I got to dust off my passport in July 2013 to head to Paris on a research trip for Brilliant: Cartier in the 20th Century. Despite some anxieties about the humbleness of my own accessories, I was thrilled to be greeted by lovely French colleagues at the Cartier Documentation Center (turns out they are not at all judgmental about one’s wardrobe choices). Our team was directed to the aptly named “diamant” (“diamond”) area of the building, where we spent two days combing through photographs, correspondence, news clippings, Vogue advertisements, and other goodies that offered us significant insight into the history of Cartier’s beautiful jewelry and renowned clients (Grace Kelly, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Gloria Swanson, Elizabeth Taylor . . . to name a few).
Most surprising and delightful to me was discovering the genuine artistic vision and creativity of the Cartier designers. Although the finished pieces often look perfect, even ethereal, Cartier’s jewelry designers have long taken inspiration from the natural and manmade world. We dug through historic books with endless drawings of animals in various poses, architectural motifs, and even scrapbooks with unexpected sources of inspiration like photos of jumping kangaroos, shrieking monkeys, and hissing cats. Indeed, somehow, Cartier’s designers have turned a hissing cat into a show-stopping, glamorous brooch.
I’ll admit that I had a preconceived notion of Cartier. I had an image of untouchable beauty, of priceless pieces only the very wealthiest and most elite members of society could enjoy. Although I could admire the objects, I felt removed from them myself. Until the third day of our trip, when we visited the Cartier workshop on the fashionable shopping street, Rue de la Paix.
While we waited outside to enter the workshop, a man wheeled up a dolly with a new jeweler’s desk, and dropped it off in front of Cartier’s Parisian boutique (the workshop is upstairs), on that very site since 1899. In retrospect this image of the boutique’s embellished façade with the simple but practical workbench was an apt summation of Cartier: prestigious and elegant, but at its heart, backed by thoughtful, diligent craftsmanship. My appreciation for the gorgeous jewelry was heightened exponentially through the workshop.
It was mind-boggling. Individual pieces can take up to 3,000 hours of work to complete. There are five different types of craftsmen and -women with very different skill sets: jewelers, stone setters, polishers, lapidaries (who cut precious stones), and diamond cutters. These highly trained individuals work to translate a two-dimensional design into a three-dimensional object. That is the crux of their job, in the words of our guide, High Jewelry workshop manager Xavier Gargat, to “bring a stone to life.”
See for yourself at Brilliant: Cartier in the 20th Century through March 15. These beauties have some fascinating backstories.