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The Collector's Guide to Cartier Art Jewelry

Art collecting is a pleasure that derives from continual learning, refinement of taste, and the pursuit of beauty and rarity. The creation of a collection - whether with a personal or curatorial narrative - is an adventure for the mind. When seeking to build a significant collection of this wearable art medium, knowledgeable jewelry lovers look to the virtuoso creations of the Cartiers. Over the first part of the 20th century, this family firm had a remarkably united vision and commitment to artistic originality.

Meet the Cartiers

First Generation: Founder of a Dynasty:
The hardworking son of a metalworker and a laundry maid, Louis-François Cartier (1819-1904) became an apprentice to a small Parisian jeweler (see fig. 1). At the age of 27, Louis-François bought his master’s workshop and soon attracted a clientele of aristocrats and wealthy tastemakers. Louis-François instilled the advice - “Be very kind” - in his children and grandchildren. Later, employees in all branches of the family-owned firm were expected to receive all visitors in this spirit.

Second Generation: The Consolidator:
Full of natural talent, and driven by strong ambition, Alfred Cartier (1841-1925) started young in his father’s business (see fig. 2). Alfred was both a shrewd negotiator and an excellent judge of the fine gemstones that would epitomize the Cartier Brand. From 1869, Alfred began to build on his father’s London clientele by selling the family jewels of displaced French aristocrats. Cartier appealed to the American market by advertising its “stylish jewelry” a la Francaise in English-language newspapers. In 1873, Alfred purchased the brand from his father, paving the way for Cartier’s transformation into a multi-national enterprise.

Parure, Cartier Paris, v. 1860 gold, amethyst oval and pear faceted, necklace 42.5 cm, comb 11.3 x 12 cm, pin 8 x 4 cm, earrings 4 x 1.7 cm Collection Cartier Photo : V. Wulveryck, Collection Cartier © Cartier

Third Generation Takes on the World:
While Louis-Francois and Alfred built the firm on grit and resilience, the third generation of brothers, Louis, Pierre, and Jacques combined artistic vision, astute business sense, and social intelligence to create a globally dominant firm (see fig. 3). In 1893, when the brothers were 18, 15, and 9, their father overheard his boys, led by Louis, discussing a map of the world, and pledging to bring Cartier to its four corners. Their shared mantra “Never copy, only create” is a testament to the brothers’ vision of jewelry as an art medium.

A Global Presence

Louis Joseph Cartier (1875-1942), the eldest third generation Cartier, was brilliant, original, and self-willed (see fig. 4). Over the course of his life as the senior member of the partnership, he was a beloved and loyal but sometimes erratic and domineering older brother to Pierre and Jacques. Louis’ powerful imagination and aestheticism would make him well-suited to transform modern jewelry design, while his non-conformist personality would help him revolutionize the business.

Restlessly inventive, Louis drove advances in the “platinum reformation” - a term referring to the Belle Epoque jewelers’ quest to “de-metalize” jewelry mountings by means of this demanding but versatile material. Cartier mountings from this period are so refined that the platinum seems almost to recede from the eye and disappear, leaving the gems to float in the air (see fig. 5). In order to engineer the most smoothly flexible possible articulations to his necklaces, pendants, and bracelets, Louis studied the spring and truss systems on the underside of railway carriages and effectively applied his observations.

A Wealth of Inspiration from Global Art and Fun:
Under Louis’ team of “inventors”, Cartier designed jewelry and objets d’art from such diverse sources as Persian miniatures, eighteenth-century French garden design, Chinese symbology, and Egyptian art, drawing on his growing library of design books and artifacts (see fig. 6). Cartier jewels playfully referenced the firm’s alliance with couture. For instance, Cartier designed irregular and delicate diamond straps, mounted on textile, that resembled the play of light on watered silk, conveying the softness of the fabric (see fig. 7).

Valued Clients from India Drive Design:
In the 1910s and 1920s, Cartier Paris also benefitted immensely from the patronage of the Indian aristocracy, who reinvigorated the firm with new ideas from their rich artistic heritage, such as the so-called “tutti-frutti” jewels which featured carved colored stones (see fig. 8). As the scholar Derek Ostergard compellingly argues, the Indian aristocracy drove the transformation of their own ancestral jewels into the modernist idiom, and their significant orders helped replace the lost custom of European noble clientele.

