Cartier: Style and History at the Grand Palais

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Jewelled cigarette cases, necessaires, cigarette cases, necessaires… Cartier could quite easily have staged its Cartier: Style and History exhibition at Paris’s Grand Palais around these stunning, opulent objects alone. A historic display of around 600 pieces, most from the Cartier archive, it comprises grand tiaras from the world’s royalty (both regal and Hollywood), epic jewels, and magical timepieces, alongside original sketches, plaster moulds, photos and ledgers.

Like the Georgians Revealed exhibition currently showing in London, this is a history lesson told in lifestyle objects. As smoking became a fashionable pastime for women in the 20s and 30s, decorative cigarette cases became part of the elegant lady’s personal kit. Hence the cases, lighters and ashtrays of jade, onyx and dazzling diamonds.

I was most taken by the necessaires – mini minaudieres housing the diddiest powder compacts and lipstick holders. Isn’t the word ‘necessaire’ alone impossibly chic? The closest thing we have today is the box clutch which frankly doesn’t sound or look nearly as fabulous…

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The deco period is heavily represented. In particular I loved Jeanne Toussaint’s industrial-style bracelets which still look perfectly modern today. And there are endless interpretations to behold of the powerful panther, dragon and tiger symbols. Toussaint first joined Cartier as head of accessories before becoming artistic director in 1933. Her influence can be seen today in practically any contemporary jewellery line you care to mention.

Exoticism was hugely influential for Cartier between the wars and you see it in all the Chinoiserie clocks, necessaires and desk accessories. Jade (considered lucky), coral and lacquer were the common materials used and are as appealing to today’s newly monied Chinese, eager to invest in their heritage.

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Unsurprisingly, the exhibition is awash with unbelievably intricate timepieces of every description, not least the display of fifteen Mystery clocks. Cartier first produced these in 1912, comprising crystal faces with hands that appear to float in mid air. The secret to the invisible workings is that they’re hidden in the base. The ones on display range from moderately decorative to mind boggling works of art. This beauty is my favourite…

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You’ll need a good couple of hours to navigate this exhibition to its fullest. There’s an important section on some of the 20th century’s most intriguing society women – and their Cartier creations. The Duchess of Windsor is represented alongside her pug brooch and tiger lorgnette, while Marjorie Merriweather Post evidently had quite a penchant for a jewelled Cartier photo frame…

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Cartier’s jewels proved quite economical in their own way – cue the ingenious transformer pieces that can switch from a hat pin say, to a brooch, to a necklace. Mexican actress Maria Felix (I had to Google her) commissioned two vast jewelled crocodiles which connect together as a necklace or work separately as brooches. And then there’s Elizabeth Taylor’s diamond and ruby necklace that doubles as a tiara (that’s a model wearing it)…

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While the exhibits reveal the extravagant whims of Cartier’s super-rich society clients, perhaps the biggest draw comes from a tiara worn by the most modest of royalty. The Duchess of Cambridge’s diamond wedding tiara (loaned by The Queen) is quite a coup for this exhibition. If you want to see it though (all 888 diamonds of it), you only have two more weeks. After that, these historical jewels, clocks, necessaires and supporting cast go back to their archives and owners, taking their extraordinary stories and secrets with them…

Sketches and plaster casts on display
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Reference drawings of wild cats from the Cartier library

The Cartier press cuttings book of Elizabeth Taylor’s $1 million diamond, a gift from Richard Burton
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A Jewelled cigarette case

Grace Kelly’s poodle brooches

Jean Cocteau’s self-designed sword
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Cartier: Style and History is at the Grand Palais, Paris until February 16th. Closed on Tuesdays.