Haute Histories

Two lavishly illustrated new books trace the rise of two of the world’s premier jewelry houses, Cartier and Tiffany.

Cartier, 1900-1939 by Judy Rudoe Henry N. Abrams Inc., New York; 334 pages, $75.

In 1899, Alfred Cartier, newly in partnership with his son, Louis, moved the family’s retail jewelry business from 9 Boulevard des Italiens, a busy shopping district, to 13 Rue de la Paix, the heart of high jewelry and couture in Paris. At the time, Cartier was known as a retailer offering expensive jewelry to wealthy customers who included “the leading families of Europe.” Cartier’s stock, says Bristish author and jewelry historian Judy Rudoe, “comprised a wide range of jewels and objets d’art in all the revivalist styles then current as well as traditional diamond jewelry.” Cartier, circa 1899, thus combined “the two French traditions of bijouterie (fancy jewelry in gold, enamel, and semi-precious stones) and joaillerie (high jewelry in diamonds and precious stones).” But Cartier, at the time of the move, had yet to become, well, Cartier.

The relocation to Rue de la Paix – it remains the company’s main site in Paris – opened a new era for Cartier. A few years after the move, not only Alfred and Louis Cartier, but also Louis’s two brothers, Pierre and Jacques, were involved in the retail jewelry business. As the Cartier brothers became more involved, two things happened. Cartier set up a design studio and began commissioning its own products (each, beginning in 1906, fastidiously recorded and archived on film). Then, a few years later, the company launched branches in London (1902) and New York (1909). The branch stores – each brother ran a store – were technically part of the firm but operated independently. All stores designed products of their own, but the most famous Cartier pieces originated in Paris.

The jewelry that often began as watercolor sketches in Louis Cartier’s notebooks, reproduced in this attractive volume in excellent color photographs, set a standard for elegance. Specialist workshops such as those of Henri Lavabre (which produced exclusively for Cartier from 1906 to 1921), Edmond Jaeger, Henri Picq, and H. Droguet made the necklaces, bracelets, watches, clocks, diadems, brooches, combs, lorgnettes, and hat pins.

Cartier actually manufactured only a portion of what it designed, and then only after 1929. But the critical difference is that, prior to 1899, Cartier bought most of its stock. After that year, it began to design much of the merchandise it sold, even if others made it.

A platinum pioneer. In the period when its style was evolving, Cartier made diamonds and platinum its mainstay. The company pioneered the use of platinum in jewelry in 1896. (Previously, jewelers mounted gems in gold or, more often, silver.) The use of platinum, capable of being worked in very thin gauge while retaining its strength, allowed for far more intricate designs, involving hair-thin wires, especially in necklaces and brooches. Cartier’s use of platinum expanded design possibilities to new thresholds. They were thresholds he and his designers approached with measured steps.

Beginning with jewels patterned on architectural ornament or modeled on neoclassical 18th-century, even Renaissance, styles, company designers such as Cartier and, a little later, the brilliant Charles Jacqueau developed a look that was consistently Cartier. The house style, evolving between 1900 and 1918, can be read as “a highly individual interpretation of neo-classical and Empire-period ornament,” according to Rudoe, who is an assistant keeper in the British Museum’s Department of Medieval and Later Antiquities and a specialist in jewelry history. It neatly sidestepped the vogue of art nouveau at every turn.

While Cartier eschewed then-fashionable modernism, the company’s pieces wore a sleek, yet sumptuous, look that was very French. Little of what’s reproduced in these pages seems uninteresting, dowdy, or “period.” For example, Jacqueau’s cigarette cases – with their interlaced octagons in green and red gold – or Cartier’s 1907 Japanese diamond and ruby knot brooch (it took five years to sell) signal the modern as surely as the work of any of the groundbreaking painters working contemporaneously. The best Cartier pieces have great art’s self-assured sense of the classical married to the abstract, the same quality of being forever new.

