It is a joy to admire the beauty of high jewellery and watch masterpieces by virtue of their own merits, but it is also a privilege when the pieces are displayed in the context of their creative heritage. It is nothing short of visual fireworks at Cartier’s first exhibition globally, which focuses on pieces from the contemporary period, displayed alongside historically significant Cartier Collection exhibits dating from the early 1900s.
At the Cartier, Crystallization of Time exhibition at the National Art Center in Tokyo, taking place from now until Dec 16, it is finally possible to experience the essence of the maison in a holistic way. If you’ve ever wondered how the signature Cartier style has evolved through the decades, this show will shed some light.
After 34 Cartier Collection exhibitions worldwide since 1989, this is the first time Cartier’s finest creations and innovations from the ’70s are being showcased. And it’s not just a treat for visitors, but also a feat for the brand, as most of the newer pieces are still in the hands of first- to third-generation private collectors who have generously loaned them for this show.
It took Cartier’s Image, Style and Heritage Director Pierre Rainero and his team over four years to curate the exhibits and put the show together, but not without surmounting Herculean challenges in coordinating the logistics and administrative details along the way. Just imagine how they’d first have to interest the collectors in participating and convince them to physically unlock their vaults, before even thinking about the paperwork, security, insurance and transport.
“The Cartier Collection has over 3,000 items, but very few are from the contemporary age. In this exhibition, privately-owned pieces account for about half of the 300 over items. Due to the Tokyo venue, naturally we prioritised Asian collectors for the curation – about a third of the exhibits come from them,” shares Rainero.
Displaying recent works together with their historic counterparts highlight their thematic and stylistic similarities as well as differences across various time periods. Some items date as far back as the turn of the 20th century, while many iconic works are from the Art Deco period. A lot of the pieces even seem to defy their age – a testament to the enduring quality of Cartier’s design language. Some are also showpieces of Cartier innovation in material use, craftsmanship and design, highlighting the maison’s savoir faire through time.
“There are great innovations unique to the contemporary period. In the joyful ’70s, steel was being used with gold in luxury jewellery making, while new and audacious colour combinations that would traditionally be considered bad taste were being refined and developed into classics. The ’80s was a period of female empowerment, which translated to the use of yellow gold jewellery and a focus on volume. Also, some of the most impressive Panthère necklaces were made in the mid-’80s,” says Rainero.
“The ’90s was a time of softer femininity, and Cartier began to play with pastel colours and also different hues of the same colours. By the mid-’90s stretching into the 2000s, Cartier was experimenting with curves, organic shapes and the idea of movement.”
Offering an immersive experience to take all of this in is the exceptional exhibition scenography designed by world-renowned contemporary artist Hiroshi Sugimoto and architect Tomoyuki Sakikada of architectural firm New Material Research Laboratory. The concept of time is expressed in various forms throughout the visitor journey, from dramatic sculptural installations to a deeply evocative venue layout, as well as in the combination of ancient Japanese materials and artworks with Cartier jewels within the displays.
Enter the universe
Setting the scene at the exhibition entrance is Hiroshi Sugimoto’s installation of a 1908 grandfather clock, which was engineered to run backwards to welcome guests into the Prologue: Space Of Time section.
This area serves as an introduction to the concept of time, and is situated within a dramatic cave-like space housing technically unique mystery and prism clocks that are emblematic of Cartier’s artistry, creativity and techniques. After all, the first mystery clock in the world was created in 1912 by Louis Cartier, grandson of Cartier founder Louis-François, with watchmaker Maurice Coüet.
Beyond the Prologue, the exhibition is organised into three chapters. Linking each individual area are priceless Cartier treasures placed alongside Japanese antiques selected by Hiroshi Sugimoto, in an arrangement that is exclusive to this Tokyo exhibition.
The journey begins
Dedicated to educating the visitor on Cartier design from the perspective of the materials and colours used in each individual piece, Chapter 1 highlights metal and stone techniques, artisanal skills, decorative techniques and the Cartier colour palette.
The use of platinum – to create lighter and more intricate pieces, as well as to highlight diamonds – was a groundbreaking Cartier innovation at the end of the 19th century. Witness the artistry and craftsmanship in a 1906 Garland-style brooch and a 1908 Russian Tiara from the Cartier Collection, along with several contemporary privately-owned necklaces.
It is impressive not only to see various well-preserved Cartier stone-carving and marquetry works aged over 100 years old, but also how the maison kept the metiers d’art traditions alive and drove standards even higher. In 2010, it founded a workshop dedicated to gemstone carving. Four years later, it developed a technique derived from artisanal hardstone marquetry for the delicate work of floral marquetry, using rose petals.
Striking colour combinations that are emblematic of the maison today are also showcased in close to 30 masterpieces, including the Duchess of Windsor Wallis Simpson’s 1947 bib necklace made of amethysts, turquoise and diamonds. Beyond the famous Tutti Frutti palette, Cartier has another six signature combinations, including the pairing of blue and green, which during the early 20th century was considered in poor taste but became a classic through the decades.
The journey continues in Chapter 2, which is a study in the Cartier expression of form. Exhibits are grouped based on the themes of lines, spheres, new architectures, optics, harmony in chaos, and industrial and couture motifs. One display presents all the iconic Cartier watch shapes; yet another pays tribute to happenstance, which inspired designs like the 1967 Crash watch and diamond necklaces comprising diamonds of varying cuts. There is also a display that traces the lineage of popular daily Cartier pieces from the Juste un Clou and Love collections.
Marrying curiosity and creativity
A highlight in Chapter 3, the final section of the exhibition, is a collection of sketches, photographs and written entries from Cartier’s archives. Thanks to Louis Cartier’s wanderlust and interest in cultures, the maison has a huge repertoire of designs inspired by ancient civilisations, exotic lands, and unique flora and fauna.
Most jewellers have a love affair with sumptuous India and mystical Egypt, but get ready to be surprised by old, uniquely Oriental Cartier pieces, which are still influencing today’s works.
In interpreting flora and fauna, Cartier’s mastery of both realistic and abstract expressions is something to behold. On display are bejewelled birds, as well as extravagant articulated crocodiles, dragons and snakes – most of which date back to the ’40s to ’60s. As you turn your attention to pieces from the year 2000, there is a palpable shift towards abstract depiction, best exemplified by a series of tiger motif jewels.
There is also a special segment dedicated to none other than Cartier’s icon, the panther. It was first conceptualised on a wristwatch in 1914 as black and white spots made of onyx and pavé diamonds, employing a technique that is said to have pioneered the Art Deco style of contrasts in jewellery. This spotted watch, which has profoundly influenced the Cartier visual narrative, is showcased here alongside many iterations of the jungle cat.
They include those designed by Cartier’s acclaimed luxury jewellery director Jeanne Toussaint, such as a 1949 clip brooch for Wallis Simpson that was among the duchess’s collection of Panthère jewels that took the world by storm. There is also a dazzling suite of contemporary cats with a greater degree of realism and wider range of poses, thanks to a new wax casting technique.
The Cartier, Crystallization of Time exhibition runs from now until Dec 16, 2019, at the National Art Center in Tokyo. Visit Cartier2019.exhn.jp/en for details. We also recommend watching a new L’Odyssee de Cartier series of short films featuring the maison’s influences over the past 172 years and the foundation of the Cartier style, which is available on the brand’s digital and social platforms.