'Cartier and America' exhibit opens at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor
Through April 18, 2010
On December 16, I attended the opening night gala event for 'Cartier and America'. This new exhibit, which celebrates a swathe of twentieth-century design trends, also demonstrates the extravagance and opulence of custom-crafted Cartier design. It's an elegant, vivid, surprising and thoroughly entertaining show. It is exclusive to the Legion of Honor.
'Cartier and America' was magnificently selected, rounded up, and planned by the museum's decorative arts curator Martin Chapman—who also wrote insightful accompanying notes, and produced the excellent book that accompanies this razzle-dazzling entertainment.
The exhibit covers jewels of the Duchess of Windsor, Gloria Swanson and Elizabeth Taylor, along with Marion Davies and Grace Kelly, naturally—but it's the clocks and rich accouterments for clients like Marjorie Meriwether Post that are the surprise hit of this wide-ranging show.
Cartier's 1970s-era Crocodile gold necklace is set with 1,023 brilliant-cut fancy intense yellow diamonds weighing 60.02 carats intotal, two navette-shaped emerald cabochons, 1,060 emeralds weighing 66.86 carats in total, and two ruby cabochons /By Nick Welsh for the Cartier Collection © CartierThe major glam necklaces and animalistic bracelets and bigger-the-better engagement rings are divine—and they are fetchingly displayed in all their shimmering glory. No gilded leopard, coral owl, articulated crocodile, cabochon cuff link, or social essential for the El Morocco set, has been neglected.
Elizabeth Taylor (in her heyday) is shown wearing the luscious diamond earrings and pendants Richard Burton showered upon her.
Grace Kelly's finest sapphires, diamonds and pearls are on display, along with beautiful photographs of her wearing them. Many pieces are from Cartier's own archives—others are from private collections and have never been on display until this show.
The subtext—well, one of them—is that newly wealthy tycoons and their wives and female companions spent a lot of time at Cartier, dithering over diamonds, sizing up the sapphires, eyeing the emeralds and ruminating over the rubies.
Gloria Swanson's pair of articulated crystal bracelets with diamond insets are beautiful lit in a case that allows a viewer to see all effulgent angles. Much-married grandes dames were attracted to men who were knowledgeable about tiara settings and clocks with invisible machinations.
It's the clocks that are perhaps the most bewitching. Elaborate set-pieces, with crystal clocks set on the backs of jade elephants, along with pendant clocks and fantasy clocks with precious stones and enamelwork ornamenting their framework, are entrancing, sheer delight. I can't wait to see them again.
1947 Cartier Bib necklace crafted from platinum, 18-carat and 20-carat gold, a heart-shaped faceted amethyst, twenty-seven emerald-cut amethysts, an oval faceted amethyst, turquoise cabochons and baguette-cut diamonds /By Nick Welsh for the Cartier Collection © Cartier
Another thrill here is to see the Duchess of Windsor's parures, and to read the notes about her endless 'fittings'. Gazing at her brooches and pins and bracelets, it's easy to imagine lives (and they are all spelled out and illustrated here in the vitrines) spent in this idle but important (to their social scene) pursuit.
Martin Chapman does not hold back from illustrating the twentieth-century panoply of 'rich people's pastime' jewelry, travel cases, watches, gems, minaudieres, cigarette cases, card-holders, dressing table adornments and tiaras (la maharajah's treasure chest of those), as well as crowns, diamond pendants, and thrills for every poitrine.
And if you miss this show, you must plan to be in San Francisco this summer when a thrilling collection of the creme de la creme of paintings from the Musee d'Orsay decamps from Paris and lands in California for six months. The Musee d'Orsay will be under renovation for some time, so the brilliant director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, John Buchanan, negotiated this coup for the city. A second show—equally fabulous—will follow next year. Imagine all your favorite paintings—Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, French classical artists at the Legion of Honor.
I can't wait. See you at the gala opening night.
California Palace of the Legion of Honor
34th Avenue and Clement Street
San Francisco, CA 94121