Highlighting Women Makers: Jeanne Toussaint and Cartier's Preeminent Jewels
Among the brilliant personalities who contributed to the rise of Cartier, Jeanne Toussaint remains the most intriguing and least understood figure. Since Cartier’s revival of the elegant panther jewels in 2017, Jeanne has attained mythic status in the media, even appearing for a cameo role in the blockbuster 2018 movie, Ocean’s 8. This March, Women’s History Month, is the perfect time to revisit the eventful life and work of the extraordinary woman nicknamed “The Panther.”
Born in southern Belgium in 1887, Jeanne was the youngest of five children of an impoverished family. Little is certain about her early life between the ages of seven and twenty-two, but Francesca Cartier Brickell’s best-selling book The Cartiers: The Untold Story of the Family Behind the Jewelry Empire chronicles her magical early romances, her key relationships with the Cartiers, and her rise to artistic director in 1933, a role in which she excelled until 1970. When she was in her twenties, a love affair with a young French count, Pierre de Quisonas, brought her to Paris around 1909. During their life together, they visited Africa on safari in 1912 and 1913, and it was then that Jeanne acquired the nickname of “Panther,” or “Panpan,” as Quisonas affectionately called her. Quisonas’ farewell letter to Jeanne, written on the eve of World War I when he left to join the air force, contains an affectionate, regretful apology. In his goodbye, he praises her as a “heroine” and “an elite woman,” whom he wished he had appreciated sooner.
The end of their romance, brought about by the objections of Quisonas family, must have been a disappointment for Jeanne, but soon after, she began a relationship with Louis Cartier that was to transform her life, as they were together during the war years. Louis’ casually brilliant 1916 sketch depicting Jeanne’s little cat is entitled “Sambour asleep on the bed of her mother,” which bears witness to their easy domestic intimacy. Louis’ father, and brother Pierre, thought the connection with Jeanne was very ill-advised, so Louis, also, ended the affair in 1918. However, so deeply impressed by Jeanne’s taste and style, and so convinced she could contribute to Cartier’s success, he hired Jeanne into the family firm—in the beginning, as a handbag designer.
Historians of Cartier confirm that, during the 1920s, Jeanne’s work had an important impact on the design of handbags and leather goods—and beyond. Cartier Brickell recounts reports of how skilled she was at creating handbags, confidently cutting precious, antique fabrics “without wasting a square inch.” The freedoms she had experienced in Paris during her years with Quisonas and Cartier, who both enjoyed nightlife and moved in artistic and wealthy circles, gave her insight into the taste and needs of Cartier’s elite women clients such as Mona Williams (the future Countess Bismarck), Mrs. George Blumenthal, and Mrs. Clarence Mackay. Even in this early role at Cartier, Toussaint showed strong potential to handle these influential clients, which served as a highly important skill.
Her role quickly began to expand. When Louis remarried in 1924, he gave Jeanne her first management role as Head of Department S, the one in which handbags as well as other accoutrements were designed. That same year, Louis also gave her a seat on his all-important new creations committee, made up of the three men who managed sales, workshops, and design. During the 1920s, a period of astonishing creativity and accomplishment at Cartier, Jeanne is recorded as a source of valuable ideas; for example, she was the first to propose that watch bands be constructed of interconnected gold links, rather than leather or grosgrain. Increasingly, her judgments became important firm-wide. Hans Nadelhoeffer, the most respected historian of Cartier, states that “the famous goût Toussaint […] was an acid test to which the firm’s most sophisticated products were mercilessly subjected.”
By 1933, Louis Cartier was living in Budapest, in a palace he had bought for his wife, Jacqueline Almásy, a Hungarian aristocrat—but their marriage was troubled, and he was experiencing heart problems. That year, Louis wrote a brief but decisive letter to his son-in-law, René Revillon, the manager of Cartier Paris, to inform him that he was appointing Jeanne to be the artistic director of jewelry, citing her “impeccable, universally-appreciated taste.” In doing so, he passed over many others who would doubtless have welcomed the role—including René himself, as well as Charles Jacqueau, who had worked in high jewelry at Cartier for decades and was a long-standing rival of Jeanne’s for Louis’ professional esteem.
