantle it entirely, and make it into two tiaras and a brooch for three other clients, maybe preserving some elements and using them upside down or sideways. Each piece was photographed for the archives, against just such a fate.

The cosmetics-and-smoking mania of the '20s resulted in a whole array of gem-studded vanity cases with built-in lipstick, comb, and compartment for cigarettes. These were meant to be carried in the palm of the hand at the ball or the restaurant, and deployed in front of everybody, their gold interiors with their clever little hinges flashing while the nose was dusted, the mouth repainted, or a Sobranie selected. You had to take it back to Cartier to get the lipstick refilled, and you held onto it with a little ring or chain that hooked over two fingers.

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N one of these has much current appeal, luxe notwithstanding. Of things we would like, whole categories are oddly underrepresented. There are well over 200 pieces in this show, but only six pairs of earrings, all very drippy ones from the '20s. Where are the little diamond floral clusters for the lobe, the neat ruby circles? And there are exactly two rings. Obviously all the Cartier rings are still in use, and all the little earrings fell off in the taxi.

I came home drained and exhausted from thinking about how to adjust my diadem and reassemble my lavaliere, and unable to choose between the Japanese-ribbon-knot brooch with the rubies and the Gothic-style double-circle brooch with the sapphires. The next day, fully recovered, I saw the photo in the paper of the opening party. And there was one of Cartier's glorious tiaras on loan, crowning the head of a 6-foot African-American lady wearing the perfect silvery backless gown to go with it--but alas, she had to be followed everywhere by security guards. Nevertheless, the tiara looked nothing at all like the Miss America crown, and I must admit I felt a stab of envy.

Anne Hollander is the author of Sex and Suits.

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