Dazed by Glamour: ‘Cartier and America’

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A few weeks ago, I was thrilled to be able to visit the exhibition Cartier and America at its only venue, the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. It is a complete history of Cartier in America (read, vast collection on display). A photographer friend and I spent a good deal of time wandering through the exhibition, on view through April 18, 2010, drooling over the priceless, glittering, showstopping objects on display. The exhibition covered the Belle Epoch, Art Deco, Pre- and Post- War all the way through to the present.

Orchid Necklace, Cartier Paris, 2007, Beryl, pink sapphires, diamonds, and platinum. Photograph by Ren Thompson.

Orchid Necklace, Cartier Paris, 2007, Beryl, pink sapphires, diamonds, and platinum. Photograph by Ren Thompson.

I am going to disclose now that my ‘academic hat’ was blown right off by this exhibit. I was completely unable to cast an analytical eye towards the display, the rhetorical thesis of the show, or the framework because I was so distracted by the magic and sparkle of 100s of millions of diamonds. But I can’t really say that I’m sorry about it. Some of my favorites from the show include the following:

This special order necklace for María Félix , a Mexican actress, is set with 2,473 diamonds. According to the exhibition catalog, “when handled, the necklace mimics the slitheriness and weight of a real snake with hundreds of individual sections that are hinged internally. To enhance the sensation of snakeskin and protect the wearer, the inside segments of the necklace are enameled.”

Snake Necklace, Cartier Paris, 1968 (Diamonds, platinum, white gold, yellow gold, emeralds, and enamel. Sold to Maria Felix

Snake Necklace, Cartier Paris, 1968 (Diamonds, platinum, white gold, yellow gold, emeralds, and enamel). Sold to Maria Felix. Photograph by Ren Thompson.

Over and over again, my colleague and I were left standing speechless, dumbfounded and utterly bewildered by the beauty of the jewels -especially the tiaras- included in the exhibition. There were at least 10 or 12 tiaras (some called head ornaments, or bandeau’s). I think it must of touched something deep within me – the love of fantasy, of princesses and royalty. Something I thought was only fictional, and that could not really possibly exist. And yet here they were, amazing beautiful jeweled cacophonies of luxury – and so beautifully displayed and well-lit. One of the security guards suggested that we walk, 180 degrees around one of the pieces (I think the Star of South Africa brooch – 47.69 carats) just to watch how the sparkle changed. An absolutely brilliant suggestion. If you see the exhibit, I suggest you try it. This truly is the definition of glamour.*

Tiara, Cartier Paris, 1902, Diamonds, silver and gold, Sold to Adele Grant, Countess of Essex. Phogoraph by Ren Thompson.

Tiara, Cartier Paris, 1902, Diamonds, silver and gold, Sold to Adele Grant, Countess of Essex. Phogoraph by Ren Thompson.

The tiara above is “Made from 759 brilliant-cut and 289 rose-cut diamonds” and worn by the Countess of Essex (was also known for her beauty).

Hair Ornament, Cartier Paris, 1902, Diamonds and platinum, Sold to Lila Vanderbilt Sloane (Mrs. William Field). Photograph by Ren Thompson.

Hair Ornament, Cartier Paris, 1902, Diamonds and platinum, Sold to Lila Vanderbilt Sloane (Mrs. William Field). Photograph by Ren Thompson.

Tiara, Cartier Paris, 1910, Elizabeth Queen of the Belgians. Photograph by Ren Thompson.

Tiara, Cartier Paris, 1910, Elizabeth Queen of the Belgians. Photograph by Ren Thompson.

The exhibition also featured objects purchased by and worn by major celebrities and style icons include: Grace Kelley (her engagement ring – 10.47 carat emerald-cut diamond – and jewels), Elizabeth Taylor, the Duchess of Windsor, Gloria Swanson and many many others.

