In the realm of exhibition first impressions, nothing quite rivals a vitrine filled with historic diamond tiaras rotating in place like horses on a carousel.
In the one I'm looking at, there's a diadem created for Elizabeth, Queen of the Belgians, another (with a sinuous foliage pattern) once worn by the countess of Essex and a third, a filigreed standout from the 1930, studded with aquamarines.
Welcome to Cartier: Style and History, a new retrospective within the hallowed halls of the Salle d'Honneur at the Grand Palais in Paris, where the narrative created from more than 900 artifacts attests to the jeweller's extraordinary 163-year history.
For Laurent Salomé, chief heritage curator and head of exhibitions at the Réunion des musées nationaux-Grand Palais, and his assistant, heritage curator Laure Dalon, Cartier's vast archive – aided by loans from private collectors including none other than the Queen – offered an occasion to tell a rich, non-linear story that shifts between key personages to elements of design.
Interestingly, neither Salomé nor Dalon came into the project with much knowledge about fine jewellery. But they used this to their advantage, framing Cartier in art history terms rather than dwelling on technical details.
"We looked at the production in the context of history and the stylistic choices of the house," Dalon explained in an interview before the exhibition's opening on Dec. 3. "We also wanted to illustrate the fashion points of reference. There is a lot from Cartier, of course, but also other works – robes and accessories, paintings, illustrations and advertisements – that feed the show."
All of this sits easily with Cartier's chief executive officer, Stanislas de Quercize, who muses that art is at the essence of the house (after all, a-r-t is part of its name).
"If it is in a museum, it's because it is art, which is to say museumquality," he offered over the phone last month. "Museums are about showing subjects that are universal and timeless and that is what we are about."
The fairy-tale aspect of haute joaillerie – the royal clients, the precious gems, the near-alchemical craftsmanship – is Cartier's longtime domain. In 1847, Louis-François Cartier took over an atelier run by the craftsman Adolphe Picard on the rue Montorgueil in Paris.
As his three sons – Alfred, Pierre and Jacques – gradually entered the business, Cartier branched outward to New York and London and upward in terms of prestige.
As the exhibition reveals, Cartier's signature guirlande (or garland) style played well with royalty and new industrialists alike.
Art nouveau marked an important transition for the house as it started to employ more colourful stones and less Louis XVI details.
And then around the same time that the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Moderne gave birth to the art deco movement, Cartier adopted similarly sleek, graphic motifs, climbing to a new level of contemporary cachet.
Dalon, the curator, says she was surprised to discover the wide range of precious objects – moustache combs, cigarette cases, a brooch that combines a tube of lipstick with a powder-filled pendant, drawings of canines for custom automobile hood ornaments – beyond the expected wealth of jewellery and watches.
She also points to the Cartier brothers' personal collection of objets d'art, many of which informed the house's designs. "They were collectors of artworks and antiquities and put their library at the disposal of their designers,"
Dalon says, singling out the period of scarab and Horus pendants from the mid-1920s.
Although Cartier has a history of mounting exhibitions around the world (beginning with its first show at Paris's Petit Palais 22 years ago), the current one is by far the largest: More than 600 sparkly specimens are being displayed alongside a treasure trove of 300 archival documents, photographs and publicity material. The challenge of such a large-scale undertaking consisting primarily of small-scale works required an innovative approach to installing it. That the exhibition is also the first to be mounted in the newly restored Salon d'Honneur added another layer of pressure for visual duo Nicolas Groult and Sylvain Roca.
But the pair pulled it off.
Moving on from the tiaras, spectators enter a soaring space where the walls come alive with what they call "animated frescoes," projections that mimic the trippy, geometric dynamism of a kaleidoscope while drawing from Cartier motifs over time. The room appears at once darkened and illuminated.
The vitrines also incorporate colour and mixed materials; pieces float at different levels, creating vignettes far more dynamic than typical retail displays. One of the show's other highlights is a collection of 17 mystery clocks – the moniker refers to the fact that their faces are see-through crystal and their mechanisms are hidden – that have been spaced around a circular podium, suggesting a giant watch face.
The show then progresses to personal glimpses of some of Cartier's legendary clients.
There is a grouping of frames on loan from the estate of cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, Daisy Fellowes's gem-studded "Hindu" necklace, the Duchess of Windsor's bird brooches, Grace Kelly's engagement ring, sketches for a diamond and ruby necklace destined for Elizabeth Taylor and tiger brooches designed for "poor little rich girl" Barbara Hutton.
Yes, Hutton preferred tigers to Cartier's signature panther, which made its first appearance in a 1914 design. The show has paired some of the archived sketches that informed the panther forms and motifs with examples of the animal rendered in diamonds with sapphire spots.
A tribute to long-time Cartier artistic director Jeanne Toussaint, who died in 1976 and was known as "the Panther," concludes the show. "So great is [Toussaint's] influence that we are apt to forget that she is responsible for the jewellery of our day being more flexible and malleable than in any previous civilization," a program note here reads. In order to distinguish historical from commercial, the curators chose not to include any present-day collections. There are no Trinity rings, no Love bangles.
And despite his privileged position, there are many pieces that even De Quercize would be seeing for the first time – and that people generally see for a limited time only. "The show features a lot of creations that have never before been on view to the public," he explained. "So you shouldn't miss it because you won't see it again."
Cartier: Style and History will be on view at the Grand Palais in Paris (www.grandpalais.fr) until Feb. 16.