Reacting to Egyptomania. A great deal of the firm’s success as a business had to do with its ability to both lead and anticipate the shifting directions of taste between the two world wars. Take, for example, Cartier’s contribution to “Egyptomania,” the vogue for things Egyptian inspired by the spectacular discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922. Other jewelers responded with conventionally designed and often historically inaccurate objects, using pylon, papyrus, or hieroglyphic motifs. For their design ideas, Cartier and staff dipped into the Description de l’Egypte, a multivolume work, complete with etched illustrations, detailing Bonaparte’s triumphant expedition of 1798. One result was the stunningly beautiful Temple Gate Clock, a table timepiece constructed of mother-of-pearl, lapis lazuli, coral, and enameled gold.

Ever on the lookout for the new and different, Cartier eventually produced jewelry in the styles of Russia, Persia, Japan, China, and India. Louis Cartier himself collected jewelry and artifacts from those cultures. Cartier’s Egyptian, Russian, Japanese, or Persian pieces borrowed from or incorporated not only indigenous designs, but also indigenous materials, such as jade (China) or turquoise (Persia). Cartier’s object was not to best the work of these foreign jewelry cultures, but to adapt their powerful design ideas – such as the use of raw gems in Indian jewelry – to Western European taste.

All of these styles overlapped rather than succeeded one another, such was the demand for things new, innovative, and exciting. The one area in which the firm found itself outclassed was in its effort to create Russian objects, such as enameled gold or hard stone carvings. Here Cartier faced the formidable competition of Fabergé. The French firm, having little experience producing figurines carved of hard stone or enameled gold objets d’art, mostly found Russian suppliers, who produced the items according to Cartier designs. But Cartier “never produced the variety of enamel colours seen in the work of Fabergé,” notes Rudoe, and the firm’s carved animals and plants were mostly derivative of Fabergé’s.

In time, the startling elegance of Cartier’s products made the stores hugely popular with the world’s big spenders, from Russian archdukes to Hindu maharajahs to vivacious American heiresses. By focusing on the period between 1900 and 1939, Rudoe captures Cartier at its most dynamic, its most creative. World War II, and the death in 1942 of two of the three Cartier brothers, brought the period of Cartier’s design and taste ascendency to a temporary close. The firm today, of course, survives as a successful retailer, with hundreds of stores worldwide.

Tiffany’s Twentieth Century: A Portrait in American Style By John Loring Henry N. Abrams Inc.; 240 pages, $60.

John Loring’s Tiffany’s Twentieth Century less successfully documents the history of another great retail jewelry house. Its text gushes sophomorically at times. And while Henry N. Abrams Inc., the publisher of both books, generously allotted pages and spent money to give readers a clear idea of the best Cartier produced – in tandem with a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – in this history of Tiffany, a decision to overlay black-and-white historical photography with color pictures of Tiffany-designed jewelry strains the eyes and taxes the brain.

The author, who has written seven books, is the design director of Tiffany & Co.

Tiffany, like Cartier, began as a highly successful jewelry retailer. Around the turn of the century the company established a name for itself with products of its own design. Many of these, at the time, issued from the drafting table of Paulding Farnham, the company’s chief jewelry and silver designer. It was Farnham whose pendants and necklaces captured gold medals at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. It was Farnham who, in 1893, created the famous “Adams Vase,” a vessel of yellow-green California gold decorated with quartzes, spessartites, amethysts, tourmalines, and fresh-water pearls (all from the United States).

As designers, Paulding Farnham and Lewis Comfort Tiffany existed in different worlds. With their elaborate, figurative gold-and-jewel mountings, Farnham’s Belle Epoche necklaces, brooches, coffee service sets, bracelets, and vases strike the modern observer as dowdy, quaint, even grandmotherly. An important exception, and major departure, is the Native American-inspired jewelry Farnham created, which crosses the line from craftsmanship to artistry.

