Reviews Gems & Gemology, Fall 2017, Vol. 53, No. 3

Book Review: Cartier Magician: High Jewelry and Precious Objects

Cartier Magician: High Jewelry and Precious Objects
By François Chaille, hardcover, 264 pp., illus., publ. by Flammarion, Paris, 2016, US$125.00.

Art historian François Chaille’s beautifully illustrated book focuses on the Magician Collection of high jewelry and precious objects by the House of Cartier. The book is divided into chapters such as “The Magical Art,” “The Magic of Light,” “The Magic of Design,” and “The Magic of Reality.” Each one is illustrated with pieces from the collection, as well as colorful artwork. The author takes the reader to a magical past when diamonds were illuminated by candlelight, then later thrown into a modern world of electric light, and explains how that changed jewelry setting. He explores the innovative designs of Cartier through the last century, and how this new collection is a continuation of the brand’s mystique.

The book begins with the historical belief that some stones hold supernatural properties, that nature is full of miracles and magical virtues. Chaille quotes French writer and diplomat Paul Claudel, a friend of the Cartier family. In 1937, inspired by a visit to the Cartier shop on Rue de la Paix, Claudel wrote of a child who dreamed of taking in his hand a “drop of dew that sparkles in the May dawn like a star.” He continues: “The child knows that this wonder, once on his index finger… would give magical powers.” Then he closed by saying, “But all this is no dream, it is real.” 

The concept of Cartier as magician came from the poet Jean Cocteau, a loyal client. In his 1910 poem “The Frivolous Prince,” he called Cartier “that subtle magician who captures fragments of the moon on a thread of sun.” Chaille refers to the company’s workshops as a place where “Merlin the Magician and other conjurers are in attendance,” imparting life to gems. A Mystery clock from 2015 is shown as an example of the magical designs conjured by the House of Cartier. Its hands are suspended in crystal with no apparent connection to a mechanism, yet they still move. 

The reader then walks through the history of light and its use in art, from the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles and paintings by Caravaggio to works by Van Gogh, Rothko, and Picasso and light sculptures by James Turrell and Robert Irwin. The author discusses the magic of light in art, and how we react to it as viewers. The importance of light and how it plays on gemstones cannot be emphasized enough; it is vital to the life of the stone and to jewelry. Louis Cartier started to use platinum in the late 19th century to show diamonds at their best, especially in the newly discovered electric light. The age of platinum jewelry had come into its own, and Cartier was at the forefront of this evolution. Platinum and diamond bracelets, tiaras, necklaces, and rings with names such as Clairvoyant, Luminance, Psyché, Oracle, and Incarnation fill these pages, adding to the mysticism of the Magician Collection.

The Illumination bracelet is made to create light through a combination of colorless diamonds and rock crystal. At the center of the bracelet is an impressive 31.16 ct D-IF emerald-cut diamond flanked by rectangular diamond-set platinum frames containing etched rock crystal panels. These panels lie on top of one another. Light reflects off the diamond through the crystal panels, which act like mirrors to reflect the light back. It is a wondrously imaginative design. Cartier creations use each of the major diamond cuts to enhance the shine, sparkle, and luster of their high jewelry. Since the 1920s they have used them in various combinations to bring a kaleidoscope of light effects to their jewelry. This is illustrated in a 1929 platinum and diamond bracelet that contains brilliant-cut, baguette-cut, single-cut, and bullet-shaped cut diamonds. Also illustrated is the Luminance necklace, which continues this tradition today by combining 11 modified triangular-shaped rose-cut diamonds totaling 19.15 carats with round brilliant-cuts to create scintillation and luster. 

The chapter titled “The Magic of Design” gives a background on 1950s and ’60s kinetic art, which focuses on motion, and Op Art, a style that uses optical illusions. Alexander Calder, Victor Vasarely, and Yaacov Agam are a few of the artists whose work illustrates these styles. The chapter features Cartier pieces that transform from one thing to another or have a magical sense of movement. One page has six vintage cigarette cases from 1912 through the ’20s and ’30s. These cases have elaborate Art Deco designs that pre-date the Op Art movement by decades, yet look very contemporary with their kinetic optical illusions and use of positive and negative space. 

