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Historic Gems

Illustrious clients, exceptional stones, emblematic designs and excellent know-how embodied in the most memorable of Cartier’s specially ordered creations

A Bridge Between East and West | Ceremonial necklace for the Maharajah of Patiala. Photo: Nick Welsh, Cartier Collection © Cartier
A Precious Flower for the Queen | Brooch for Elizabeth II. Cartier Archives © Cartier
The Symbolic Sword | Surreal work created for Jean Cocteau, French poet, dramaturge and cineaste. Photo: Nick Welsh, Cartier Collection © Cartier
Nature of the Serpent | Necklace for Mexican actress María Félix. Photo: Nick Welsh, Cartier Collection © Cartier
Portrait of a Pearl | Renaissance-style necklace for Elizabeth Taylor. Cartier Archives © Cartier
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Throughout its illustrious history, Cartier has taken magnificent gems and turned them into the dream jewels for royalty, dramatists and screen stars among others. The stories behind the commissions continue to fascinate as the finished pieces still shine.


A Bridge Between East and West

In the 1920s, Sir Bhupindra Singh, Maharajah of Patiala, shipped some trunks to Cartier Paris. Their contents? Thousands of precious stones, entrusted to the Maison, to fashion several magnificent creations, among them a ceremonial necklace. While respecting the Hindu classical forms such as suspending jewels from a cord, the piece was designed in a contemporary style. It was conceived as a cascade of approximately 3,000 stones organised around a centre line and structured with Art Deco geometrical elements. At the centre, the main stone: an impressive 234.69ct yellow diamond, which was discovered in South Africa in 1888. For Cartier’s artisans, the challenge was to produce an innovative platinum setting that could bear the weight of so many gems and enhance their splendour. More than one year was needed to complete the necklace, but the result was worth it, far exceeding the expectations of the Maharajah.


A Precious Flower for the Queen

In 1947, geologist Dr John Williamson, discovered a 54.5ct rough pink diamond in South Africa. He offered it to Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen Elizabeth II, on the occasion of her marriage to Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Transformed in London to a perfect 23.6ct brilliant-cut diamond, the stone was entrusted to Cartier in 1953. The Maison imagined a floral brooch: its curved stem, bourgeoning with two delicate leaves, blossomed with paved petals that surround the Williamson diamond.

The Queen saved the brooch for grand private and official occasions. She wore it for the wedding of her eldest son, Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. The piece is also loaned to exhibitions, as in 2012 at Buckingham Palace during the Diamond Jubilee and two years later for a Cartier retrospective presented at the Grand Palais, in Paris.


The Symbolic Sword

The French poet, dramaturge and cineaste Jean Cocteau was elected to the Académie Française in 1955. Each new member of this prestigious institution is traditionally awarded a sword and Cartier was designated to make Cocteau’s in 1955.

Designed using the artist’s drawings, this masterpiece incorporates many themes visible throughout his body of work: Orpheus’s golden profile and lyre holds a prominent position on the the sword’s handle, while a theatre curtain, its softly spiralled folds embracing a column, and a diamond-and-ruby star are a tribute to Cocteau’s contributions to the world of design. The spear points, meanwhile, recall the grille of the Palais-Royal in Paris, the artist’s adopted home town. A diminutive ivory orb at the scabbard’s crest depicts snow-covered stones – a nod to Cocteau’s most celebrated work, the 1929 novel Les Enfants Terribles.

As is traditional, elements of the sword were offered by friends: the 2.84ct emerald is a gift from Coco Chanel, the rubies and the diamond from Francine Weisweiller.


Nature of the Serpent

In 1968, the Mexican actress María Félix ordered a serpent necklace from Cartier, with the instruction that it be articulated to imitate the live animal as closely as possible – a real challenge. Two years of research and relentless work were necessary for Cartier to achieve the structure of this sinuously supple piece. The technical feat was managed by working on each ring of the reptile separately. These were then linked together to create the articulation. The result was amazing: over 50 centimetres long, this serpent is so flexible that it almost seems to move on its own. The height of realism, the piece’s surface, composed of over 2,000 diamonds, plays with light as if it were the skin of an actual snake.


Portrait of a Pearl

One of the most famous gems in the world – discovered, as legend goes, over half a millennium ago by a slave in Panama – the Peregrina pearl has had a colourful and often unclear journey in possession of several monarchs of European houses and eventually Hollywood royalty. In 1969, a major London auction house proposed the sale of a pearl that it claimed to be the Peregrina and the gem was acquired by Richard Burton who presented it to Elizabeth Taylor on Valentine’s Day. Three years later, the actress entrusted it to Cartier in order to make a Renaissance-style necklace. The piece was inspired by a portrait of Mary Tudor to whom some believe Philip II had given the Peregrina as an engagement gift.

Whether her source of inspiration was factually correct or not, Taylor was certain of her preferences, notably that she favoured platinum to gold, the final piece that she wore in the movie A Little Night Music, a testament to the interactions between Cartier and its client. 

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