Jeanne must have welcomed the new role, but in 1933, at the depth of the Depression and with Cartier’s revenues in the deepest recorded slump, the pressure must have been intense, with no relief in sight. Like Pierre Cartier in New York, she promoted more accessible, light-hearted stock, from pairs of charming lacquer lady bugs and turtle clips, to small exotic birds, to an enigmatic series of hand brooches holding flowers, perhaps inspired by Louis’ collection of Mughal miniatures. In step with other Parisian houses, she embraced the trend away from platinum back to gold. Through Jacques Cartier’s contacts in New Delhi, she bought in supplies of traditional Indian jewelry for the Paris branch, reselling it, reworking it, and sourcing ideas from it. Indian design was an idiom she knew well, and she wore the jewelry herself very stylishly—as Nadelhoffer noted, “she was mistress of the entire Indian range.” Under her management, as at other major houses, a wider palette of colored gemstones inevitably appeared, including pale Sri Lanka sapphires, amethysts, and opals—gems previously excluded as too commonplace for Cartier’s oeuvre.
Corresponding continuously with Louis, Jeanne also drove the transformation of Cartier high jewelry during the mid-to late 1930s. From the tone of his 1933 letter, instinct seems to have told Louis that his designers’ ongoing focus on carved rock crystal and diamond jewels—a celebrated form of the high Deco aesthetic—could be indicative of a creative slump. As the new artistic director, Toussaint’s collaboration with younger designers like Peter Lemarchand led to the creation of more naturalistic jewels, moving the focus of design firmly away from the geometry and stylization of the Art Deco. Jeanne spoke of the “love for animals and birds” that she shared with Lemarchand. Pointing ahead to the success of the so-called “Bestiary” jewels, including the panther and tiger designs that would immortalize Cartier after World War II, Toussaint and Lemarchand made various birds of paradise in the late 1930s and 40s, as well as outsize, mobile, and opulent jewels—the briolette diamond Palm Tree brooch in 1939, and the Windsor Flamingo in 1940. But, full development of this promising series was delayed by the outbreak of the second World War.
World War II and the Occupation of Paris brought unprecedented challenges for Parisians. Eleven members of the Cartier team were interned by the Germans, while Jeanne, it is said, caused trouble for herself by showcasing Lemarchand’s subversive caged songbird brooch. Whether Jeanne’s and Louis’ mutual friend, Coco Chanel, rescued her from jail remains to be confirmed. During this time, Cartier was instrumental in helping vulnerable Parisians, including clients of Jewish heritage, transfer their jewels from Paris into safekeeping in southwestern France.
Soon after the War, however, Jeanne proved to the world that Cartier had returned to the top of the field with their new high jewelry—glamorous, sculptural works, characterized by a striking realism and flexibility. As a devotee of sculpture and architecture, Jeanne favored highly dimensional forms—the “goût du relief”. In pursuing this exciting new aesthetic for Cartier, Jeanne had critical partners among the young designers she had mentored, not only Peter Lemarchand, but also Georges Rémy (known as “the King of Rings”) and Lucien Lachassagne. Aided by her highly sensitive instinct and taste, Jeanne had learned to sense future evolutions in couture, an understanding of which was still critical to the success of jewelers. Anticipating the aesthetic of Christian Dior’s “New Look” even before it took hold, Cartier advertised its innovative new style by placing an important bird of paradise brooch in a photo shoot together with the avant-garde couturier, Robert Piguet. Nearly eight inches long, the daring, opulent jewel with swirling tail feathers, set with over ninety carats of diamonds, is compellingly paired with a formal black dress of restraint and structure.
