All Hands on Deco

In 1925, photographer Edward Steichen shot then-model Kendall Lee—later to be the actress wife of Oscar-winning director Lewis Milestone—for a Vogue spread called “The New Jewelry.” She wore diamonds. She wore pearls. She wore onyx. But most important, she wore Cartier, whose geometric designs and striking black and white jewels were the coolest of the cool among rich avant-garde fashionistas. That year, at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriel Modernes, the term Art Deco was born, and Cartier pushed it forward. “The diamonds and onyx ebb and flow, unlike the strictly straight line design of the period,” says jewelry historian Joyce Jonas of Lee’s glittering bracelet. “That’s the unique Cartier panache.” The company also promoted splashes of color—evident in Lee’s sapphire ring—and pearls, pearls, pearls. “Cultured pearls,” says Jonas, “were the hot thing to own.” Yet Cartier didn’t want women just to own its ­jewelry; the company wanted them to wear it. At the exposition Cartier displayed its wares alongside the ­couturiers’, rather than the other ­jewelers’. Cartier’s new jewels were designed to complement a lady’s clothes and hairstyle—be it a white fur, a skin-baring top, a bobbed ’do…or, in Lee’s case, all three.