Deco & Diamonds

Cartier defined Art Deco at its best. Those bangles and baubles and bright colorful beads still wield, reports Annemarie Iverson, a powerful magic.

In 1936 Daisy Fellowes, heiress to the Singer sewing machine fortune, was terribly upset that financial reversals brought about by the Great Depression had forced her to sell her oceangoing yacht, but she still treated herself to a little something. From Cartier she bought a necklace mounted with a fringe of emerald, sapphire, and ruby beads; engraved ruby and sapphire leaves; and 13 briolette-shaped sapphires. It made the most delightful music when she danced. Since the gems looked a bit like juicy berries or bright hard candies, Daisy's necklace became known as the Tutti Frutti.

Whether or not she knew it, Daisy set off the craze for Art Deco fine jewels. Around that time, Jacques, the youngest of the three Cartier brothers, traveled to India and became enamored with the use of carved colored stones. When he returned to France, he incorporated the Indian gemstones into Cartier's already burgeoning Art Deco style. In the same years, Louis Cartier, the eldest brother, began to experiment with platinum in his designs, creating the intricate and light garlands that developed into another house trademark. Exotic panther bracelets and rings and brash enamel brooches began to fill the vitrines on Rue de la Paix in Paris, New Bond Street in London, and Fifth Avenue in New York. The ingenuity and sheer beauty streaming from those three Cartier workshops in the twenties, thirties, and early forties was so prodigious that other houses found it increasingly hard to compete.

Fast-forward nearly 70 years: A beautiful young woman, turned out with Daisy's same nonchalant American chic, wandered into the Fred Leighton vintage jewelry shop on Madison Avenue. A flash of color caught the proprietor's eye: She wore an original Tutti Frutti bracelet on her wrist, a gift from her mother-in-law. She especially loved the countless colorful stones and the clinking sound the bracelet made as she walked. Thirty years ago it was valued at $15,000. Today, the same piece (only 100 were produced) can run as much as $1 million.

"To wear a Cartier Art Deco piece is to experience on a very personal level the glamour of the twenties," explains Harry Fane, a London dealer specializing in vintage Cartier. "Paintings or furniture from the same period just don't offer the intimacy of jewelry that may well have been worn by, say, Rudolph Valentino. Some people collect these pieces just to have a connection to that glimmering era. And their aesthetics and craftsmanship simply cannot be matched."

More than 200 of these spectacular gems will be featured in "Cartier Design Viewed by Ettore Sottsass," at Houston's Museum of Fine Arts, beginning October 31. Among the treasures culled from the company archives are Daisy's famous necklace, Mrs. Cole Porter's Tutti Frutti bracelet, Mrs. William Kissam Vanderbilt's exquisite enameled fruit-bowl brooch, Gloria Swanson's platinum-and-diamond bracelet, and the Duchess of Windsor's amethyst, turquoise, and diamond bib necklace. Seeing such pieces together should be akin to walking through the world's dreamiest jewel box.

Italian architect and designer Ettore Sottsass, who handpicked the pieces on exhibition from Cartier's collection of 1,200 or so vintage jewels once worn by royalty and the very wealthy the world over, also designed this exhibition. It took a particularly discerning, dispassionate eye to eliminate 1,000 of the best examples of precision, materials, and craftsmanship that fine jewelry has ever known in order to settle on the pieces Sottsass deemed sufficiently contemporary by 21st-century standards.

"I chose things that are relevant today—not out of our time," Sottsass explains. "I don't know queens, I don't even know very rich people. So I was quite worried when Cartier asked me to do this project. But, in the end, after working a long time and looking at this jewelry with people who know tremendous amounts about it, I thought of these pieces as elements of human history." To bring the designs to life, Sottsass found original sketches of the works—done in sketchbooks, in graphite, ink, and gouache on beige or gray tracing paper—and incorporated them, enlarged dramatically, into the exhibition. Some are almost six feet high. That way, he says, "the visitor will look at the design, not just the jewels."

Like many others, Sottsass was especially impressed by Cartier's Art Deco works. "They were really at the tip of the Deco movement," says jewelry designer James de Givenchy, nephew of couturier Hubert de Givenchy. "Cartier achieved what every jeweler strives for—the functional, the decorative, the timeless."

De Givenchy had the luxury of studying vintage Cartier pieces during the six years he worked in fine jewelry at Christie's. He particularly recalls one Tutti Frutti bracelet: "It was whimsical and fun and when you turned it over to see how it was made, you realized that it would be almost impossible to create today. And if you could, there would be no one willing to pay for it."

Staging an exhibition like this one isn't about dusting off a bunch of antique jewels, says Stanislas de Quercize, president and CEO of Cartier. "Because we are so sure of our past, we are more daring for the future. We buy back pieces from the past—and watch the prices go higher and higher." (At Christie's Doris Duke Collection sale in June, a 1908 Cartier necklace set a world record, selling for $2,359,500.) "That can only be reassuring to those buying Cartier today," says de Quercize. For those among us not lucky enough to own originals, Cartier is producing new pieces inspired by the most coveted works of the Deco days.

"I don't think you can find many jewelers whose designs have held up as well," says Gary Schuler, senior vice president of fine jewelry at Sotheby's. "Cartier produced the most innovative jewels of the period from the 1890s to the 1940s. Their use of baguettes and platinum alone was amazing. Their Art Deco pieces, in particular have a timeless quality, a simplicity, and an elegance that is quite modern." A Tutti Frutti necklace like Daisy Fellowes's sold for more than $2 million at Sotheby's in 1991. In 2002 a Tutti Frutti bracelet went for $1 million. Since then, Sotheby's has sold three other such bracelets that just "came out of the woodwork," says Schuler.

Fred Leighton, the modern-day vintage jewelry retailer, sees no end in sight. "There are Cartier prowlers who check in every two weeks," he says. In the meantime, it might be worth chatting with your mother or mother-in-law about the family jewels. Better yet, bring her along to Houston to see this fall's Cartier show. Who knows? It might jog the memory.

What's Old is New Again

Cartier has updated some of its classics—Deco and otherwise—for those in need of a fix now.

A 1945 gold Cartier bracelet The gold Tank Française watch ($12,200)
The 1939 Menotte handcuff bangle The 2002 version, made with garnets or amethysts and harder-edged for the 21st century (from $4,700).
The 1925 Tutti Frutti watch The 2004 update, a modern version with the same éclat of carved emeralds, rubies, and sapphires ($265,000)
The Duchess of Windsor's 1949 brooch of a pavé-diamond panther perched on a 152-carat sapphire The Lady with Panther brooch in white and black gold with diamonds and emeralds ($60,500)
Platinum, rock crystal, and diamond Cartier bracelets from the thirties The 2004 Déclaration watch ($350,000)
A necklace like Daisy Fellowes's 1953 amethyst-and-turquoise beaded choker The amethyst, turquoise, and diamond necklace from the Délices de Goa collection ($20,200)
The out-of-print Cartier: Jewelers Extraordinary, by Hans Nadelhoffer (Harry N. Abrams, 1984) To be published next month, The Cartier Collection: Collective Work ($375; Flammarion)

Annemarie Iverson, former Editor in Chief of Seventeen and YM, wrote about Shanghai in the March/April issue.