The untold story of Cartier’s Panthère jewellery collection

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The French jewellery maison is spotlighting Jeanne Toussaint, the first female creative director that helmed the house between 1933-1970.

Treasured jewels and sparkling diamonds shine bright in the subconscious at the mention of Cartier. The Juste un clou, the Love bracelet and the Tank are but a few of the maison‘s signature identifiers we’ve come to recognise and covet. Founded in 1847 in Paris by then 28-year-old Louis-François Cartier, the eponymous jewellery giant has become neatly woven into our sociohistorical fabric over its 172-year history, having adorned the décolletages and wrists of famous figures from Jean Cocteau to Elizabeth Taylor and Princess Diana.

But what of the female hand at the maison‘s helm? Piquing the interests of Coco Chanel, George Barbier and Louis Cartier, Jeanne Toussaint was hired by Cartier in 1913 as director of bags, accessories and objects. Then in 1933, her indelible mark on the company was solidified, when Toussaint was named director of Cartier’s luxury jewellery department. A title she wholeheartedly embraced, Toussaint mobilised her position in the company to introduce personal interests in Art Deco, sculpture and India to the jewellery house and its customers, precipitating a revival of Tutti Frutti-style jewellery and the introduction of its enduring Panthère collection.  

To delve deeper into her influence on the house, Cartier’s new Past + Present campaign harks back to the past in an illustrative retelling of Toussaint’s formative chapter within the legacy of Cartier. Arnaud Carrez, Cartier director of marketing and communication, as well as Cartier’s heritage department, speak with Vogue about the house’s new digital series, Toussaint’s irrevocable mark on the maison and how she came to inform the Panthère collection. 

Tell us about this new digital series. 

Arnaud Carrez: “L’Odyssée de Cartier explores where and how our maison takes its inspiration from. With this new cultural program, we aim to showcase the diverse influences nurturing Cartier’s creativity, including lesser known stories as well as strong characters, such as Jeanne Toussaint. As such, the idea of dedicating an episode to her came naturally to us. Starting the program with that particular episode is a way for us to pay tribute to this bold and visionary woman who strongly inspired Cartier’s values.”

How did Toussaint capture the attention of Louis Cartier? What was their relationship like?

Heritage department: “Jeanne Toussaint met Louis Cartier in the days of World War I. He was immediately intrigued by her sure taste, and asked her to join the maison in the early 1920s. They complemented each other very well. Where Louis Cartier was very knowledgeable about gemstones, diamonds, settings and technique, Jeanne Toussaint had a relentless creativity and an eye for contemporary fashions, especially the graphic and geometric Art Deco movement. But above all, they shared a taste for distant lands and a shared vision of style. This is why Louis Cartier naturally appointed her as his successor and Cartier creative director. She remained in that job until she retired in the early 1970s.”

Toussaint’s appointment as creative director would have been revolutionary at the time. Tell us about its significance.

AC: “At that time, in the thirties, there were very few women leading the creation of jewelry maisons or even fashion houses. In a way, Louis Cartier made an audacious and pioneering move in giving Toussaint this responsibility within our maison. That being said, Cartier has always been a maison open to the world, and the new. What Louis saw in Toussaint was first and foremost her endless creativity, her determination and passion to bringing Cartier’s style beyond the boundaries of time.”

Tell us about Jeanne Toussaint’s impact on the legacy of Cartier.

HD: “Jeanne Toussaint was obviously a major influence within the maison. She really laid the foundation for our stylistic vocabulary and creativity, but her influence extended well beyond the maison’s walls.  She left an indelible mark on 20th century jewellery. She had a deeply personal style, very distinctive, nourished by architecture, naturalism and exotic cultures. Even during her lifetime, people referred to the ‘Toussaint taste’. To this day, we keep drawing on her stylistic heritage and her endless creativity. She was visionary, bold, open-minded, curious. She inspired Cartier’s values and spirit and remains at their heart.”

Toussaint helped to revitalise Cartier’s ‘Tutti Frutti’ collections. Tell us about how she accomplished this.

HD: “Cartier and India have an old shared history. Jacques Cartier made his first trip to India in 1911, building strong relationships with maharajahs and bringing back an inspiration and unique style that has infused Cartier’s jewellery to this day.

In the 50’s, Jeanne Toussaint who had also travelled to India and loved composing her own rich and flamboyant palettes, revived and enriched what we call the ‘Tutti Frutti style’: multi-colored pieces featuring emeralds, rubies and sapphires with diamond accents around carved stones. Inspired by the colour of the gems and the gold, she also urged the designers at the firm to return to yellow gold after a predominance of platinum settings which had lasted over 30 years. 

Today, ‘Tutti Frutti’ jewels are among the most distinctive of Cartier’s designs and a considerable part of Cartier stylistic vocabulary, and we keep celebrating this heritage within each of our high jewellery collections.”

Toussaint’s designs captured the attention of strong-willed female celebrities, socialites and royalty alike. Can you elaborate on Toussaint’s connection with these clients and friends? 

HD: “Jeanne Toussaint was avant-gardist in her private life as well as in her professional life. She definitely supported female empowerment though her creations, both strong and statement oriented but also more flexible and malleable than ever, in order to allow women easy movement and to encourage a new freedom of attitude. She paved the way for other women and thought of jewellery as a way to enhance one’s beauty but also to reveal one’s personality. Her clients definitely responded to that. They were very diverse, from Maria Felix to the Duchess of Windsor, from Elizabeth Taylor to Daisy Fellowes, and many others. They all shared a common sense of femininity, [they were all] multi-faceted, free-spirited and independent.”

Tell us about Toussaint’s affiliation with the panthère.

HD: “Toussaint was ‘the panthère’. That nickname [given to her by Cartier] conveyed both her magnetic charm and her rebellious spirit, her feline allure and her sharp mind. She made the panthère her totem in life as well as in jewellery.”

Tell us about the importance of the panthère as a motif for the house.

HD: “As Cartier’s creative director, Jeanne Toussaint gave the panthère a new, more sculptural look. She gave volume and life to the cat, encouraging her designers to go to Paris zoos in order to sketch the animal in every pose. In a 1948 brooch for the Duchess of Windsor, she set a yellow-gold cat spotted with black lacquer on a very large emerald, thereby creating the first three-dimensional version of the animal. 

To this day, the panther remains a key expression of Cartier’s femininity and a driving force of our mindset.”

Why do you think the motif resonates with the modern Cartier woman today? 

AC: “The panthère is a key character and inspiration within our maison style – it truly is at the heart of Cartier’s DNA and a driving force of our mindset. It is also an expression of Cartier’s femininity which is very relevant in today’s society: determined, passionate, daring.”

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