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

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The Cartier name connotes luxurious objects, but none in particular. Fabergé means enameled Easter eggs and Tiffany means wedding presents and engagement rings--maybe art noveau lamps--but Cartier means, well, expensive jewelry in the abstract. The firm has always been a retail business, the product of commercial enterprise rather than aesthetic vision--a glorified jewelry store. Louis-François Cartier founded the Paris firm in 1847, just in time to help deck the famous beauties of the Second Empire, from the empress to the great cocottes. Branches were soon opened in London and New York by Louis-François' sons to serve Victorian magnates on both sides of the Atlantic, and eventually a Cartier grandson married the granddaughter of Worth, the world famous couturier, as if to consolidate the whole international luxury-goods network.

Meanwhile the Cartier firm ranged far, seeking clients in Imperial Russia and among Indian maharajahs, buying enamels from Russia and pearls from India to sell to French clients. For nearly 150 years, the three branches provided jewels to suit the varied tastes of the world's multimillionaires--without ever imposing a distinct artistic style on any of them. The client was invited to participate in the creation of a given piece; his or her sketches were considered; his or her stones might be used. But to establish a solid worldwide reputation among the aesthetically alert and the crude alike, Cartier employed a single unifying principle: the highest quality of materials and workmanship, and a single standard of elegance.

Which means that the stuff risked being stuffy, if you can say that about jeweled ornaments. Cartier's defining epoch was the art deco period, which the firm's designers seem to have anticipated by two decades and extended through the 1930s. Beginning in 1907, they were already using recognizable art deco forms, but clearly not as signs of revolutionary modernity. The simple shapes and lines were being offered rather as extensions of late 18th century neoclassicism, as new bearers of old values. No wonder they were popular with both nouveaux riches and royalty.

The current Cartier exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is confined to pieces made between 1900 and 1939, the period of Cartier's greatest fame. Most of the show demonstrates Cartier's adherence to an old-fashioned view of jewels. Take tiaras, for example. The tiara (that is, a woman's ornamental crown of a more or less crescent shape) is not at all modern, but it is definitely both classical and neoclassical. Sappho wore one. So did Nero's mother, Agrippina the Younger, and Napoleon's Josephine. Thanks to Cartier, so apparently did every commoner who could afford it between 1900 and 1939, to match the royals and nobles who had inherited theirs.

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R oyalty was still big news in the first half of this century. High-level elegance, then epitomized by Cartier, manifestly required the effect that made Napoleon's upstart court look imperial and legitimate. That look--simple yet richly paved with glitter and colored enamel, altogether different from the frothy rococo excesses of the ancien régime--also suited New York's steel, railway, or breakfast-food emperors and their descendants and emulators in the succeeding two generations. Tiaras, imposing necklaces, multiple bracelets, everything in diamonds--it all still held good, and Cartier kept it up.

But the whole idea is now passé. It lingered into the 1950s when Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn gave it a whirl, but it's really gone now. A dazzling array of hereditary jewels might occasionally adorn Queen Elizabeth, but other rich women never appear in diamond tiaras. Figure skaters and ballet dancers are the only ones who wear them, along with Miss America.

My understanding of Cartier was so nebulous that I thought an hour would suffice to check out the show at the Metropolitan Museum. I strode briskly up to the first glass case--but there I stopped, transfixed. In the first three cases were diamond brooches made to adorn the spacious dresses of the belleépoque, gleaming leaf-and-flower compositions that could sweep across a whole décolletage from shoulder to shoulder, or smaller ornaments festooned with graceful diamond swags and dripping with pendant diamond drops. Each piece was an entire show, dazzling under the lights. But there was more.

Each diamond in each leaf and petal was surrounded by a tiny wall of platinum beading, in what I learned is called the "millegrain" setting. No crude prongs hold up these stones, but rather, a precise silvery tracing that sets off the diamond and emphasizes the interlaced design of the brooch while hiding its construction. Out of sight at the back, the grainy tracing around the stones is held up on a continuous gallery of supports rising from another tracery that lies against the body. The diamonds are lifted up on an airy cage, and light can come through them from below.

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I was repeatedly struck by how unlike these Cartier creations are to modern rhinestone jewelry, or even to modern precious jewelry. Today, the seriousness is missing. When it comes to style in jewels, modern chic has followed Chanel, and Chanel refused to be solemn. She insisted on casual fakes and mixtures of vivid barbaric ornaments along with real pearls. Cartier jewels were once sought expressly for their link to a tradition of exquisite applied craftmanship, as the best celebration of precious minerals, something undertaken almost for their sake. Modern vanity is more personal; we no longer want to wear ornaments with that detached eternal look. The designs for the Cartier jewels have a consistent discretion. These are never expressions of wild genius, like the beating heart made of rubies that Dali designed. On the contrary, respect for the capacity of the materials always wins out over daring visual invention, but a staggering technical imagination has also been summoned. That, if anywhere, is where the modernity of these jewels lies.

I learned, for example, how a diadem, brooch, or bracelet could be invisibly hinged so as to be completely flexible in all directions, not a rigid little beast of unyielding metal and stone, but supple, tender toward the body, changeable in mood. I saw in the catalog how the lengthy diamond necklaces with complex pendants were often made to be disassembled by the client, so she could have four bracelets, two brooches, and a shorter necklace whenever she got tired of the one big thing. Meanwhile her tiara, just right for attending the coronation of a monarch, could be dismounted from its frame and reversed into a necklace suitable for the opening of the opera season. The jewels would be delivered in exquisite gold-tooled leather boxes with compartments containing the relevant alternative mounts and fastenings, and a tiny screwdriver in its own velvet nest.

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.

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.