Known for both its exuberant opulence and its steadfast classicism, Cartier has been a favorite jeweler among the highly fashionable ever since Louis-François Cartier registered his hallmark in Paris in 1847. The firm’s first important client was Princess Mathilde, Napoleon’s stylish niece, who bought cameos and brooches. Empress Eugénie followed, and by the dawn of the twentieth century Cartier had achieved international renown with its light, lacy platinum-and-diamond jewelry, done in a style that imitated eighteenth-century patterns, all garlands, laurel wreaths, bows, and tassels. These delicate creations proved especially attractive to a royal and aristocratic clientele that included Queen Alexandra and Queen Mary, as well as America’s Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney and Consuelo Vanderbilt. Cartier was, as Edward VII put it, “the jeweler of kings and the king of jewelers.” (After all, the house made all 27 tiaras worn at Edward’s coronation.)
After Cartier’s neoclassical rise, and after the Ballets Russes debuted Scheherazade in 1910, the founder’s three grandsons—Louis, Pierre, and Jacques—ushered the house into a dazzling new era, introducing a look of luxe exoticism that would become its hallmark, with scarabs, hieroglyphs, lotus flowers, and dragons. During the Roaring Twenties, Cartier’s fearless combinations of sapphires, emeralds, and rubies, carved to look like leaves and called the Tutti Frutti style, became popular with tastemakers like Daisy Fellowes and Linda Porter, the wife of the composer Cole. But as the design studio’s powerfuldirectrice-artistique, Jeanne Toussaint, rose to prominence during the 1930s, Cartier’s look would again take ever more innovative and fantastical turns.
Touissant dispatched designers to the zoo, where they studied the big cats, transforming all that feline power and grace into Cartier’s series of panther and tiger jewelry. TheDuchess of Windsor commissioned the first 3-D panther brooch in 1948, anchored by a cabochon emerald of 116.74 carats; her second followed the next year, this one paved with diamonds and sapphires and perched on a cabochon sapphire of 152.35 carats. Today, the panther remains a symbol of the Cartier brand.
For those who could afford it, Toussaint’s style was irresistible. “To look at a Toussaint triumph without experiencing a primitive urge to touch it, to have it, to keep looking at it,” Vogue proclaimed in 1964, “comes perilously close to being impossible.” Toussaint herself, nicknamedTon Ton, or the Panther, was every bit as stylish and sleek as her customers. She was, as the photographer Cecil Beaton maintained in Vogue, “largely responsible for battling in the aesthetic cause, and maintaining the high standard of taste for which Paris remains the undisputed centre of the world.” She might show up for a dinner party wearing wet tousled hair, silk pajamas, high Russian boots and a plethora of India pearls, Beaton said.
In the mid-twentieth century, Cartier attracted a fascinating cadre of larger-than-life customers, including the heiress Barbara Hutton, a devoted client, and Elizabeth Taylor, then the queen of Hollywood. The Mexican actress María Félix inspired designers in Cartier’s Rue de la Paix headquarters by bringing them a baby crocodile, in whose likeness they created a double crocodile necklace set with 1,023 yellow diamonds and 1,060 emeralds, one animal boasting rubies for eyes, the other emeralds.
During the 1980s era of power dressing, Cartier brought more staid designs to the fore, including the house’s classic watches. The Santos, designed in 1904 by Louis Cartier for his friend the Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont, is a perennial favorite, as is the Cartier Tank, which was styled after U.S. World War I tanks, and which Vogue in 1986 called the “foremost status object on the wrists of the powerful.”