Ode to maharajas

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 April, 2012, 12:00am


Cartier produced a three-and-a-half-minute film to mark its 165th anniversary this year as one of the world's leading jewellery houses in design, innovation and culture.

L'Odyssee de Cartier shows the iconic panther travelling the world, including India, where the sleek animal enters a palace with a sparkling imaginary tree covered in Cartier's signature tutti frutti pieces - combinations of emeralds, rubies and sapphires.

This look was inspired by the maharajas in India in the days before the British Raj.

In 1919, Parisian jeweller Jacques Cartier went to India and formed relationships with the maharajas through his Bombay Trading Company. Until then, his work had been informed by the soft, curving shapes of art nouveau design, which was waning in popularity in Europe. It must have been a revelation when he met the maharajas and their vast gemstone collections.

Imagine the seemingly endless supply of precious rubies, emeralds and sapphires. The latter were ribbed or engraved, not faceted as they were in the West. Diamonds were briolette or rose cut. With floral or figurative motifs to bring out their deep hues, pieces were symbolic of nature, twisting lotus flowers and endless palm leaves. This was unlike anything Cartier had seen before.

The maharajas were interested in Western jewellery. Cartier reinterpreted the maharajas' style and produced fabulous creations for them. Incorporating rare Eastern-sourced coloured gemstones and enormous diamonds from African mines, he made sensuous jewellery that lifted the oriental floral motifs. Resetting their gems from gold into platinum and assisted by the techniques of the emerging machine era, Cartier developed new smooth-moving, invisible hinges that refined these pieces.

'Simplicity became the hallmark of all Cartier creations for India, where the jeweller exploited the abundance of the stones while stripping back and paring down the structures and setting,' says a company statement.

In one photograph, the Maharaja Sir Bhupinder Singh of Patiala is dripping with jewellery. Perhaps he knew that, despite the jewel-encrusted crown, his necklace would cement his place in history. A symmetrical waterfall of 2,930 white diamonds cascaded down his chest and at its heart was a 234.65ct fancy yellow De Beers diamond.

In 1928, he commissioned Cartier to create this ceremonial necklace featuring the seventh-largest faceted diamond in the world. The necklace went missing around 1948, only to show up in a London antique store 50 years later - but all seven of the largest diamonds, ranging from 18 to 73ct, were missing, including the centrepiece De Beers diamond.

Nevertheless, the style Cartier created would in the 1960s be known as tutti frutti because the stones looked like brightly coloured sweets. Enamoured with the carved stones he had discovered, Cartier set about incorporating the Indian gemstones into his art deco style, characterised by sleek, streamlined forms and geometric patterns.

His brother, Louis, also began to experiment with platinum, creating the intricate and light garlands dominated by pave-set white diamonds that developed into another house trademark.

The multigem combinations and creative flowering of the tutti frutti style evolved in a world where wealthy people enjoyed luxury travel aboard cruise liners. Considered unrefined by some people, to others the jewellery was an expression of an elegant, natural style steeped in the mystery of the East.

The Cartier brothers' art deco and tutti frutti bracelets, earrings, rings and pendants earned the favour of royalty and wealthy heiresses, whose own fortunes were unaffected by one world war or the approaching Great Depression.

Perhaps Edwina, Lady Mountbatten, Vicereine of India, could best appreciate Cartier's interpretations. She bought a London-made sapphire, emerald and ruby bandeau, or hand band, from the jewellery house in 1928.

The multigem bandeau in the tutti frutti style is in the form of a sinuous creeper, the stem set with diamonds, and the leaves and fruit formed of carved Indian rubies, sapphires and emeralds. The Victoria and Albert Museum describes the bandeau as a triumph of art deco jewellery.

Another style maker was Daisy Fellowes, heir to the Singer sewing machine empire. Cartier created a necklace of platinum, sapphires, rubies, emeralds and diamonds for her in 1936. He originally made the Hindu Necklace with a black cord fastening around the back. At the request of 'the world's most elegant woman', the necklace was remounted with a clasp of a removable clip brooch with two huge sapphires. She wore it once, to a costume ball in Venice in 1952.

Cartier was not alone in creating outstanding art deco jewellery. One gold bracelet studded with emeralds, rubies and sapphires, thought to be signed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, that was auctioned last week for US$266,500. The bangle was owned by Huguette M. Clark, one of the last great heiresses of America's Gilded Age, who had an exceptional collection of jewellery dating from the 1920s that is believed to have been stored in a bank vault since the 1940s.

'Opening the vault to find this treasure trove of period jewels from the best French houses of the early 1900s has certainly been one of the most extraordinary moments of my 15-year career here at Christie's. The iconic art deco design and exceptional craftsmanship of these meticulously preserved jewels are emblematic of the great Gilded Age in American history,' says Rahul Kadakia, head of jewellery for Christie's Americas.

Although great advancements in the art deco style were still being made through the 1940s, the rest of the world plummeted into economic crisis with the Wall Street financial crash of 1929. Any attempt at recovery was scuttled by the second world war.

While tutti frutti was influenced by India, there were other styles popular at the time that borrowed from Egypt or had aeroplane or car motifs. Many of these were also lost during the war.

But what's a story without a happy ending? Remember the Patiala necklace with the seven missing gemstones?

It turned out someone actually had the De Beers diamond, although their name has never been released. In 1982, the diamond came up for auction and, when it failed to reach its reserve price, Cartier bought the diamond for US$3.16 million.

The jewellery house lovingly restored the necklace, recreating the missing diamonds in cubic zirconium and synthetic rubies for the missing original Burmese beauties. Maharaja Singh's original diamond was finally back where it belonged, a brilliant and emblematic reminder of the maharajas' contributions to jewellery design in the early 20th century.