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In Tokyo, Cartier Unveils a Once-in-a-Lifetime Exhibition of Iconic Jewelry Designs

The exhibition at Tokyo’s National Art Center includes pieces from collectors like Grace Kelly, the Duchess of Windsor, Maria Felix, Gloria Swanson, and the Guinness family.

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There’s not much one can truly be sure of in the world these days, barring this: time only moves in one direction. And yet, through the darkened corridor that leads into the first stage of the Cartier, Crystallization of Time exhibition at Tokyo’s National Art Center, viewers are confronted by a large mixed media sculpture of a clock face with hands that are, in fact, ticking steadily backwards—it was Hiroshi Sugimoto’s idea. Pierre Rainero, Cartier’s Head of Heritage and Style, explained earlier this week during a preview of the exhibition, which opens to the public October 2. Sugimoto, a photographer and mixed media artist, leads the New Material Research Laboratory, the design firm that designed the exhibition for the museum. (He also made the sculpture in question, Time Reversed, using a restored clock face from 1908 and weights made of optical glass.) Sugimoto “wanted the visitor to be lost, to forget their time…as well as the notion of time,” Rainero said. That may be impossible in the day of social media and the age of endless news alerts, but it was certainly made easier, at least temporarily, by the ensuing exhibition, which earns quite a few of the superlatives usually applied to such shows (at least by their press agents). In short, it is a show-stopper, a jaw-dropper, a very serious display of some truly incredible objects. And really, what is jewelry—mineral compounds created over millennia and finessed to a high polish—if not a very specific demonstration of what time (and a little human ingenuity) can do?

The National Art Center exhibition follows the jewelry house’s July show in Beijing, Beyond Boundaries: Cartier and the Palace Museum, which highlighted the nearly 30-year relationship between those institutions. But this exhibition, which was four years in the making, “is really one of a kind,” Rainero said—and not just because this volume of the brand’s high jewelry has rarely if ever been shown, at once, in one place before. Rather than starting off with the pieces in Cartier’s own collection, the French jewelry house and the Tokyo National Art Center’s curator combed through the archives in search of items that signified the brand's evolution over its 172 year history, and then hunted down those pieces from private collectors. They created three “chapters” devoted to materials and methodology, from metal and stone-carving techniques to enameling and color choices. (Galleries bore titles like Material Transformation and Colors; Forms and Designs; and Universal Curiosity.) One space was devoted to cataloging Louis Cartier’s influences: a catalog from the Musée des Arts Décoratifs exhibition on Islamic art from 1903, sketches of wild animals, ukiyo-e woodblock prints by Suzuki Harunobu. “The earliest is a book about Japanese art,” Rainero said, Samuel Bing’s Le Japon Artistique, from 1888.

Over 300 jewelry designs are on view in the exhibition, many of which were specially commissioned, meaning they would have only been seen by the public in magazine pages or on red carpets, if ever. There are exceptions: Gloria Swanson’s flexible diamond bangle cuffs, purchased by the actress in 1930, were worn in a few of her movies, including her Academy Award-nominated role in Sunset Boulevard. Mexican screen and style icon Maria Felix’s finery were well documented, slung around her neck in all manner of publicity stills of the era. These included the fully-articulated 178.21 carat-clad diamond snake necklace and the bejeweled gold crocodiles that could turn from a collar into a brooch into table decor for her dinner parties (and, story has it, were designed after a live model, a baby crocodile in a fishbowl Felix carried into Cartier’s Paris boutique in 1975). All still managed to stop museum-goers in their tracks on Tuesday when they were revealed in their vitrines, posed on wooden busts hand carved by the Busshi, the community of Japanese sculptors who create intricate wooden replicas of Buddhas and bodhisattvas in a style of sculpture that has been virtually unchanged for nearly 1,400 years.

Iconic designs abound throughout the spacious, meditative galleries, which have been dimly lit for zero distractions and maximum sparkle, and set up with an eye to various organic textures: bricks made of the volcanic stone used to build temples, rough-hewn wooden panels, long dangling linen columns illuminated from above like shafts of light. The 1936 Tutti Frutti necklace commissioned by famously elegant French-American sewing machine heiress Daisy Fellowes is here, as are several mystery clocks (a Cartier signature, wherein clock hands appear to float on transparent dials) two of which were owned by two generations of Grimaldis: Princess Grace of Monaco, and her son, Prince Albert II. Tiaras turn up periodically, in everything from traditional platinum garlands to an art deco number in blackened steel. The Duchess of Windsor’s famous affection for ornamentation is well represented too, most notably in a zig-zagging gold and turquoise bib thickly laden with amethysts, a 1947 gift from Edward VIII, ten years after the marriage that forced him to abdicate the British throne. But it’s the 1937 necklace Cartier first made for Maharajah Digvijaysinhji of Nawanagar using his own collection of cushion-cut Burmese rubies (later modified for Mrs. Loel Guinness’s proportions—she wore it to Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball in 1966) that felt most significant in terms of the passage of time: there aren’t Burmese rubies of that size, quality, and quantity left to produce something like it today.

Even in the face of so much eye-popping embellishment—ranging from the outrageously expensive to the actually priceless—time, as it turns out, is a great equalizer. Part of what this exhibition suggests, Rainero said, is that the persistence of Cartier design itself, however it evolves, is in defiance of time’s unrelenting forward push. Can anything be beautiful enough to be actually timeless? It’s an impossible argument, though well enough made in a building devoted to preserving the best representations of our history. The oldest inclusions in the exhibition were lent by the National Art Center or Sugimoto’s own collection to juxtapose with the jewelry in vitrines between galleries: a bronze sword from over 500 years ago paired with an emerald and sapphire collar and earring suite designed for a Cartier client in 2017; an goose-egg sized sapphire and diamond cuff with an illuminated wall hanging of the Buddha holding a similarly sized orb. The pairings were Sugimoto’s idea. “We made connections between Cartier pieces and some antique Japanese pieces that were between 500 and 1000 years old,” Cartier’s CEO, Cyrille Vigneron said later. “Lending the old and the new what came from the stone, from the wood, from the imagination—an accompaniment to beauty. Because when things are old and new, what gathers us is to see the beauty wherever it is and transform it to something even better.”

Cartier, Crystallization of Time is open to the public at the National Art Center, Tokyo from October 2, 2019 to December 16, 2019.


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