It’s easy to be dazzled at the National Gallery of Australia’s blockbuster Cartier exhibition, but there’s one section that shouldn’t be missed.
It’s past Dame Nellie Melba’s glittering collection, past the maharaja’s opulent Patiala necklace, beyond Lady Mountbatten’s candy-coloured Tutti Frutti diamond bandeau. It’s just before the royal room where Queen Elizabeth’s and the Duchess of Cambridge’s tiaras catch the light, and well before the celebrity jewels: Elizabeth Taylor’s rubies, the Duchess of Windsor’s flamingo brooch and Grace Kelly’s devastating 10.47 carat emerald-cut diamond engagement ring.
It’s a small room off to one side, dedicated to the Cartier workshop in Paris. Here the glass vitrines are not filled with sparkling baubles; instead they hold the small hammers, miniature saws, loupes, chisels and other well-worn tools used to create the jewellery. And while those staggeringly beautiful pieces glint away in their display cases, it’s the journey they took from fanciful idea to glittering bauble that’s just as interesting.
The NGA exhibition, which opened last week, showcases more than 300 items from the French jewellery house’s 150-year history. Along with the rings, brooches, tiaras and necklaces there are bejewelled clocks, cigarette cases, archival drawings and photographs.
The exhibition’s co-curator Margaret Young-Sánchez says while Cartier’s style evolved, there is also a sense of continuity. Although the founder, Louis-Francois Cartier, was not a designer, he had strong ideas about design, and because he was friends with “everyone who was anyone”, he knew what they wanted. “He was able to push the design ethos forward in a way that they weren’t simply following trends, they were creating trends,” she says.
The 1920s were a high point for Cartier designs, and the exhibition sparkles with art deco jewellery, geometrical lines inlaid with white diamonds and multicoloured stones.
In 1925 the Maharaja of Patiala, Bhupinder Singh, travelled to Paris with his crown jewels. While it was traditional for Indian royalty to reset their ceremonial jewellery for each generation, Young-Sánchez explains that this maharaja took his jewels to Cartier for an ultramodern look.
His hefty treasure chest included almost 3,000 diamonds, a number of Burmese rubies and the 234.6-carat De Beers yellow diamond, then the seventh-largest diamond in the world. With careful consultation, the Cartier team created what became known as the Patiala necklace, completed in 1928, and said to be one of the most expensive pieces of jewellery ever made.
While they may not all be on that scale, each Cartier piece is unique. And from idea to bauble, a piece of jewellery goes through numerous hands – among them designers, then jewellers, setters and polishers.
In Canberra for the opening of the exhibition, Pierre Rainero, Cartier’s head of image, style and heritage, explains that unlike other houses, the emphasis has never been on a single designer or jeweller; instead it’s about the group. “Of course the designer is responsible, he’s the creator of the idea, but as far as the jeweller is concerned, his interpretation in terms of volume, in terms of conception, in terms of articulation has an incredible impact on the final aesthetic. Even the setters and the polishers have an impact on the beauty of the object.”
A new Cartier creation begins life in various ways: it could be a design idea or inspired by the purchase of a significant stone. Cartier is also commissioned to make special pieces by royalty, by celebrities and by others of substantial means.
Although Cartier jewellery designers work mostly with gouache on paper, they know how a piece will look in various lights and when it moves. There is a difference, says Rainero, between “a design that is jewelled and a piece of jewellery that is designed”. And, he says, in that matter-of-fact French way: “Cartier is about design and style – and not just about assembling stones.”
The design then goes to a jeweller who is tasked with bringing it to life. One of the reasons Cartier became so renowned was because their jewellers pioneered the use of platinum. The precious metal is unwieldy, with a high melting point, and was difficult to use in jewellery until Louis-Francois Cartier figured out how to do so. Its rarity, durability, whiteness and the comparatively small amount used – leaving the gems to sparkle – made it popular with those who could afford it.
Once the jeweller has worked the metal, the piece goes to the setters who place the gems. Usually cut when they are bought, the stones are occasionally recut by Cartier craftsmen into small gems as part of a design. The house’s signature panther brooches, for example, are covered in tiny jewels. “In some circumstances we are obliged to recut each of the diamonds to create the smooth soft aspect of the diamond. So they are not totally brilliant cut in the traditional way, they are recut the certain way to be set to create a smoothness.”
While it’s thrilling to see the pieces in a museum, Rainero says each piece is designed to be worn so it must not snag clothing or be uncomfortable. “Their destiny is to be worn and to play with light on the body and … they are conceived to be articulated, to be in total harmony with the movement of a person and the comfort of the skin and that is something that we cannot measure when you see the piece in a window.”
Throughout the creation process, the piece goes back and forth to the polishers, who use all manner of items – including feather shafts, ribbons of paper and soft wooden dowels – to polish the metal internally and externally. This painstaking polishing is one of the marks of quality, says Rainero: “That’s the first thing that we do at Cartier [or at] any jewellery specialist … is to look at the back, how it is done, how it is made and how it is polished.”
Usually the designer who works on a piece follows it through this process. For the Patiala necklace, a design team worked on its multiple strands over the three years.
At the time the necklace was the largest commission Cartier had received but Rainero says the company is regularly commissioned to make jewellery on the same scale these days. “I can mention one recently,” he says, smiling slightly, “and I think the maharaja would be ashamed.”
Ashamed? What does that mean? He smiles once again: “Because the number of stones we had to assemble was much more than that one,” he says. “More, much more.”
• Cartier: The Exhibition is on at the National Gallery of Australia until 22 July
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