From figurative to abstract, full-pavé to skeletonised, Cartier’s panther motif might come in different shapes and forms, but the DNA of the French high jeweller remains essential in the designs.

“Tradition is not the enemy of evolution,” says Pierre Rainero, Cartier’s director of image, style and heritage. “Evolution is part of our tradition.”

The balance of tradition and innovation is a continuing exploration for many of the heritage high jewellers, especially when it comes to the houses’ classic motifs. Similar cases of Cartier’s panther also include Bulgari’s serpenti, Van Cleef & Arpels’ fairies, Chaumet’s Josephine crown and Boucheron’s Quatre ring.

The evolution of such classic motifs has been constant. Cartier’s panther, for example, has been rendered in different precious materials, crafted with several of métiers d’art and applied to different categories from watch dials to eyewear. “[The panther] was a creative atomic bomb in the windows of Cartier when it first launched,” Rainero says. “We cannot measure how amazing it was to produce that sculpture as a piece of jewellery at that time.”

Bulgari too has launched a high-jewellery collection this year, paying tribute to its iconic serpenti motif, which not only includes the traditional figurative rendition, but also a more abstract twist that reinterprets other parts of the serpenti, such as its head and scales.

The graphic potential of these iconic motifs is endless figuratively and symbolically, allowing high jewellers to explore new possibilities throughout the years.

“The panther is a beautiful animal and also very interesting aesthetically,” Rainero says. “It’s been a modern and audacious symbol for women to show their independence.”

The excitement of new interpretations obviously sparks interest among loyal customers and also appeals to new customer bases.

“Not every woman likes to wear the [entire bold serpenti]. Sometimes it’s easier to wear maybe just the head of the serpenti,” says Lucia Silvestri, Bulgari’s jewellery creative director. “And even for people who don’t like the serpenti, they might find it interesting to wear something more abstract, such as the serpenti scales, which represent more of a geometric aspect of our design DNA.”

Bulgari, for example, has for the first time incorporated wood into the serpenti high-jewellery collection and the feedback has been surprisingly good, according to Silvestri.

“The wood creation is well received among our high jewellery collectors,” she says. “They want [to add] the special novelties to their serpenti collection.”

The frequency of updating the looks of iconic house motifs is something of great concern for the decision-makers from high-jewellery maisons. It holds the key to how the creative spirit of the maison is perceived – forward-thinking yet timeless and without risking the dilution of the brand’s iconic motif.

“You could become conservative [as a brand] because you need the products to be timeless,” says Bulgari’s CEO, Jean-Christophe Babin. “On the other hand, you have to attract and to create dreams all the time. Therefore, you have to add a twist of creativity. We always have to keep this balance between timelessness and excitement.”

The trick to achieving a perfect balance is for changes to happen naturally.

“For us, it’s a very organic process,” Rainero says. “We have never felt obliged. It’s just [what] we feel at that point. The suggestions can either come from me or fellow executives or from the designers.”

Boucheron’s creative director Claire Choisne agrees and says: “For me, it’s more from a personal perspective too. I look at archive pieces and ask myself, ‘If I have to wear this today, what would I want to change?’ And that’s my motivation and inspiration.”

Babin adds that as much as the creation is an ongoing process, the moment of launching is also crucial.

Not every woman likes to wear the [entire bold serpenti]. Sometimes it’s easier to wear maybe just the head of the serpenti
Lucia Silvestri, Bulgari’s jewellery creative director

“We are not dictated by the rhythms of the seasons,” he says. “We choose different moments to unveil the progress, but the creativity flow is always ongoing and seamless.”

As necessary as it is, interpreting the classic motifs for modern lifestyle is no easy feat. Designers and craftsmen work seamlessly together to achieve a modern creation that will remain timeless for the years to come.

“What we think is beautiful today is not what we thought was beautiful five or 10 years ago because the notion of beauty has been influenced by art, architecture, fashion or so,” Rainero says. “We have to imagine who can wear that. So the integration of the evolution is also the way of life of the people because if it was only for pure aesthetics, it would become a museum piece. What we want are our objects to be worn and to share their lives with our clients.”

The partnership between designers and craftsmen also ensures that DNA of the classic motifs wouldn’t be compromised during the course of reinterpretations.

“We don’t [make new creations] that are not linked to the past,” says Van Cleef & Arpels’ heritage director Catherine Cariou. “For us, it’s very important to keep the style and we never compromise. Our style is very recognisable and unmistakably Van Cleef & Arpels – we want to keep it that way.”

Putting a contemporary twist to the design without sacrificing the heritage of the brand’s icon is a daily challenge that high jewellers face today. The intricate nuances are manipulated in the hands and minds of perhaps the maisons’ most precious assets – the people behind – artisans and designers alike.

According to Cariou, designers often have lengthy conversations with her and immerse themselves in Van Cleef & Arpels’ archives for inspiration before starting on new creations.

Many of the archives are also digitalised up to about 10 years ago for easier access. Original sketches are also available.

“I work closely with our designers, who love the archives,” Cariou says.

“You have to be really respectful and love the archives and I’m proud to say that I really do,” Choisne agrees. “I also keep my eyes open. I hope to create pieces today that will become new classics in the future.”

Archives are, of course, a rich source of inspiration, but there is no golden formula, Rainero says. “And you don’t want that because it will prevent us from evolving a [new sense] of beauty. Our style is a living language. The sense of proportion [for the panther] is our grammar in a way but the style is like the vocabulary that’s constantly evolving.”

As today’s lifestyle changes, the classic iconic motifs are being adapted for different categories from accessories to watches and eyewear.

“For us, the panther can’t just be a décor,” Rainero says. “It has to be meaningful and relevant to the type of object that you are making.”

Babin agrees: “We have independent teams for jewellery, watches and accessories. However, the teams are not competing with each other. We try to capture good ideas from the different teams. The synergy is strong.”

The key to avoiding diluting the maisons’ iconic motifs and preserving the spirit of the icons for the years to come, Rainero says, is to always be sensitive.

“I think we should always keep in mind the symbolic value of the panther motif and its strength,” he says.

“Not every woman could wear a piece of panther jewellery. We’ll always keep in mind its strength and its beauty.”

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