Elaborate Gems, Eccentric Stories: the Out-there Tales Behind Cartier’s Jewelry
Brilliant: Cartier In The 20th Century is a new exhibition opening at the Denver Art Museum this month filled with 255 jaw-dropping pieces of jewelry and precious objects from the renowned luxury brand that date all the way back to 1900. The woman dealt with the difficult-but-glorious task of gathering it all: Margaret Young-Sanchez, the exhibit’s curator. “I think the hardest thing has been to pare it down,” she says. “Cartier has something like 1,800 objects in their collection alone and when I visited private collectors, they’d sometimes have a dozen pieces — you have to control your impulses.”
Among the items that made the cut: Princess Grace of Monaco’s engagement ring, a five-dial clock once belonging to Franklin D. Roosevelt, a flamingo brooch from the Duchess of Windsor and a diamond necklace worn by the Countess of Granard that features an 143-carat emerald — that’s not a typo. “Imagine walking into a room with it,” says Young-Sanchez. “She must have been a knock-out, especially with a tiara on her head at the same time!”
Glittering eye candy aside, the exhibit also presents a historical look at how Cartier has evolved with a first-hand look at the artistry that has earned the company its reputation. “Working on the exhibition, I was able to examine many of these objects in person,” says Young-Sanchez. “If you say the word ‘Cartier,’ you know that they have a very good reputation, but what I became more aware of is how strong their craftsmanship is.”
With jewelry belonging to colorful characters like countesses, celebrities, political figures and maharajas, we knew there had to be some unusual stories behind the elaborate pieces in the exhibition. We asked Young-Sanchez to share a few favorites.
1. Maria Felix’s Pet Crocodile Necklace
“There’s no documentation for this story, so there’s no way to say with absolute certainty that this is what happened, but the story is that Maria Felix walked into the Paris Cartier boutique with a live baby crocodile that was her pet — I don’t think they make very good pets — and she said to them, ‘Use this as your model, and make me fabulous necklace.’ She already had a platinum snake necklace from Cartier, so she clearly liked reptiles.”
2. Elizabeth Taylor’s Poolside Ruby Necklace
“Elizabeth Taylor’s husband Mike Todd presented this necklace to her with a pair of earrings while they were out by their pool, and she was ecstatic,” says Young-Sanchez. Taylor herself referenced the moment in her memoir, writing: “Since there was no mirror around, I had to look into the water . . . I shrieked with joy, put my arms around Mike’s neck, and pulled him into the pool after me.” “Someone had a home movie camera, so they were filming the moment when she was given the necklace,” says Young-Sanchez. “The home movie is going to be shown in the exhibition.”
3. The Maharaja Of Patiala’s Disappearing Necklace
“This piece was commissioned by the Maharaja of Patiala in 1925,” says Young-Sanchez. “He came to Cartier in Paris with a trunkful of gems that he owned — diamonds and rubies and pearls and sapphires — and he asked Cartier to make him several dozen pieces. The commission took three years to complete!” The original necklace reportedly weighed in at almost a 1,000 carats, including the De Beers yellow diamond at the center which was 234.69 carats. Unfortunately, the last time the piece was seen intact was in 1941. The reason for the disappearance: it’s believed the family had to sell their jewels when they lost their tax-free status. The necklace didn’t show up again until the platinum chains appeared in London in 1998. “When it was found, the large diamonds had been removed, so it was sort of the skeleton,” says Young-Sanchez. “In 2002, Cartier restored it to create what we have now on display.” Because the initial gems were difficult to replace, the company used synthetic stones for the restoration. If the original were still complete today, it would reportedly be worth $20-$30 million.
“This tiara belonged to Marie Bonaparte, Napoleon’s great niece, who married [Prince George of Greece and Denmark] in the early 20th century,” says Young-Sanchez. “It was customary at that time for a bride to select jewelry to take with her into her married life, so Marie went to Cartier and commissioned a whole suite of beautiful jewelry. One is this laurel leaf tiara; it’s platinum and diamonds and very beautiful. It takes the form of a laurel crown, and I think she selected it because she was deliberately recalling Napoleon’s court. He liked the classical look and sort of fancied himself a Roman emperor.”