We know so well the Tutti Frutti necklace created for the Duchess of Windsor in 1947 and the Panthère brooch of the 1940s — audaciously extravagant pieces that were always expected from Cartier. What, perhaps, is not quite as publically known, is the Maison’s fine history as an authority on diamonds and the revolutionary techniques it pioneered.
A paragon of ingenious versatility, Cartier was a the first jeweller to manipulate platinum as a setting for diamonds. Inspired by 18th-century lace, passementerie, decorative wrought iron and ornate Islamic patterns, Louis Cartier sought to discover an innovative setting with which to display diamonds in all their splendour, in a time when most jewellers were immersed in the art nouveau style. Seeking lighter, more delicate mounts that would sublimate the fire and sparkle of diamonds, he found the perfect solution in platinum.
Said to be of the best quality, Cartier’s platinum was composed of an alloy made at Henri Picq’s (one of Cartier’s main suppliers) workshop and was renowned for its white and sparkling surface. Inalterable and more resistant than the predominant materials of silver and gold used until then, platinum was a magnet for light and revealed diamonds’ sparkles in a way its predecessors never could. Such foresight led to the innovations such as the knurling of the stone’s platinum girdle with indentations, a technique that allowed light to be reflected in a more brilliant degree. Another revelation was the intentional setting of the gemstone’s rear with a shimmering girdle to enhance the reflective properties of the diamond.
From as early as the 1860s, Cartier had set a precedent by crafting platinum into virtuoso pieces; indeed, Louis Cartier’s favourite word for describing platinum jewellery was “embroidery”, which he felt accurately conveyed its delicacy. Outstanding among these ethereal works of bejewelled art were his latticework creations, such as the stunning necklace made in 1903 for the celebrated courtesan, Carolina “La Belle” Otéro. This was inspired by the infamous Queen’s Necklace that had sparked the scandal in which Queen Marie-Antoinette was herself embroiled in.
As a result of the new technical freedom of form created by the employment of platinum, Cartier imbued its salient attachment to French classicism (with a focus on the age of Louis XVI) into its designs, despite it being deemed as the complete antipode of modernity by contemporaneous adherents of art nouveau. This was coined the garland style by Cartier’s principal historiographer Hans Nadelhoffer and involved the most delicate platinum setting. Christened the lily-of-the-valley setting or serti muguet, they reproduced the outline of a flower’s calyx.
The garland style was also characterised by the jeweller’s intimate familiarity with both textiles and fashion, thus successfully blurring the distinction between jeweller and couturier. Such developments allowed for deftness of innovation on Cartier’s part, as evinced by an openwork design or résille (literally translated to mean hairnet) necklace ordered by Buckingham Palace to Pierre Cartier in 1904. A diaphanous web of superimposed diamond drops and bow knots, it adorns Queen Alexandra in the portrait of her by the French painter François Flameng. Another stunning example is the series of 10 necklaces inspired by a gem-set boléro (sleeveless jacket) created for Otéro by jeweller Paul Hamelin. Cartier supplanted rigidity with ductility and created necklaces made with the netlike résille technique, that fitted snugly around the neck like second skin.
Taking its cue from the unusual qualities of platinum, which permit complex constructions and almost invisible lines, the modern style was born. “A modern piece of jewellery is like a piece of architecture, visible in space from all angles and no longer an object of only two dimensions: Length and width,” explicated Roger Nalys, in his 1935 article Modern Jewellery, which emphasised the new sculptural dimension of jewellery making. Pioneered by Cartier in the early 20th century, it explored new possibilities of platinum that presented jewellery in a more flexible, light and adaptable manner, leading to magnificently elaborate pieces that were the result of the concordance between various experts and trades.
Cartier embraced the pleasures of geometry (which evolved naturally from its classical line) and triumphantly obtained fuller forms and impressive volumes with its unorthodox juxtaposition of delicate rock crystal with diamonds. Such voluminous achievements are manifested in the two bracelets sold in 1932 to American actress Gloria Swanson. Composed of rock crystal and baguette-cut diamonds, these bracelets divulge the values of modernity; similar styles can still be found in the Maison’s contemporary high jewellery creations. Suffice to say, Cartier’s faithful reinterpretation of its historical references and its adherence to its core values have enabled the jeweller to remain an authority on diamonds.