A legacy of lithe grace

NOVEMBER 2012 – Cartier’s iconic panther motif owes much to the exotic panache of its decades-long director of fine jewellery, Jeanne Toussaint.

A symbol of feline elegance but also of wild, dangerous power, the beautiful panther has become synonymous with Cartier, the luxury jewellery brand that rendered it in precious metals and sparkling stones for the 20th century’s elite.

The jungle cat’s lithe form first slunk onto the scene almost a century ago, in 1914, through a drawing, used to illustrate a Cartier exhibition card, that was commissioned from the great French illustrator George Barbier. In the same year, its distinctive spots also appeared on the face of a wristwatch, decorated in diamonds and onyx. But it was when the flamboyant and style-setting Jeanne Toussaint took on the role of Cartier’s Director of Fine Jewellery in the early 1930s, that it really leapt to power. Born in 1887 to a Belgian lace-making family, Jeanne moved to Paris in her late teens, at the height of the Belle Epoque, where she mixed with many of the fashionable artists, musicians and designers of early 20th century France. In 1918 she met Louis Cartier who, together with his brothers Jacques and Pierre, had built up the Cartier brand – founded by their grandfather Louis- François Cartier 1847 – into one of the great names in jewellery. Louis was struck by Jeanne’s charm and inventiveness, as well as her knowledge of the decorative arts, and invited her to join the firm’s accessories department.

A contemporary of Coco Chanel, Jeanne had a similar flair – and a style that was chic but exotic. She liked to wear Indianstyle turbans paired with silk evening pyjamas adorned with long strings of pearls. Her strong affinity to the jungle cat, coupled with her lithe beauty, indomitable spirit and independent nature, earned her the nickname ‘The Panther’. Jeanne was named Director of Fine Jewellery at Cartier in 1933 and, with her characteristic panache, wasted no time in channelling all her creative energy into developing the department, moving it away from abstract Art Deco designs and into more figurative, nature-inspired pieces. She gained much respect for her fresh eye, natural instincts and famous ‘Toussaint Taste’, and is credited with modernising jewellery through her novel use of simple shapes, indulgent colours and imaginative ways of wearing different pieces. She invented the jewellery clip and championed yellow gold and Indian styled enamelled jewellery, which she sourced from Delhi. She worked closely with Cartier designer Peter Lemarchand, whose sensitivity and vigorous lines she both admired and trusted. A graduate of l’école Boulle, Peter possessed keen powers of observation, honed through the countless hours he spent at Paris’s Vincennes zoo. His sketches had a softness and a wonderful sense of movement – traits that were magnificently captured by the Cartier craftsmen and gem-setters.

Some of the pair’s early whimsical designs included delicate ladybirds and exotic parrots and flamingos. They became famous for their ‘caged bird’ brooch, designed in 1940 to symbolise occupied France. The red-white-and-blue bird (made of diamonds, lapis lazuli and coral) in its gold cage was prominently displayed in the window of Cartier’s Paris store. At the end of the war, they created L’Oiseau Libre, which shows the cage door open and the bird singing. But it was Jeanne’s love affair with great cats that took centre stage and truly set her apart. Legend has it that, on a trip to Africa with Louis Cartier, she spotted a panther and exclaimed: ‘Onyx, diamonds, emeralds – a brooch’. Certainly, she made this cat wildly fashionable, not just through her jewellery but through a stream of personal accessories ranging from powder compacts to cigarette cases. Jeanne had a private salon at Cartier’s rue de la Paix boutique and here, in sensational splendour on the first floor, she advised the world’s elegant elite. Among her ardent supporters were the Duchess of Windsor, Mexican actress María Félix, fashion editor Daisy Fellowes, heiress Barbara Woolworth Hutton and Princess Nina Aga Khan. The Duchess of Windsor was the first to acquire a Panthère clip, ordered for her by her generous husband, the Duke of Windsor, in 1948. The brooch – believed to be the first production of a threedimensional panther – featured a cat in yellow gold with black enamel spots, the magnificent beast crouched on top of a 90-carat emerald cabochon. Just one year later, the Windsors ordered another, even more magnificent, panther brooch. Made of platinum, it is encrusted in diamonds, with sapphire spots and glittering yellow-diamond eyes, and reclines on a sapphire cabochon weighing more than 152 carats. (Cartier re-purchased this famous piece at a charity auction in 1987 and it now forms part of the Cartier Collection.) The Duchess of Windsor added to her bigcat jewellery collection in 1952 with a panther bracelet. This onyx and diamond piece with emerald eyes captured the grace of the beautiful feline in an innovative flexible but jointed design. The Duchess, whose elegant style was always much admired and copied, soon set a trend for Jeanne’s distinctive cat motifs among the rich and famous.

Barbara Hutton placed her first order in 1957, for a brooch featuring a fully jointed tiger. She bought tiger earrings and a bracelet in 1961 – and also placed an order for a black satin bag with gold clasp featuring a cat striped with black enamel, which she presented as a gift to her sister-in-law, Princess Nina Mdivani. English model Nina Dyer joined the ranks of the cat collectors in 1958 when her second husband, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, ordered a full collection of extravagant pieces for her. Among the items were a blouse pin, an articulated panther brooch, a ring, an open bracelet with panther heads, and a gold fluted bracelet with panther heads that could also be worn as earrings. Generously sprinkled with sapphires and paved with brilliant-cut diamonds, these pieces remain among the most spectacular naturalist jewellery creations ever produced in three-dimensional relief.

Jeanne’s remarkable talent was recognised the world over and, in 1955, the French government honoured here with The Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour, in acknowledgement of her influence on jewellery and modern design. She died in 1978, aged 91, leaving a lasting legacy. In the words of Pierre Claudel, son-in-law to Pierre Cartier, Jeanne was the woman who ‘led jewellery into the modern age without ever sacrificing good taste to purely commercial interests’. Her great panther motif has continued and has become an enduring symbol of the House of Cartier. The brand’s signature watch range, launched in the 1980s, is called Panthère de Cartier, and there have been several recent Cartier jewellery collections that feature the big cat – though its modern rendering is more stylised and abstract that Jeanne’s whimsical designs. There’s also the Panthère de Cartier perfume, its bottle stopper recreating that famous 1949 brooch made for the Duchess of Windsor. Now, a short film, L’Odyssée de Cartier – directed by Bruno Aveillan – features her classic diamond panther coming to life to document 165 years of Cartier’s illustrious history. The film’s panther is a powerful, elegant figure – much like the strong woman who first moulded its fierce legacy.

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