It is easy to be cynical about yet another luxury brand’s “retrospective” in the hired wing of a major museum that is too often a case of brilliant marketing rather than cultural gravitas. Which makes a new exhibition dedicated to Cartier at Paris’ Grand Palais all the more extraordinary. “This is not an advertising for Cartier!” says Laure Dalon, assistant to chief curator Laurent Salome of Cartier: Style & History. “Cartier appears to be a part of French heritage. Of course there are other jewelry houses, but the history of Cartier is one of the most interesting,” she explains of why the jeweler was asked to exhibit by the Grand Palais and not the other way round.

In the last quarter of a century there have been 27 exhibitions dedicated to the “kings’ jeweler”. But this is billed as the most important show of Cartier yet. A glittering display of more than 600 pieces of jewelry, clocks, watches and objects includes the favourite personal jewel of Queen Elizabeth, a diamond flower brooch with a Williamson pink diamond at its centre, the Halo tiara of 1936, worn by Kate Middleton at her wedding to Prince William, an impressive 18 “mystery clocks”, and a treasure trove of items owned by the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Marlene Dietrich and the Maharajah of Patiala.

Though comprehensive in telling the history of the house from Louis Cartier onwards, the focus of the exhibition is “le style moderne” – the streamlined aesthetic that is signature Cartier. “The strength of the Cartier style around 1900 onwards resulted from….an unremitting desire to promote the Louis XVI style,” notes Dalon of the Cartier look that has been remarkably consistent. “Neither the airy naturalism of Art Nouveau nor the graces of Rococo were adopted by Cartier.” Indeed, in this expertly curated show that is a lesson in the history of the decorative arts, the radical, geometrical and exotic work of Cartier has never looked so modern.

Laure Dalon, Heritage Curator at the Grand Palais, Selects Her 5 Personal Favourite Pieces from Cartier: Style & History

Flower brooch, lent by Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth II
This is one of the most extraordinary jewels of the exhibition, a rare diamond and a charming story: the pink diamond was discovered in October 1947 in a mine owned by Dr. Williamson, a Canadian geologist; it was re-cut before being given as a wedding present to Princess Elizabeth in November of that year. It was only later, in 1953, the year of the coronation, that Queen Elizabeth asked Cartier to produce a flower brooch, which is still today one of the sovereign’s favorite pieces of personal jewelry. It is very moving to have it in the exhibition.

Queen Marie of Romania’s Sapphire (Doha, Qatar Museums Authority)
This blue cushion-shaped sapphire of 478 carats certified as “non heat-treated” is one of the largest cut sapphires ever documented. Queen Marie frequently wore this exceptional stone generally at the end of a long diamond chain previously bought at Cartier by the King of Romania. Later separated from its necklace, the sapphire has never been re-cut and, still in its floral-inspired Cartier setting, remains to this day one of the most extraordinary stones the world has ever known, and we are very lucky to be able to have it in the show.

Marjorie Merriweather Post’s Carved Emerald Brooch (Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens)
Marjorie Merriweather Post’s brooch is one of the most spectacular examples of the Indian-inspired pieces: made in 1928, it includes seven seventeenth-century carved Mogul emeralds weighing a total of 250 carats. A platinum setting was required for such a piece with impressive proportions: the shoulder brooch hangs down to her bust and had to be articulated. Heiress to an innovative entrepreneur and having used the fortune amassed by her father to build up an exceptional collection of works of art and jewelry, Marjorie Post was the epitome of a sophisticated and polished American high society resolutely turned towards Europe that saw Cartier as a symbol of a much-vaunted “French style”. We are very proud to allow French visitors to discover the role played by Cartier in the life of such a client.

Powder compact with lipstick holder, Cartier Paris, 1925, yellow gold, pink gold, turquoise cabochons and turquoise beads, sapphire cabochons, one sapphire bead, mother-of-pearl, hardstone, black enamel
Emancipated by a conflict that accelerated the redistribution of social roles in every walk of life, the women of the Roaring Twenties indulged in habits that would have seemed scandalous to their mothers, such as smoking and applying makeup in public. These daring practices spawned new needs and the attraction of certain accessories went hand in hand with the symbolic nature of new forms of behavior. The vanity case, or nécessaire, generally contained a powder compact, lipstick, a hand mirror, and sometimes a comb; whatever its contents, it was invariably a masterpiece of virtuosity combining functional design and aesthetic inventiveness. The interior of this box is fitted with a mirror and a powder compartment with sifter. I find this powder compact with a tube of rouge attached to it by a chain absolutely delightful! The Persian lavish decor reveals the powerful inspiration given to the designers by exoticism during the 20s.

Tiara, Cartier Paris, 1914, platinum, round old-cut diamonds, 15 natural pearls, calibré- and fancy-cut onyx, black enamel
Epitomizing the two-color (black and white) scheme in all its elegance, the 1914 diadem combines onyx, enamel, and diamonds on a platinum armature, the whole underlined by a row of fine pearls. Inspired by the shape of the Russian kokoshnik tiaras, constructed around a stylized tree motif of Greek inspiration, this jewel for the head is one of the most iconic early art deco creations Cartier produced, and that’s why we chose it as the symbol of our exhibition.

Cartier Style & History
Grand Palais, Paris
Until February 16, 2014