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Cartier's Clocks

Cartier's Mystery Clocks Still Bewilder Even As They Bewitch
Ettagale Blauer
From the Print Edition:
Chuck Norris, Jul/Aug 98

(continued from page 3)

Although Cartier was the name on the jewelry and on the beautiful red leather cases, it was Charles Jacqueau who designed many of the pieces that we think of as "Cartier." He was hired in 1909 and worked for the firm through the next two decades. It was Jacqueau who created the panther-skin designs and the designs based on Oriental influences; even some of the most innovative color combinations were his. But he would never have been able to weave his magic without the basic ingredients and influences of Asia. The firm would often purchase plaques--a jade screen, for example--that had been carved in China or Japan, and, using them whole, place them into mountings that would transform them into some of Cartier's most readily identifiable pieces.

With Jacqueau contributing much of the look of Cartier throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, Cartier created magical pieces of jewelry and objects throughout the Art Deco era. Cartier's innovations were manifold: Chief among them were the use of Egyptian motifs in innovative designs; blue and green gems and enamel whose combination hit the eye like a thunderbolt; the adaptation of Chinese and Japanese elements into wholly new designs; and the use of carved gemstones from India. The latter, virtually baskets of colored gems acquired during Jacques Cartier's trips to Asia, were used in profusion, the way a child might splash color on a page. Not only the stones came from India but also this opulent usage; Indian jewelry is known for its profusion of color, for the sense of overabundance. Cartier's genius lay in keeping the generous use of stones while disciplining their use in exquisite platinum settings that were masterpieces of balance and rhythm. The firm's Egyptian-style designs originated as early as 1913. They were well in advance of the explosion of Egyptian motifs that followed the opening of the tomb of King Tutankhamen in 1922.

In the mid-1920s, Cartier used some of those gemstones--rubies, sapphires and emeralds carved to look like berries, leaves, fruits and flowers--in a series of brilliantly colored pieces that have become known as tutti frutti, the fruit salad designs. The stones are set within a framework of platinum branches in such a way that they seem to be growing there organically. Two such bracelets of this design were bought by Linda Lee Thomas, the wife of composer Cole Porter. The first was purchased in 1926 and the second in 1929, each soon after it was made. Once again, platinum and Cartier's treatment of it enabled the jeweler to support gemstones with the most delicate of settings, with merely a hint of metal showing.

In the '30s, Cartier created a series of pieces that would highlight a melodramatic moment in British history. In the 1930s, a situation involving a member of the House of Windsor was unfolding, a situation that in many ways presaged the spectacle of Prince Charles and Diana in our time. Edward, Prince of Wales, had succeeded his father, George V, on January 20, 1936, to become King Edward VIII, but he had not yet been crowned in a formal ceremony.

The new king was determined to have Wallis Warfield Simpson, an American and twice divorced, as his wife. The British royal family, as well as members of the British government, were equally determined that this not take place. The weeks and months leading up to the fateful day, December 10, 1936, when Edward abdicated ("I have found it impossible to carry on the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge the duties of King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.") were marked by an outpouring of gifts between Edward and Wallis of jewelry and objects, most of them designed by Cartier. There appears to have been no occasion that was not marked by a new jewel, as evidenced by the elaborate inscriptions many of them bear. In 1935, his future wife presented him with a remarkable gold cigarette case made by Cartier's London branch, which showed a map of Europe depicting their various trips with red and blue enamel lines, the stops represented by gemstones. Any event was an occasion for a gift: a trip to Cannes on a yacht, a visit to friends in Ascot, a Mediterranean cruise--all were marked by charms inscribed with the dates, their names or initials, and excruciatingly embarrassing love chat, all of it preserved in gold.

The flow turned into a torrent after the king abdicated. Once Edward's brother was crowned as George VI, the couple were free to marry, which they did on June 3, 1937. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, as they then became known, had little else to do but get dressed in preparation for socializing. Most of the designs for the duchess were unique but soon became hallmarks of Cartier in the 1940s and 1950s. Prominent among these were the panther jewels that incorporated perfect miniatures of spotted cats that we know as leopards (panthers and leopards are the same species; panthers are black leopards).

The panther jewels were designed by Louis Cartier's intimate friend Jeanne Toussaint, whom he called "Panther." She joined the firm in 1907 and became director of the jewelry department in 1933. Although she did not sketch, she is credited with a major role in the Cartier look. According to chairman Destino, Toussaint brought her understanding and love of fashion and the artwork to their collaboration. "She was the first in our history to introduce a sense of fashion to real jewelry. She was a style setter and was famous for her taste, imagination and independence."

The House of Cartier under the three brothers essentially ended in the 1940s. Jacques and Louis died in 1942 and Pierre retired to Geneva in 1948, having turned the New York branch over to his nephew Claude, Louis's son. In 1962, the New York branch was sold, and the firm fragmented. In 1972, businessman Robert Hocq bought the three separate branches and united them as one company.

It was under Hocq's reign that the firm introduced Les Must de Cartier, a worldwide marketing concept, and the era of merchandising began in earnest. Hocq saw clearly that the merchandising stood on the shoulders of the great era of design, so he set out to buy back great Cartier pieces from the past. That's how Cartier's historic collection was born. There was, according to president Critchell, a desire to acquire "all the pieces that mark key moments in Cartier's history or the history of its customers."

Certainly the history of the mystery clock is still being written, and today's customers may very well be tomorrow's honored members in the Cartier collection. If you get a hankering, though, for one of those enigmatic timepieces, get in line. It still takes months to make one of these glorious creations. The wait, of course, is well worth it.

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