Bhupinder Singh of Patiala wearing the Patiala Necklace, Wikimedia Commons

The Jeweler’s Pavilion, Art Deco Exposition,1925 :
Almost 20 years before the 1925 Exposition, Cartier had already committed to an abstract design vernacular that evolved into the Art Deco. They had helped lead the Parisian jewelry community toward a full embrace of the style. At the 1925 Exposition, Cartier was the only jeweler to display their jewelry in the haute couture “Pavillon de l’Elégance”. One hundred fifty artistic jewels were draped on mannequins, whose sleek, primitivist forms were inspired by Brancusi’s and Modigliani's interpretations of the body (see fig. 9). This choice reflected Louis Cartier’s profound understanding of jewelry as art and ornament, inextricably linked to couture and the body.

“All Four Corners of the Globe”:
Finally, Louis’ global expansion plans involved his talented brothers, Pierre and Jacques. Pierre opened the London office in 1902 which would eventually go to his brother Jacques. For years New York derived its style from Paris. “Our work is so essentially different from that of the New York jewelers”, he correctly told the New York Times. For the New York flagship retail and manufacturing premises, Pierre secured the palatial Morton Plant mansion at 653 Fifth Avenue, at the southeast corner of 53rd Street (see fig. 12). With his beloved wife, an American heiress, at his side, Pierre seduced the American aristocracy with his skill and charm.

Jacques-Théodule Cartier (1884-1941) combined many of his brothers’ gifts, both artistic and entrepreneurial (see fig. 14). In 1906, Jacques was entrusted to run the London business established by Pierre in 1902. Founded at the urging of Edward VII, the Cartier London branch had fulfilled commissions for 27 tiaras for the new king’s coronation in 1903. Over his career as a businessman and artist, Jacques managed the London branch with sensitivity to both British culture and taste, as well as the interests of the Indian aristocracy that formed an unwilling but vital part of the empire.

Around India in a Rolls:
After a slow start at the Durban in 1911, Jacques made many trips to India to visit his Indian clients and friends, and to purchase gems, natural pearls, and antique jewelry(see fig. 15). He traveled with his Rolls Royce, shipping it to India for his long stays. Jacques, like Louis, carried a sketchbook and used it wherever he went. The so-called Hindu jewels were among the Cartiers’ most significant team creations.

London Art Moderne:
Finally, in the 1930s, Cartier London’s European Art Works created astonishing jewelry in the Art Moderne style. For a time, Cartier had access to a line of extraordinarily large, richly colored citrine and aquamarine from Brazil, and could not meet the enthusiastic demand for the bold, modern jewels they fashioned from these stones (see fig. 16). By the end of the 30s, the supply of gems from this source had run out. Striking and modern, these creations remain popular and sought after.

Cartier: The Tastemaker

Louis Created Wants and Taste:
Along with his able staff, Louis was a cultivator of tastemakers like the wealthy, daring, and free-spending Russian aristocrats, as well as American millionaires and their heirs. However, he was also a powerful influencer of enduring styles himself. Working under exclusive contract from 1907, the master watchmaker Edmond Jaeger produced many of these wristwatches, now highly collectible classics. In 1916, Cartier introduced the “Tank”, inspired by the recently invented war machines. Celebrities like Princess Diana, General John Pershing, Duke Ellington, Rudolph Valentino, and Andy Warhol, made the Tank famous (see fig. 10).

Louis’ “Inventors” Drive a Second Explosion of Creativity:
Proud and socially ambitious, Louis had divorced his first wife and married the Hungarian aristocrat Jacqueline Almasy. Louis had trained a talented staff including the visionary designer Jeanne Toussaint (1887-1976). In 1933, passing over other candidates, Louis made Jeanne the artistic director of jewelry. By the end of the 1930s, her collaboration with young designers, including Georges Rémy and Peter Lemarchand, resulted in a new creative explosion of work known as the Cartier Bestiary. This series of Big Cat jewels adorned the Duchess of Windsor and other prominent collectors. One of the Duchess’s jewels, a panther bracelet from 1952, was sold at auction for approximately $7 million, making it one of the most valuable jewels ever created (see fig. 11).

Early Drama and Success with the Infamous Hope Diamond:
The strength of the business in Paris had helped the Cartier brothers build the capital required to enter into the risky top echelons of the trade-in superb diamonds and colored stones. In 1909, Cartier purchased the Hope Diamond, a historic, notoriously-cursed blue diamond of Indian and French royal provenance. Pierre managed to sell the infamous stone to the heiress Evelyn Walsh McLean (see fig. 13). As often happened, wealthy families set off on travels without paying their bills, and the negligent, spendthrift McLeans were no different. Pierre reluctantly and quietly instigated legal proceedings against the heiress, but the story of the marvelous blue diamond and the prodigal McLeans soon lit up the newspapers, providing Cartier with nationwide publicity thanks to the glamorous and sinister blue diamond. By the end of the ordeal, Cartier had become a household name.