Necklace, Cartier Paris, 1951. Rubies, diamonds, and platinum. Sold to Mike Todd in 1957. Collection of Dame Elizabeth Taylor. Photograph by Heather Vaughan

Necklace, Cartier Paris, 1951. Rubies, diamonds, and platinum. Sold to Mike Todd in 1957. Collection of Dame Elizabeth Taylor. Photograph by Heather Vaughan

Gloria Swanson, ca 1930 wearing bracelets supplied by Cartier in 1930. (on display in the exhibition)

Gloria Swanson, ca 1930 wearing bracelets supplied by Cartier in 1930. (on display in the exhibition)

Panther clip brooch, Cartier Paris, 1949. Sapphires, diamonds, yellow diamonds, platinum, and white gold. Sold to HRH the Duke of Windsor.

Panther clip brooch, Cartier Paris, 1949. Sapphires, diamonds, yellow diamonds, platinum, and white gold. Sold to HRH the Duke of Windsor.

According to the catalog/exhibition “The panther is pave-set with diamonds and tiny sapphire cabochons. The Kashmir cabochon sapphire is of 152.45 carats.” It was owned and worn by the Duchess of Windsor.

So as to not be complete swept away by fantasy and luxury, I thought that an interview with the curator of the exhibition for the Legion of Honor, Martin Champan, might help bring us back down to earth (and the world of academia). I asked Chapman specifically about the nuts and bolts of the exhibition: putting it on, designing the space, and working with his exhibition team. I hope you’ll find the results stimulating.

Heather Vaughan for Worn Through: When did you first begin work on the exhibit (how many years ago)?

Martin Chapman: We started about two years ago when Cartier was introduced to us by our trustee Lonna Wais.

Lonna Wais

Lonna Wais at the opening of Cartier and America

Can you talk a little about the process of putting together such a major exhibition? What did your timeline look like, with regards to the planning, research, the catalog , and installation, etc.?

Timing was to coincide with the 100th anniversary in the Untied States. Most of the work however was done since last June when I visited the Cartier collection in Geneva, and visited the archives in London, Paris and New York. I chose the objects in the Geneva collelction working with their curator, Pascale Lepeu, and our designer Bill White, then I researched some of the pieces and personalities in the archives. I then wrote the catalogue in July and August and we installed the exhibition for 2 1/2 weeks before it opened.

 

Pascale Lepeu

Pascale Lepeu

Were there any major hurdles to overcome (that you can talk about)?

Borrowing from private collections.

Where did you go to research, what resources did you use?

Cartier archives, biographies, and books on Cartier

What role did Cartier play in determining the curatorial focus of the exhibition, in choosing the pieces to display?

I determined that the focus of the exhibition should show the history of Cartier through its finest objects and by presenting as many pieces as possible with an American connection.

What sorts of issues came up over the display of the pieces, were there condition issues that were of concern?

Fragility; light levels for miniatures and photographs in objects. Their decorator Monique Saner installed the Cartier pieces in the show. She has worked for Cartier for many years and knows the pieces intimately. Our designer Bill White came up with the wonderful design and the background colors.

Who did the lighting? It was amazing.

Our lighting designer Bill Huggins, who is a brilliant lighting technician and artist.

Who do you feel is the audience for the exhibition?

Any one interested in high quality jewelry, 20th century American decorative arts, history and social history, anyone interested in movies and celebrities.

What is your favorite piece in the exhibit and why?

The Duchess of Windsor’s flamingo of 1940 because it was such an iconic piece for her, and because it has never been shown in an exhibition before.

 

Flamingo clip brooh, Cartier Paris, 1940. Diamonds, emeralds, rubies, sapphires, citrine, and platinum. Sold to HRH the Duke of Windsor.

Flamingo clip brooh, Cartier Paris, 1940. Diamonds, emeralds, rubies, sapphires, citrine, and platinum. Sold to HRH the Duke of Windsor.

How is Cartier important in terms of San Francisco history, what role did it play?