The great celebrity clients, whom Jeanne and her colleagues had carefully managed over years, eagerly returned to Paris bringing their own ideas and passions to new commissions. The “Bestiary” jewels, familiar now to so many aficionados, are closely associated with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Following the striking Flamingo jewel in 1940, they commissioned a brooch designed as a gold and enamel panther seated atop a one hundred and sixteen carat emerald in 1948. Soon after, Cartier created another, more opulent panther in diamonds, and platinum with sapphire spots, this time perched on an one hundred and fifty carat Kashmir sapphire. Although the jewel was made for stock, Jeanne was confident the Duchess would be unable to resist it, and she was right. The masterpiece that followed was the highly articulated diamond and onyx panther bracelet in 1952, one of the most widely admired pieces of jewelry ever made. Inspired by Louis Cartier and Charles Jacqueau’s famous panther and panther-skin designs of the 1910s and 1920s, this 1950s re-interpretation was arresting, possessed of what Hans Nadelhoffer memorably called “vigour, plasticity, and an inimitable sense of movement.” While Cartier’s Art Deco bracelets, especially those in the “tutti frutti” style, are valued as works of art, bringing as much as $1 to $2 million at auction, the panther bracelet sold for $7.5 million in 2010, making it the single most expensive artistic bracelet in the world.
Jeanne, her designers, and craftsmen continued to inspire leading women’s loyalty and imagination with variations on the “Bestiary” series. Barbara Hutton ordered a magnificent yellow diamond and onyx tiger bracelet and earrings with articulated feet and heads. Princess Nina Aga Khan acquired an entire suite of panther jewels, while the aristocratic style-setter Daisy Fellowes bought a prowling sapphire and diamond panther brooch. In addition to big cats, jeweled chimera bracelets took on bolder forms in soft rose coral. Designers imagined extravagant gem-set dolphins and sea serpents of imposing proportions. In response to Cartier’s "Bestiary" collections, other great jewelry houses had to rework their own designs. In a telling tribute, published in an article from Vogue in 1964, David Webb himself, highly renowned even at that time for his use of color in gem-set animal jewelry, admitted: “It’s completely Toussaint’s influence of course—she is the inspiration of us all.”
In the 1960s, though in semi-retirement, Toussaint helped spur Cartier craftsmen on to further innovations—from a clock magically inserted into an antique bottle in 1960 to an outsize, life-like snake jewel of myriad articulated parts created for Maria Fèlix in 1968. Nadelhoffer noted that Toussaint generally prevailed over artisans’ objections that her designers' ideas were impossible to execute, pushing them to find a way: “She imposed her will upon the circumstances.”
Those who knew and loved Toussaint, including Quisonas and the extended Cartier family, recognized her loyalty, warmth, and artistry. Pierre Cartier, who had once despaired that Louis was “living with that woman,” considered her almost family later in life, and deployed all his legendary arts of persuasion to convince her not to retire. In 1938, a few years before his death, Louis Cartier had written to her:
Another compelling tribute came from Cecil Beaton, the great 20th century society portrait photographer and insightful observer. In an article published in Vogue in January of 1965, he offered a lively picture of Jeanne as a friend and fellow artist. In Beaton’s view, she was a “warm-hearted” woman of “flair and chic” with a “rose-scented aura,” a “luminary of that world of fireworks and meteors described so alluringly in the short stories of Colette.” He recalled the night, shortly after the liberation of Paris, when she rode out to meet him on her bicycle in drenching rain, with “her many long ropes of pearls festooning the handlebars.” Describing her character and legacy as an artist in the medium of jewelry, Beaton wrote: “It is this little bird-like woman who can be said to have revolutionized jewelry […] Although her touch is light, her gift springs from an unswerving, granite-hard instinct […] and extraordinary independence.”
Since a fictionalized account of Jeanne’s life was published in 2010, many myths about her have proliferated, attributing nearly every innovation of the 20th century to Jeanne and portraying some of her intimate circle in a negative light, but she wouldn’t have wanted it that way. Jeanne is an inspiring figure of social liberation, strength and artistic daring, then as now. Without any embellishments, she accomplished more than enough to excite our wonder and admiration.