The year 1914 was an important one in the artistic history of Cartier: it was then that the panther-spot pattern appeared in the jeweller’s stylistic vocabulary, adorning the case of a bracelet watch with a pavé of diamonds and onyx. The same theme would decorate a pendant watch the following year. This stylised evocation of the big cat was of great modernity and testified once again to Cartier’s pioneering genius.
Two years later, in 1917, the cat was seen for the first time in full form on a cigarette case that Louis Cartier gave as a gift to his friend Jeanne Toussaint. Represented from then on with passion, the panther would become the Maison’s emblem par excellence. In the 1910s and 1920s, it illustrated the jeweller’s Oriental inspirations, especially Indo-Persian – as seen in the cypress garden adorning vanity cases – developed throughout the Art Deco years.
Reflecting Cartier’s pioneering spirit, many other stylised representations of nature appeared at the jeweller before World War I. The fruit-bowl brooches were characterised by motifs – a geometrical Greek frieze – recalling ancient decorations with great finesse and featured fruits made of simple coloured cabochon-cut gems. This approach is also seen in a kokoshnik tiara from 1914, decorated with stylised branches in onyx against a diamond sky.
Cartier Dourga ring crafted in wood with gold accents and gemstones, circa 2019
This modern style blossomed naturally at Cartier during the Art Deco years after the war. The onyx pattern on the 1914 tiara was presented again in 1923 on a belt buckle. However, stylised nature was more often seen in colourful compositions of precious stones and pearls representing a tree, a plant or a vase of flowers in a design sometimes bordering on abstraction. The jeweller’s imagination and bravura were fully unleashed in two spectacular three-dimensional orchids in diamond and onyx picot, adorning a comb-hairband presented at the International Exhibition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts in 1925.
This period witnessed a flourishing of Cartier’s taste for the art of distant or ancient civilisations, especially as regards representations of the symbolic aspects of nature. For this reason, and because of the almost scientific rigour informing the jeweller’s creativity, Cartier’s non-Western inspiration was anything but the fantasised decorative exoticism often seen in Art Deco. Instead, these influences were manifested at the maison in the precision of its knowledge and the elegance of its references.
The theme of ancient Egypt is a striking example, where the jeweller quite accurately reproduced, although sometimes in stylised form, the decorative motifs of the lotus and the papyrus. Cartier’s feeling for the spirit of the old Nile is illustrated even better when pieces recovered from historical jewellery are worked into its compositions. These pieces are called apprêts in the Maison’s registries and were most often purchased by Cartier from antiquarians. Examples include a falcon-headed Horus, scarabs, and other zoomorphic divinities.
Cartier Bionic insect brooch in gold and diamonds, circa 1999
The maison’s naturalistic quest took it into Asia and encountered China’s mythic bestiary: foo dogs, dragons and chimeras. Joining the Cartier repertoire in the 19th century, these imaginary creatures were all the rage in the 1920s. Inspired by Indian and Asian traditions as well as ancient jewellery, the designers created bracelets ending in two open-mouthed chimera heads.
Often crafted in coral embellished with precious stones or enamel, these original creations stood out at the height of the Art Deco period and soon established themselves as some of Cartier’s most successful pieces.
This story is an edited extract from book [Sur]Naturel Cartier: High Jewelry and Precious Objects, written by François Chaille and Hélène Kelmachter (Flammarion, £85). Buy it at Waterstones now