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‘Reflections of Cartier’: A Bauble Bath of Jewels From Art Deco Years

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For 15 years, the House of Cartier has engaged in an unusual treasure hunt.

The international jeweler employs a special team to track down and buy back many of Cartier’s finest creations at a cost of millions of dollars.

“We’ve been aggressively buying back as many of the great old things as we can,” says Ralph Destino, Cartier chairman.

Sixty key pieces from the collection, all designed by Louis Cartier from 1915 to 1940, will be shown at the new Cartier store in South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa from Sept. 23 to Oct. 18. Called “Reflections of Cartier: The Art Deco Years,” the exhibit will feature necklaces, bracelets, brooches, vanity cases, watches and clocks from Cartier’s private archives in Geneva.

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For Orange County residents, it’s a rare opportunity to see objects that once belonged to some of Louis Cartier’s prominent clients, such as a diamond bracelet sported by Gloria Swanson, a cigarette case commissioned by Sir Winston Churchill, a diamond tiara designed for a Chilean princess and a vanity case for Mrs. W.K. Vanderbilt.

“Several pieces in the exhibit have interesting stories,” Destino says.

Churchill, a heavy smoker, commissioned the gold cigarette case from Cartier for his son, Randolph, who idolized his father and expressed a desire to smoke at a young age.

As Destino tells it, Churchill made young Randolph promise not to smoke until he turned 21. While Churchill was away on business, he constantly sent his son letters reminding him of his vow.

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On his 21st birthday, Randolph received another “letter.” It was a solid gold cigarette case shaped like an envelope and engraved in Churchill’s handwriting with Randolph’s name and address. Although the envelope was adorned with a canceled British stamp, such a fine piece was never actually posted.

The show includes one of two identical diamond bracelets made for Gloria Swanson. Destino calls the bracelet “a triumph of design.” The piece, fashioned out of rock crystal wedges and platinum side strips set with diamonds, took more than six months to make because of the intricate way it expands over the hand.

“Miss Swanson was growing impatient for the bracelet to be finished,” Destino says. “When it was finally done, she loved it so much her immediate reaction was, ‘I want another one. After all, I have two wrists.’ ”

Swanson was often seen wearing both bracelets at once.

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The famous Cartier panther first appeared on a 1928 vanity case given to Louis Cartier’s assistant, Jeanne Toussaint, widely believed to be his mistress.

“He called her ‘My little panther.’ You can draw your own conclusions,” Destino says. The case, included in the show, is fashioned of yellow gold set with black lacquer, with a small pave diamond panther between two emerald and ruby cypress trees.

“After that the panther was seen in brooches, bracelets and other jewels. They became known as the Cartier’s great cats and are still heavily in demand.”

The creator of all this beauty, Louis Cartier, has come to be known as the “father of the Art Deco movement” for his simple moderne designs that avoided the “fuss” of the Victorian and art nouveau styles. He was the third generation of his family to head the House of Cartier from the turn of the century to 1942. At one time he served as crown jeweler to 19 royal houses.

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“He was the greatest in the lineage,” Destino says.

In 1904 he invented the wristwatch for Alberto Santos-Dumont, a friend who planned to fly a gas bag (similar to a hot-air balloon) in a race from Versailles to the Eiffel Tower and wanted to mark his time without fumbling for his pocket watch. Cartier attached horsehide to a clock and strapped it around his friend’s wrist.

“Prior to that, wearing a timepiece on your wrist was unheard of,” Destino says. Men wore pocket watches and women wore watch pendants.

At first wristwatches were worn only by women; men considered them too feminine until Cartier designed his famous tank watch to honor the tank commanders of World War I. From then on, the military made it “safe for a man to wear them.”

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The tank watch, represented in the exhibit by a 1920 gold model, mimics the silhouette of a tank with its rounded sides, a style that is popular to this day.

“It defined what a gentleman’s watch ought to look like,” Destino says.

Cartier is credited with other innovations as well. He introduced platinum as a jewelry metal, designed the new baguette cut for diamonds and invented transformable jewelry. The diamond-studded tiara for Princess Maria of Chile, for instance, converts into two bracelets and a brooch.

Cartier’s ingenuity as a designer can also be seen in his “mystery clocks” that have transparent gem or rock dials with hands that appear to float inside the dial.

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“There are two mysteries,” says Destino. “The first is how did the hands get there. The other is how does it run.”

He won’t answer either question.

“Does the magician tell how the rabbit gets out of the hat?

“Mystery clocks are rare, gloriously designed and reflective of the Art Deco period. It takes about a 1 1/2 years to make one.”

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The show will feature three mystery clocks, including a 1923 model with a round rock crystal dial sandwiched between two jade bands on its top and bottom and resting on an onyx and gold pedestal. A 1926 clock has an octagon-shaped rock crystal dial and a gold rim set with black enamel and coral.

The base on the timepiece was originally a plain onyx block in keeping with Cartier’s understated style, but the client--King Farouk of Egypt--had other ideas.

“Farouk said, ‘It’s beautiful, but I think it would look better with my initials.’ The clock suddenly acquired a big ‘F’ in diamonds” on its base,” Destino says. “If you’re the king, you’re the boss.”

Cartier has about 360 pieces in its archives that occasionally appear at museum exhibitions. The company has acquired the pieces from estate sales, auctions, museums and private collections.

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The most expensive piece in the archives is a “tutti-frutti” style necklace of carved ruby, emeralds and sapphires that cost $2.5 million. A similar 1929 tutti-frutti bracelet with platinum branches that sprout ruby leaves and sapphire and emerald bead berries is included in the exhibit.

“These objects testify to the greatness of the house,” Destino says.


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