Hope Diamond, Dane Penland, Smithsonian

The Key Role of the Cartier Archives:
The Brothers’ Foresight to Keep Records Preserved Their Art Legacy: The Cartier brothers maintained archives in all the branches from 1900-1939, and beyond. The Archives are exceptionally complete, comprising jewels made for stock as well as special orders. They are an important part of the company’s brand identity and strength. Beyond this, they help support the firm’s reputation as an art jeweler. Cartier understood the Archives’ value before other jewelers. Together with the firm’s strong collection of its heritage jewelry, the archives help mount museum exhibitions. Cartier was the first historic jeweler to convince museums to hold a solo show of their work. in 1998, the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted an enormously popular and well-regarded exhibition devoted to Cartier jewelry made between 1900-1939 (see fig. 17). Numerous Cartier exhibitions have followed in institutions around the world.

What to Look for when Collecting Cartier

A Self-Policing Market:
Since the Cartier Archives no longer authenticates jewelry for auction houses, collectors or dealers, the market has become “self-policing”. As with the work of all-important artists, bad actors occasionally find opportunities to add a Cartier signature to an unsigned work. Where vintage Cartier is concerned, the market quickly cleanses and corrects.

Collectors Stock their Minds with Images:
Therefore, it is important for collectors to be well informed, to have a mind well stocked with images of known Cartier jewelry, and to keep Cartier’s design principles in mind when they buy. It's advisable to collect with a purpose, whether simply to collect jewels that have personal appeal, to focus on a particular period or branch, or on a Cartier leitmotif.

…and Handle Cartier Jewelry Whenever and Wherever Possible:
A collector typically trains the eye by studying not only the books but by handling Cartier jewelry at auction previews, at shows, and in dealer galleries at every opportunity. This furnishes the mind with imagery and understanding based on a body of Cartier jewels that are “right” and authentic. Jewels must be handled to appreciate their weight flexibility, and overall “feel”, as well as seen. Try it on.

A Jewel’s Reverse Side Completes the Story It Has to Tell:
After determining the appeal of the form and the materials, immediately turn the jewel over and inspect the back. It, too, should be beautiful in its own way. The “a-jouring”, or minimization and polishing of the metal mountings to allow maximum light into the gems, should be highly refined and thorough. If articulated, i.e. forms such as necklaces, bracelets, or pendants having links, Cartier jewelry will be highly flexible and a pleasure to touch and wear. Rings will balance correctly on the finger, and necklaces and bracelets will drape correctly on the body. Pendant earrings will dangle fluidly and clips will sit comfortably and angle to flatter the face. Jewels with these hard to attain attributes are the result of Cartier’s skillful and deliberate engineering over decades.

Gem Quality:
In terms of gems, Cartier's “bijouterie” used a range of small diamonds, known as melêe, which though typically clean, are not always the very top color. Diamonds were somewhat rarer in the first half of the 20th century, and there was no need for them to be D-E-F color. Typically, however, they will “face-up” colorless, seldom lower than H-I on the scale (see fig. 1). A mixture of full and single-cut stones was common and deliberate: designers were achieving textural effects and looking for the intriguing fire and scintillation that antique hand-cut diamonds create. Colored stones will typically not have eye-visible inclusions, and will be well-matched while representing the hue, tone, and saturation that are prized for the particular gem.

Gold, Coral, Turquoise and Lapis Lazuli Lotus Necklace, 1960s, Cartier, Sotheby's 

It’s all in the details:
Most of all, Cartier jewelry, particularly that made in France, tends to have design flourishes that delight. Cartier’s elevated interpretations of the various forms and styles excel over the run-of-the-mill work that collectors usually see in typical period jewelry. When examining a Cartier jewel for quality of design, apply knowledge of the firm’s history and areas of specialization. Try to categorize the jewel among the key historic periods that inspired the firm —Persian, Indian, Mughal, Hindu, Art Deco, Art Moderne, Retro, Floral, Exotic Naturalism, and others, to determine how well the artist responded to the design challenges.

