Louis Cartier’s Lasting Imprint


Not long after joining his father Alfred in 1898 at the helm of Cartier, Louis Cartier made his first innovation: he ordered his workshops to forego silver and use platinum instead. He had seen the greater purity of platinum being created in a few workshops, and he did not hesitate to embrace the possibilities of the stronger, non-corrosive metal.

Already a step ahead of his peers in his use of the metal, he aspired to create masterful designs that would take full advantage of the strength and brilliance of platinum. The designs would allow greater open space in which to place diamonds and pearls (see photo above).

The use of platinum also allowed Cartier to reach another of his goals: to update the Garland style that was favored in Europe in the late 19th century. Instead of the flowers and birds depicted in so many Garland pieces, Cartier designed bolder, often intricate designs with many natural motifs – and each with greater emphasis on diamonds. The diamonds seem suspended in air as the platinum settings virtually disappear behind the precious gems.

From this auspicious beginning, Louis Cartier’s era of great creativity dawned with the new century. The works created during his reign are set to dazzle visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City starting April 2 as “Cartier: 1900-1939” displays more than 200 examples of the designs inspired by Louis Cartier’s leadership of the Paris-based jeweler. The exhibit can be seen at the museum through Aug. 3, after which it will move to the British Museum in London for exhibit Oct. 1 through the following January.

Worldwide fame: The decade-plus bonanza of platinum, diamond and pearl opulence that Cartier unleashed during the earliest years of the 20th century quickly became a draw for royalty and near-royalty worldwide. The King of Siam, Czar Nicholas II, King George of Greece and a list of others were drawn to Paris.

By the end of the first decade, however, Cartier’s growing international clientele mirrored the expansion of wealth in the U.S. and the Far East. To meet demand and to compete effectively in its market, the company opened stores in New York and London.

Exotic inspiration: Cartier’s geographic expansion coincided with the its widening use of myriad artistic styles drawn from such exotic (to Europeans) countries as Egypt, Tunisia, China, India and Japan.

One of Cartier’s favorite and influential designers, Charles Jacqueau, was a passionate fan of Egyptian, Indian, Chinese and Islamic art. Jacqueau’s studies and sketches were filled with the motifs of these varied cultures. The effect on his designs was evident as the second decade of Cartier’s reign started. A 1913 pendant (see photo at left) with Egyptian roots presaged the growing interest by the West in all things from the Nile valleys. Egyptian motifs greatly informed early Art Deco designs by Cartier and others. Designers using Egyptian styles at this time were rewarded by popular acclaim and demand as Egypt-mania seized Europe and the U.S. a decade later with the 1922 discovery of King Tutankha-mun’s tomb.

Art Deco influences: As Modernism in art gathered steam in the first quarter of the 20th century, much of it in Paris, the works of such artists as Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso influenced Cartier. These artists’ bold use of color, geometric forms and other innovations breathed fresh air into the design world.

This artistic influence on the decorative arts came to a peak at the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern and Decorative Arts in Paris. So many jewelers and other artists displayed a preference for geometric styles, sharp edges and solid colors that the exhibits and the style gained fame as “Art Deco.” Cartier joined in, but the company’s new items were softened just a bit as Jacqueau preferred rounded shapes and arcs to squared edges.

Cartier’s Art Deco styles flourished and were popularized through items that included onyx brooches, coral rings and even its costly “mystery clocks” (see photo below). The company specialized in mixing translucent gems with opaque materials – such as diamonds with onyx, coral or jade – to create unusual and often surprising color combinations.

The Panther: Beyond traditional brooches, rings, pendants, earrings and necklaces, Cartier’s identification with the Art Deco style was further enhanced when in 1923 it created its Department “S” (“S” for silver), which made everyday objects such as lipstick cases, cigarette cases, powder compacts and pens. (The department is known today as Les Must de Cartier.) The first director of Department “S” was Jeanne Toussaint, a trusted colleague of Cartier, a friend of Coco Chanel and well-known among haute couturiers.

Known as la Panthere in French, the famed Cartier Panther design was a tribute to Toussaint and her influence in the company. Simultaneous to her advancement of the panther and other animal motifs and the popular “tutti frutti” style, Toussaint became director of the Fine Jewelry Division in 1933. Her taste was keen and quickly struck gold as the natural elements she encouraged gained fans in high places, including heiress Barbara Hutton and the Duchess of Windsor.

Throughout the late 1930s, Cartier designed increasingly in gold rather than the more expensive platinum, which was soon restricted for munitions use during World War II. The start of the war in Europe in 1938 and the U.S.’s entrance in 1941 marked the end of Louis Cartier’s reign. He and his younger brother, Jacques, died in 1942, and certain of the company’s assets were dispersed to different parties outside the family. The great era of Louis Cartier was over.

The exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is curated by J. Stewart Johnson, consultant for design and architecture, Department of 20th Century Art, and Judy Rudoe, assistant keeper, Department of Medieval and Later Antiquities at the British Museum. The exhibit will be accompanied by lectures, tours, films and other education programs. A 320-page illustrated catalog with more than 400 color and black-and-white images will be available in the museum’s book store.


The Art of Cartier, Gilles Chazal and Pierre-Louis Hardy, Museé du Petit Palais, 1989. Cartier Inc. Archives.

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