There were few addresses in the Cartier archives from San Francisco, only one customer, a Mrs Neustadter who had a wonderful diamond choker made in 1908. We have a photo of it in the exhibition but we do not know where the piece is today. Neustadter was a clothing manufacturer with a shop on Market street in the early 1900s. There were some customers who came from San Francisco who lived elsewhere such as Virginia Fair Vanderbilt, born Virginia Fair, daughter of Senator James Fair, and who built the Fairmont hotel. There are several of her pieces in the show, along with her portrait by Boldini. Lady Cunard leader of London society in the 1930s who was born Maud Burke in Oakland, and Lady Granard, of whom Chips Channon, the diarist, says in 1937 she “ could hardly walk for jewels.” She who was born Beatrice Mills, daughter of Ogden Mills of Millbrae. Her massive diamond and emerald necklace is in the show.

 

Virginia Graham Fair Valderbilt, 1905 portrait by Giovanni boldini, gift of Mrs. Vanderbilt Adams, FAMSF. Photograph by Heather Vaughan

Virginia Graham Fair Valderbilt, 1905 portrait by Giovanni boldini, gift of Mrs. Vanderbilt Adams, FAMSF. Photograph by Heather Vaughan

 

 

Necklace, Carter London, 1932. Diamonds, emerald, and platinum. Sold to Beatrice Mills, Countess of Granard.

Necklace, Carter London, 1932. Diamonds, emerald, and platinum. Sold to Beatrice Mills, Countess of Granard. Photograph by Ren Thompson.

Quite often, design exhibitions that focus on single designers/makers can be categorized as ‘too commercial,’ especially if the company is still actively producing goods (for example, the Chanel exhibition the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the YSL exhibition at the de Young). Clearly, the Cartier exhibition ties into the economics, history and culture of the US, but how do you specifically address those issues in this exhibition?

The Cartier objects in the exhibition are not the sort of pieces that are for sale these days, apart from one necklace that belongs to a local patron. Otherwise the emphasis is on history, social history, workmanship, and design.

I’d like to ask a little about your career history, as Worn Through readers are often very interested in this.

I was a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London for 16 years. It gave me my training in decorative arts.

What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing a career in this field, what schools, experience and internships would you recommend?

The Bard Graduate Center New York and the Cooper Hewitt Master Program specialize in decorative arts.

 

If you have the opportunity to see this exhibition, I highly recommend it. For those unable to go, the exhibition catalog is a wonderful resource, not only for the history of Cartier, but also for a tracking the tastes of the wealthiest people in America over the last 100 years.

Cartier and America

The catalog is available for purchase as of January 10, 2010.

Note: Opening image is of my hand next to Pendant Brooch (also the cover image for the exhibition catalog), Cartier London, 1923 (altered 1928 by Cartier New York). “Marjorie Merriweather Post was a regular customer at Cartier New York, Her brooch, one of the most spectacular jewels made in the 1920s, incorporates Indian carved emeralds, one of which dates from the Mughal era.” Photograph by Ren Thompson.

*From the Oxford English Dictionary: “Glamour: 1. Magic, enchantment, spell; esp. in the phrase to cast the glamour over one (see quot. 1721). 2. a. A magical or fictitious beauty attaching to any person or object; a delusive or alluring charm.” See also Glamour: Fashion, Industrial Design, Architecture

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5 Comments

  • Benutty January 24, 2010 08.25 pm

    Just saw this exhibit today and absolutely adored it. I love wearing brooches and was surprised to see so many glamorous brooches on display. Completely spectacular. Also: love how they tell you not to take pics inside the exhibit, but you still did.

     
  • Heather Vaughan January 25, 2010 12.16 am

    Thanks for the comment and glad you enjoyed the exhibit. To be clear – I was allowed to take photographs of the exhibition because I was there with a ‘press pass.’ -Heather

     
  • Ryan Thompson March 10, 2010 02.02 am

    The necklace toward the bottom with the multiple tiers and the large yellow stone is the Patiala Necklace. I’m in SF right now and wanted to go to this but it doesn’t look like I’m going to make it… Coming back at the end of April, maybe I can catch it then? 😀

     
  • Ryan Thompson March 10, 2010 02.07 am

    …Here’s a larger photo of the necklace. Its actually one of the most famous necklaces the company has made. http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_YrEsDxPEfAc/Ss1yP9C-exI/AAAAAAAAAVU/yuF5U1UTGJg/s1600-h/aa.jpg

     
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