LUXURYCULTURE.COM - Cartier: A Tour de Force at the Biennale


At the Biennale des Antiquaires, Cartier is exhibiting an extraordinary selection of 70 specially created pieces of contemporary high jewelry alongside rare treasures from its archives and exceptional objets d'art for the home.

Amid all the exceptional objects exhibited at the 25th Biennale des Antiquaires – the haute joallerie, rare antiques, priceless paintings – there is one collection that impresses most. Cartier, the storied Parisian jewelry house, is showcasing not only its pedigree as one of the most historically important and prolific creators of high jewelry but is also presenting its prowess in contemporary design.

To celebrate the event, the Cartier workshops have worked overtime, creating 70 specially commissioned pieces that specifically highlight the close collaborative relationship between designers and artisans. An extravagant necklace, in a shape reminiscent of one that belonged to an Indian prince of the 1920s, is crafted from platinum, a 41.29-carat cabochon-cut carved emerald, a natural pear pearl of 9.40 carats, a 4.02 rose-cut diamond, as well as more diamonds, onyx, emerald beads and brilliants. It is just one example of Cartier’s commitment to combining modern design with traditional workmanship.

Alongside this contemporary jewelry, Cartier is also exhibiting its 160-year-old legacy in the form of rare vintage pieces from its archives. Under the title Cartier Tradition (a name shared by a specialist department founded in 1997 dedicated to identifying and restoring Cartier objects produced before 1980), this collection includes a 1914 tiara with an unusual ivy-leaf motif, a 1929 clock with a complicated “mystery” movement, and a selection of classically Cartier necklaces that date from 1913 to 1942.

While Cartier might be best known for its jewelry, there is another aspect of the house that is also on display at the Biennale. The art of living, which includes objects of interior decoration and accessories for the home, was once the preserve only of loyal customers who requested special orders. But recently Cartier made the decision to anticipate this demand by creating unique pieces that it offers for sale at its flagship stores. At the Grand Palais, these objects include bowls of agate encrusted with precious stones, an onyx trinket tray decorated with a white gold dragon, and a traditional desk set crafted from white gold, rock crystal, onyx and coral. As one-off designs, they are considered by Cartier as works of art.

Throughout Cartier’s collection at the Biennale – from the archive pieces to the contemporary creations – there are several recurring themes. Stylistically, there are elements of “Russian Style”, Art Deco, and the “New Look”. But more than a common aesthetic there is an unrivalled dedication to savoir faire. For Cartier’s craftsmen there is no design too complicated, no movement too difficult to perfect, and no amount of delicateness that cannot be achieved. It is this technical excellence that combined with timeless designs and the most precious materials, makes Cartier the benchmark in the world of haute joallerie. Under the glass roof of Paris’ Grand Palais, in a space filled with the exceptional and the rare, Cartier is quite simply the best of the best.

Philippe Nicolas is the Cartier in-house “glyptician” (an engraver and sculptor of stones), who in 2008 was awarded the title of Maître d’Art by France’s Ministry of Culture. Here, Nicholas shares his passion for the art of sculpture.

You’ve described yourself professionally as an “engraver and sculptor of hard and fine
stones.” You also speak of glyptics, the art of engraving stones. What got you interested in
this job?
I always wanted to be a sculptor. This fascination led me to the glass-engraving program at the
Ecole Boulle. In 1976, I integrated these studies with the fine arts program in order to be trained in
engraving on hard and precious stones. Today I have been a glyptician for 25 years, a term I prefer
over “engraver sculptor” because it implies an artistic dimension to which I am very much attached.
These unique pieces translate the experience, patience, passion and I would say even the self-
sacrifice inherent to this line of work. Through them, art is omnipresent in our profession. We inscribe
a portion of ourselves into each finished piece, and there it remains.

You have carved panthers from petrified wood for Cartier. Was this a way of reinventing
yourself? Have you taken any new risks?
Petrified wood is wood that was turned into stone more than 70 million years ago. I had already carved blocks of petrified wood, but this was the first time I made a panther! So yes, I was scared. Would I be able to bring the cat to life? Would I succeed in bringing forth its quintessential qualities? Would I be satisfied with the shape of its mouth? Would it be consistent with what the creative team at Cartier had envisioned? I was gripped with apprehension. First, I spent some time contemplating the stone, and then I finally let go. My fears vanished, and my movements became more serene, experienced, strong and precise. I tried to achieve the ultimate potential of the drawing designed by Cartier, but stone is not easily tamed. Cartier invents; I choose and submit the stone that I believe best corresponds to their expectations and then I begin to sculpt.

Is everyone free to make mistakes?
Not really. For Cartier, we handle precious stones for unique and outstanding orders. The hand
cannot slip; the movements must be carried out with confidence. Fear is part of our daily business,
and the only remedy is patience. We fight a constant battle against time in order to meet our
deadlines. But working on a gem can take six months or two years, depending on the difficulty of the
design and the density of the material. For example, to create the petrified wood panthers, I worked
between 250 and 300 hours on each piece, not counting the time I spent studying and making models
of them, which took 50 hours each. The key to a glyptician’s art lies in risk-taking. If you can get in
touch with the pain at the heart of the process, then the pleasure you feel once the object is
successfully completed cancels out the hundreds of hours of toil and trouble.

Philippe Nicolas, you are one of the last glypticians. Is your job doomed to disappear?
In a world of excessive consumption where work is done on the assembly line, where profitability
tends to transcend quality, it is extremely difficult to make our business economically viable. Today, many workshops and training programs for engraving and carving hard and precious stones have disappeared – to my knowledge, none are still in existence – without having had the opportunity to properly preserve the jobs associated with them. And yet, they represent an inestimable wealth, a priceless legacy. They are part of our culture, our heritage and committing oneself to protecting them by passing them on to future generations is the fulfillment of a life, my life. At least, I try. I have held the title of Maître d’Art since 2008, in other words I am morally and ethically committed to the transmission of this know-how, a trade and a cultural tradition. Even before I received this recognition from France’s Ministry of Culture, I felt compelled to share the practice of glyptics, my experience and skills. In 2004, when I moved to Paris, I wanted to teach others about this art. That is still true today, and I have worked exclusively for the Maison Cartier since then. So no, I do not think our business is doomed to disappear. We are still teaching younger generations, still taking on apprentices. Individual masters still believe in transmitting the craft, as do large established jewellers like the Maison Cartier.

More info:

The Biennale des Antiquaires runs Sep 15 through 22 at the Grand Palais, Paris.

Related Articles

Seductively Symbolic
The Jewels in Cartier's Crown
Cartier's Warped Watches

More Info