Tiffany looked to the natural world for design ideas. Plants and flowers supplied him with all the color, shape, and shade he needed to create the jewelry and glassware he quickly became famous for. A leading American designer as well as theorist of art nouveau and the arts and crafts movement in the 1890s, L.C. Tiffany championed an aesthetic both colorful and austere. The challenge, as he saw it, was to impose that highly individual vision on the company that carried his name.

The rein of Kubla Khan begins. Rather than respond immediately to the gauntlet thrown down by Farnham in compromising his work, L.C. Tiffany waited for first his father, Charles Lewis Tiffany, then Farnham’s uncle, Charles T. Cook (president of Tiffany & Co.), to pass from the scene. At that point, in 1907, he struck, moving his jewelry and enamel design studios into the new Tiffany building at 37th Street and Fifth Avenue in New York, a neo-classical, six-story structure (disguised as three) created by famed period architect Sanford White. Farnham’s resignation from both the company and its board of directors came six months later. The reign of Louis Comfort Tiffany, a perfectionist and peacock known to intimates as “Kubla Khan,” had begun.

Even before ousting Farnham, Tiffany installed himself as the company’s first official design director. From that position, he created for Tiffany, the store, great quantities of jewelry, clocks, desk accessories, vases, boxes, you name it, in combinations of glass, bronze, gems, enamels, and other materials. His work defined what Tiffany & Co. was about. As America lurched into the Gilded Age, Tiffany, according to one biographer, “positioned himself as its most fashionable purveyor of taste.” But like Farnham before him, much of what he designed became passé in the decades following his death in 1933 – with the significant difference that interest in the work of the passionate and tireless Tiffany revived in the ’70s and ’80s.

With its signature style, a design director at the forefront of American artistic taste, and a premier New York location, Tiffany cemented its position as the country’s leading jewelry retailer. When New York Mayor Robert Van Wyck lifted the first shovelful of dirt for the city’s new subway system in 1900, he did so with a sterling silver spade supplied by Tiffany. It was Tiffany & Co. in 1917 that created the first Congressional Medal of Honor and continued to supply the government with the nation’s highest military award until 1942.

And with New York, London, and Paris locations, Tiffany, like Cartier, was well positioned to reap the financial rewards of the whirlwind ’20s. Like Cartier, Tiffany became a supplier of pricey jewels to the rich. Pearls were the rage during the Jazz Age, flexible diamond bracelets – and Tiffany’s unique bow brooch – a close second. Tiffany ran ads with minimal to no copy, beckoning customers to its establishments with the simple promise that there they would find “Ropes of Pearls.” Find them they did, and buy they did.

But the giddy mood that fostered unconstrained spending in the 1920s evaporated with the stock market crash and the international depression that followed. Everywhere jewelry sales dried up and died, including at Tiffany.

A new landmark. Tiffany, of course, not only survived the Depression but also retained its position as America’s best known jewelry retailer. That position was solidified in 1939 when the company commissioned the architectural firm Cross and Cross to design a building for the site it had purchased (for $10 million) at 57th Street and Fifth Avenue. John Cross, from whose pencil issued the Lincoln Memorial and the General Electric Building at 51st and Lexington, designed a solid, streamlined façade that became a New York landmark.

After World War II, though, Tiffany entered a period of steadily eroding profits. Complacency and lack of leadership left the company listless and in decline. That changed when Walter Hoving – president of the Hoving Co., which owned Bonwit Teller, Tiffany’s next-door neighbor – purchased the company from members of the Tiffany family for $3.75 million in 1955.

Hoving, who eventually forsook all other business responsibilities to devote his time to Tiffany, reinstituted the era of great designers at the New York jewelry company. Beginning with Jean Schlumberger and later including such leading figures as Paloma Picasso and Elsa Peretti, Tiffany in the ’60s and ’70s returned to solid profitablity. With its fragrances, designer lines, stainless-steel watches, pinwheel brooches, and other trademark products, Tiffany also resumed its leading role as a retail tastemaker. By the ’90s, Tiffany, like Cartier, had branded itself into a worldwide chain.

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