Collectors Expect Evolution in Taste and Expertise:
Collectors can expect their tastes to develop and evolve over time. There is legitimate room for a variety of value levels in a jewelry collection. It is also natural to sell jewels in order to refine the collection as it grows. Every true collector knows that the old adage “All experience costs you money” is real. However, it’s probable that artistic jewelry still has a long way to appreciate, as museums and art collectors globally begin to reconsider and challenge outdated ideas about its value and significance as a key decorative art.

A Primer on Cartier Signatures:

Paris, New York, and London When handling a beautiful piece of Cartier for the first time, a collector will quickly flip it over to examine the back with a loupe, not only to confirm that the beauty of the craftsmanship continues on the reverse, but to look for a signature, assay marks, and more.

The importance of analyzing the signature is real:
Signature evaluation helps the collector confirm the Cartier branch in which the jewel originated. Books and auction records can help verify that the jewel fits within the branch’s oeuvre. A piece possessing a known form of signature corroborates the design and quality virtues collectors expect to see in a Cartier jewel. On the other hand, being able to spot a dubious signature warns collectors of fakes, which can include: unsigned period pieces by other houses where the faux signature was added later on, a piece that is a modern copy, and Cartier pieces that have been altered or embellished. Vintage Cartier signatures are usually engraved. Other iterations beyond those mentioned here may be possible. These include “Cartier MTG”, which signifies that a customer supplied Cartier with the gems for mounting, a courtesy typically not offered today.

What Cartier Signatures Look Like: THE GENERAL RULES

Cartier Gold and Diamond Flower Bracelet, Cartier London, 1940, Macklowe Gallery

Cartier Paris
is typically signed with the company name in cursive, often together with the city name, and as per strict French law is impressed with one or more assay marks, depending on the metals used (see fig. 2-3). Assay marks may appear on pinstems, tongues of clasps, or on the frame of the jewel. French jewels may further bear Cartier’s maker’s mark or maker’s marks of associated jewelers who manufactured items based on Cartier designs. The list of prestigious outside manufacturers working for Cartier during the early 20th century includes Harnichard, Picq, Henri Lavabre, Georges L’Enfant. In faux signatures, fakers fail to engrave the connection between the “i” and “e” delicately enough, and script will read poorly. Later signatures from the mid-20th century may read “Cartier C.A.” for Compagnie Anonyme and “France” together with 18KT (see fig. 4).

Cartier London is signed in a modern, stylized italic. In the 1930s, stylized block letters are seen. Further London Cartier may bear Jacques Cartier’s maker’s mark as well as a metal purity mark. The signature may be “Cartier London”, or “Cartier Ltd.”

Cartier New York bears a signature in block letters and a metal purity mark. The signature may be “Cartier”, or alternatively “Cartier Inc.” and “France” on later pieces, which may indicate jewelry manufactured in Paris and retailed in New York.

All Branches:
In general, in all offices, items carry an engraved 4, 5, or 6-digit stock number. Special orders or commissions are not always numbered. There are occasional exceptions and omissions where the item was delivered to the client without numbering. The engraver will seek a site that is visible from the reverse or side with a loupe or naked eye but will be inconspicuous. If the signature is placed in an area of the jewel that has contact with the body, years of slight abrasion will leave the engraving slightly softened, or in the case of rings, the wear can be significant. The signatures are careful but the numbering is not always perfect - finished jewels could be difficult to engrave and utmost care was taken to place the signature without damaging the jewel, in an inconspicuous location. It is rare to see, but very early Cartier jewels were sometimes engraved above a faint line.

Where to Look for Signatures:

Bracelets: Check the back of the clasp or the edge on a link, typically near the clasp, in an inconspicuous place (see fig. 1-6).

Brooches: Pinstems are often changed over the life of the jewel. Therefore, Cartier most often signed the reverse or side edge of the frame of its brooches (see fig. 7-10).

Earrings and Earclips: Here, Cartier items may be variously signed on the edge of the frame, the curve of the findings, or the back of the omega clips. Particularly in earrings, findings are changed over time, and signatures may be lost (see fig. 11-12).

Necklaces: Check the back of the clasp or the edge on a link, typically near the clasp (see fig. 13-15)

Rings: Signature location varies. In Paris, the maker’s and assay marks were often placed on the exterior of the shank, and the name signed within. New York Cartier occasionally signed the ring on the exterior side of the shoulder (see fig. 16-17).

Watches: This specialist topic is too complex to be thoroughly discussed here, but generally the dial, interior case, movement, and bracelet should all be signed.

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