The sense of movement and transformation is echoed in pieces from the Magician Collection. The Incantation necklace is made of platinum set with round and baguette-cut diamonds on a petal-like fringe. Hanging from this fringe is a 22.84 ct cushion-shaped Ceylon sapphire. The sapphire can be removed and worn as a ring, and the curve of the necklace can be inverted to make a completely different design. The Ubiquité set is a pair of platinum and diamond-set rings that can be worn as one ring or easily converted into two: one set with a 15.06 ct cushion-cut Kashmir sapphire, the other a 10 ct D-IF cushion-cut diamond. When locked together they create the Cartier Toi et Moi (You and Me) or Crossover ring. A piece that captures the sense of movement is a black jade bypass bracelet in the Apparition suite. The terminals of each bypass have a platinum, diamond, and onyx cap set with a cushion-cut Colombian emerald. These “caps” can be removed and transformed into earrings with a total emerald weight of 15.1 carats. 

This final chapter, “The Magic of Reality,” focuses on the pieces inspired by nature and the world around us. Under the direction of head designer Jeanne Toussaint, Cartier began to create naturalistic depictions of flowers and three-dimensional animals. The iconic Cartier panther collection became very popular in the early 1920s. Designer Peter Lemarchand, like Toussaint, loved animals and birds, and together they designed some of the most iconic Cartier creations. In this final chapter, the focus on three-dimensional animals and flowers continues throughout the century and into the Magician collection. Elephants with raised trunks made of platinum and diamonds support an 85.25 ct oval emerald in a design for the Ganesh bracelet. On the opposite page is a design for Ganesh earrings that have pear-shaped sapphires, totaling 14.65 carats, suspended from pavé platinum elephant heads. The Jouesue ring has the famous Cartier platinum panther, paved in diamonds with black onyx spots, wrestling with a python coiled around a cabochon-cut 30.64 ct East African ruby. Another stunning piece is the Panthère Hypnotique necklace, where the panther stands upon a 52.53 ct black opal. The Crocodiles necklace, from 1975, is a bold pair of three-dimensional yellow gold crocodiles, one pavé set with yellow diamonds and the other with emeralds. One of the most whimsical pieces is the Adwaita ring, in which a turtle crawls over the top of the white gold mounting of pavé diamonds and cuddles up to a heart-shaped 29.37 ct spinel. Its shell is made of a cabochon gray-blue star sapphire. 

Flowers are another inspiration in the Cartier workshops. Photos of a wide variety of floral pieces are included in this last chapter. A brooch from 2013 captures the virtuosity of the master jewelers. It is a flower set with a 46.12 ct cushion-cut pink tourmaline surrounded by pavé diamonds, and plique-à-jour enamel creating delicate petals. The Illyrie necklace combines carved morganite flowers with briolette-cut morganite drops and pear-shaped spinels to create a cascade of pastel flowers from a pink gold color of pavé diamonds. Carving of stones into three-dimensional flowers is an art form. Cartier has created many of these in brooches such as the Iridacée brooch, a purple iris carved from a piece of amethyst and set with a pear-shape yellow diamond along with accents of pavé white diamonds. The Gardenia brooches are carved in pink or blue chalcedony set in pink or white gold. 

In the 1920s Cartier, influenced by the maharajahs, created what has come to be known as their Tutti-Frutti jewelry. It combines carved rubies, sapphires, and emeralds with diamonds to create an Indian look. The carved colored stones are combinations of pumpkin-cut and leaf-shape stone, some engraved with floral designs. It was quite popular in the ’20s and ’30s, and Indian motifs were revived in the 1960s. Recently this Indian-style jewelry has been brought back by Cartier. One of the most impressive pieces in this book is the Rajasthan set of necklaces that can be worn together or separately. The first necklace is a row of graduated pumpkin-cut emeralds with a pendant that contains a 136.99 ct carved emerald suspended from a pear-shaped carved ruby. This can be worn with another necklace—a bib of carved emeralds, sapphires, and rubies suspended from pavé diamond branches—to make a major statement piece. The large emerald can be transformed into a brooch, and the suite comes with earrings, ring, and bracelet to complete the set. 

François Chaille’s knowledge of art, combined with his love of fine jewelry, creates a fascinating read for those who have a passion for both. He uses archival and modern jewels to weave history and art history to tell the story of the Cartier Magician Collection. 

This book is sumptuously illustrated with high-resolution photos and archival preliminary sketches, as well as important art works. It is a scholarly work but easy to read, as informative as it is enjoyable.

Timothy Adams is an independent art historian and Fabergé scholar who has worked in the fine jewelry industry for 30 years. A curatorial consultant and lecturer, he serves on the Gems & Gemology Editorial Review Board.