Paris Calling: Ogling Cartier’s Incomparable Oeuvre

I strive to live my life without regrets. But as I sit here on the train from Paris to Geneva—where I’m headed to attend the 24th Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, the haute-est watch show in the world—all I can think about is the things I didn’t do in Paris: I didn’t go to the Louvre (after three visits to the City of Light, I have yet to behold the “Mona Lisa”—it’s embarrassing!). I didn’t make it to the Bikram yoga class in the Marais that I promised myself I would attend to work off the mounds of cheese and foie gras I would inevitably eat. And, most egregious of all, I didn’t see the mystery clocks at the “Cartier: Style and History” exhibition at the Grand Palais.

I’m furious with myself. How did I miss the mystery clocks?!

The exhibit, which opened Dec. 4 and concludes Feb. 16, was the sole reason for my stopover in Paris. Back in the fall, Cartier had given journalists traveling to Geneva for SIHH an invitation they couldn’t refuse: Route our itinerary through Paris, stay a night or two on Cartier’s dime, then take the train to Geneva—all in exchange for seeing a monumental staging of some 600 pieces that showcase the famed jeweler’s craftsmanship, historical relevance, and enduring style. They’d even arranged for a tour of the exhibit on Saturday morning, before the museum opened to the public, so we wouldn’t have to elbow little French grandmothers out of the way to ogle all those diamonds and pearls (oh my!).

The entrance to “Cartier: Style and History,” at Paris’ Grand Palais through Feb. 16

From the tower of tiaras—including Kate Middleton’s borrowed diadem—that greeted us upon entering the venue to the clothing, archival documents, paintings, and accessories that accompany the jewels on display, the exhibit goes a long way toward establishing the legendary maison as the quintessential face of Art Deco: that timeless, universally adored style of geometric, diamond-dusted motifs popularized in the 1920s and ’30s.

But even more so, the Cartier show at the Grand Palais makes the case for the firm’s role as the quintessential jeweler of the 20th century (with all due respect to JAR, Bulgari, and Van Cleef & Arpels, each of whom is being feted at concurrent exhibitions around the world).

Take the extraordinary Egyptian revival brooches on display at the Grand Palais. Larger than what you’d expect, the three brooches were each signed Cartier Londres and dated to 1924 and 1925, after the 1922 discovery of King Tut’s tomb ignited a worldwide Egyptomania. Centered on a carved scarab and made of a ceramic-like material called Egyptian faience and bejeweled with rubies, diamonds, onyx, enamel, and platinum, the pieces are coveted artifacts from an era when the world was still large and unknown—when it was jewelers like Cartier who introduced Europeans and Americans to the myths and motifs of India, Persia, and the Near and Far East.

Scarab brooch, 1924, in gold, platinum, Egyptian faience, smoky quartz, diamonds, emeralds, and black enamel

The brooches’ undeniable aesthetic charms combined with their exotic pedigrees reminded me why I’ve made a career out of writing about jewelry: I can think of no other object that conveys so much about humanity—our desire for beauty, power, status, love—in so small and dazzling a package.

As I walked through the exhibition, the wonders never ceased. The gem-encrusted pieces on display ranged from the smallest accessories—jade and diamond vanity cases, a gilded dance card (quaint doesn’t begin to describe it), even a moustache comb made of tortoiseshell—to one of the largest and most spectacular jewels known to exist: the larger-than-life diamond necklace of the Maharaja of Patiala, “a chandelier for the neck,” as blogger Ariel Adams so accurately described it.

The diamond necklace created for the Maharaja of Patiala in 1928 originally contained a yellow diamond of 234.65 cts. at its center. Discovered in 1998 dismantled and in disrepair, with the center stone missing, the necklace was reconstructed over three years in the Cartier workshops, using synthetic stones in place of the larger missing diamonds.

“The exhibition is not really about jewelry—it’s about art de vivre,” said our guide, Pascale Lepeu, the curator of the Cartier Collection, referring to the robust selection of artistic totems denoting a life well lived.

To hammer home that point, the exhibition contained photographs and portraits of Cartier’s most famous clients—socialite Daisy Fellowes, cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, Mexican actress María Félix, and the inimitable Duchess of Windsor, to name a few—bejeweled in the very same pieces that were now encased behind glass. It was a wonderful way to reinforce the maison’s place at the intersection of art, history, and culture.

A painting of Marjorie Merriweather Post bejeweled in Cartier

The night before the tour, we’d attended a grand press dinner in the Mini Palais, where I had the honor of sitting beside Stanislas de Quercize, Cartier’s global president. In his opening remarks, he emphasized what has, I believe, become conventional wisdom: “Jewelry is part of art, for it has the two elements that are considered art: It is universal and timeless.”

As we continued our dinner, de Quercize provided some insight into how such an exhibition was possible.

“In Paris, we have been in the same location for 100 years—the same in London, same in New York,” he told me between bites. “When you move is when you lose the archives. When you don’t move, you don’t lose!”

I reflected on that sentiment and more after I left the exhibition. My free day in Paris found me window watching in the Marais; queuing up at the Hôtel de Ville for an exhibition of photography by Brassaï, that legendary chronicler of the Parisian night; eating dinner at my dear friend (and jewelry publicist) Erwann Bigot’s apartment in Les Halles, where he staged an impromptu dinner party for family and friends visiting from Lyon and Havana; and drinking late-night champagne at the Buddha Bar with the always-charming Craig Danforth, the GIA’s peripatetic global director of business development. No wonder I skipped the yoga class on Sunday morning and instead slept until noon!

I can forgive myself for missing the Louvre and a workout, but neglecting to see the mystery clocks is inexcusable (if purely accidental). To assuage myself, all I can say is this: As with any great experience, the Cartier exhibition—not to mention the remarkable city that gave birth to it—left me wanting more. And the next time I visit, the only things I expect to regret are the calories.