Exhibition Review: Cartier: The Exhibition
According to Simeran Maxwell, curator of international art at Canberra’s National Gallery of Australia, “decorative arts have long been relegated to the bottom of the art history pyramid.” They were aware, however, that the installation of Cartier: The Exhibition “would really excite audiences.” This is the first time ever that such a collection of the world’s most exclusive jewels has been made available for public viewing. The exhibition takes the visitor through fashion trends that reflect socioeconomic changes during the 1900s: the coming together of Old World aristocracy and the nouveau riche of the New World. The exhibition traces how the changing world of fashion is complemented by the timeless beauty of fine jewelry (figure 1). More than 300 items from Maison Cartier items spanning 70 years—from the turn of the 20th century through the 1970s—reflect the changes in both fashion and clientele.
For three years, NGA’s team worked collaboratively with Cartier and external agencies to deliver this exhibition, whichdisplays items from the Cartier Collection and several private collectors, as well as international organizations. Sections include “Defining Moments: 20th Century Icons,” “Royal Style: King of Jewellers and Jeweller of Kings,”’ “New Silhouettes: Art Deco and the Jazz Age,” “Exotic Fantasies: Eastern Inspiration,” and “Masculine Luxury: Effortless Style.” One area is devoted to the design house’s celebrity clientele (figure 2), highlighting Cartier’s talent for reflecting their clients’ personalities while creating memories and exotic stories.
As the popularity of theater and film grew through the 1900s, so did the demand for fine jewelry by the stars of those mediums. One such star was Dame Nellie Melba (1861–1931), an internationally famous opera diva and one of Cartier’s best clients. In one year, Melba visited Cartier 25 times during May, her birthday month (S. Maxwell, pers. comm., 2018). The NGA exhibition includes two pieces by Cartier that belonged to Melba: the diamond and pearl devant de corsage (or stomacher) seen in figure 3, and a gem-set evening clutch, both on public display for the first time.
By the 1920s, Cartier was the leader in Art Deco Jewelry, with their sumptuous “Tutti Frutti” pieces conceived during that time. The jewelry house was also inspired by the treasures of Tutankhamen’s tomb—discovered in 1922—and incorporated references to ancient Egypt into their work. Cartier purchased Egyptian artifacts from Parisian dealers and worked them into contemporary pieces, often using diamonds, onyx, coral, and platinum settings. One piece contains a wonderful antique Egyptian lapis lazuli scarab (figure 4, top). Also on display was a design sketch of a similar piece (figure 4, bottom).
The Great Depression of the 1930s and the World War II period are reflected in more subdued jewelry; the pieces from this era contrast greatly with the exuberance reflected in post-WWII pieces. A perfect example of this is the amethyst and turquoise bib necklace (figure 5) created for and owned by Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor. Other jewels owned by royalty are also on display. Among them are the Halo Tiara (figure 6, left), lent to Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, by Queen Elizabeth II of England for her 2012 wedding, and the engagement ring (figure 6, right) given to Grace Kelly by Prince Rainier III of Monaco.
Of special interest to the gemologist are the gemstones on display. Over the years, some of the most important and exciting gemstones have been brought to Cartier for use in jewelry, while other gorgeous pieces have used smaller, less notable gem materials. These gems are brought to life and beautifully incorporated in exquisite items, such as a Greyhound vanity case (figure 7, left), through Cartier’s design and attention to fine detail. An excellent example is the 1934 Cartier Paris jadeite necklace (figure 7, right) once owned by American socialite Barbara Hutton. To the gemologist, this is one of the most beautiful items on display, featuring 27 imperial jadeite beads along with a Burmese ruby and diamond clasp. The beads were crafted by Cartier and range from 15.4 to 19.2 mm in diameter. The piece’s simplicity and color contrast are divine. To see it in real life is an unforgettable experience.The necklace is a recent acquisition for the Cartier Collection, with the earliest written record of it in the Cartier archives in 1933. The precise origin of the jadeite necklace is impossible to determine.
Another fine gem on display is the 478 ct faceted blue sapphire, measuring 49 × 39 × 25 mm, that once belonged to Queen Marie of Romania (figure 8). Believed to have a Sri Lankan origin, the sapphire was first recorded by Cartier in 1913 and in 1921 was bought by King Ferdinand for his wife. Around 1947, the gemstone became the property of Harry Winston.
Of the many diamonds in the exhibition, among the most impressive is the Williamson Pink. The 58 ct rough was found on the surface at the Williamson diamond mine in Mwadui, Tanzania, in 1947. John Williamson, then owner of the mine, presented it to the future Queen Elizabeth II as a wedding gift. The stone was later recut to a 23.60 ct brilliant and set by Cartier at the heart of a flower brooch (figure 9). This piece is regularly worn by the Queen and said to be one of her favorites.
Historical materials from Maison Cartier are also on display. These include Louis Cartier’s Book of Ideas, detailing his travels and purchases; original design drawings (themselves works of art); and plaster casts of jewelry produced throughout the years. Also shown are the benches of the craftsmen who made the pieces. Often little thought is given to those who crafted the jewelry, so this dedicated space acknowledges the jewelers and designers who made Cartier the jewelry house it is today.
While the chance to view Cartier: The Exhibitionis a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, you can also immerse yourself in the world of Cartier with a captivating virtual reality experience—featuring actress María Félix’s glittering yellow diamond and emerald crocodile necklace—at https://nga.gov.au/cartier/. This will give those who cannot attend a taste of the wonder and fascination of Cartier.
Cartier: The Exhibition is on exhibit at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra until July 22, 2018. Tickets are AUS$27 for adults, AUS$25 for students, and AUS$20 for NGA members; children 16 and under are admitted free with a paying adult. The NGA is open daily from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
The reviewers would like to thank Simeran Maxwell of the National Gallery of Australia for her insights.