'Cartier: Style and History' takes over Paris' Grand Palais, showcasing the French house's magnificent archives as jewelled reflections of the changing times. Imagery courtesy of Cartier. Le Style et L'Histoire Salon d'Honneur
Inside the Grand Palais, changing projections of jewels are strewn across the expansive vaulted ceiling and high walls as a grandiose visual touch of the rare beauty of the stones on show. Imagery courtesy of Cartier. Le Style et L'Histoire Salon d'Honneur
To sway accusations of corporate collusion, the exhibition commissioned by the Grand Palais, stops short of showing contemporary pieces instead mining the house's archives. Imagery courtesy of Cartier. Le Style et L'Histoire Salon d'Honneur
The Maharaja of Patiala's famed jewels on show. Imagery courtesy of Cartier. Le Style et L'Histoire Salon d'Honneur
The Maharaja of Patiala's necklace and bracelet. The ceremonial necklace was made by Cartier in Paris in 1928 for Sir Bhupindar Singh, Maharaja of Patiala. Set in platinum with 2,930 brilliant-cut diamonds, two rubies and the famous De Beers diamond (234.69 carats), the necklace has a total weight of around 1,000 carats. Imagery courtesy of Cartier. Le Style et L'Histoire Salon d'Honneur
The Duchess of Windsor's 'Panther Brooch' (1949) is set in platinum and white gold, incorporating single-cut diamonds and sapphire cabochons for the panther's spots. It also features two pear-shaped yellow diamonds for eyes and sits upon a 152.35 carat Kashmir sapphire cabochon. Imagery courtesy of Cartier. Le Style et L'Histoire Salon d'Honneur
Documents and materials from the Cartier archive. Imagery courtesy of Cartier. Le Style et L'Histoire Salon d'Honneur
A selection of Cartier timepieces from a range of decades. Imagery courtesy of Cartier. Le Style et L'Histoire Salon d'Honneur
Princess Grace Kelly's Cartier jewellery is another show highlight. Imagery courtesy of Cartier. Le Style et L'Histoire Salon d'Honneur
In the foreground is a group of three ruby cabochons clip brooches from 1955, composed of platinum, gold, brilliant and baguette-cut diamonds, designed to be fixed to a tiara. The three ruby cabochons have a total weight of approximately 49 carats. This magazine cover is an official 1959 portrait of Princess Grace Kelly wearing the three Cartier creations. Imagery courtesy of Cartier. Le Style et L'Histoire Salon d'Honneur
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In France, luxury is not about monetary value, rather it is about the time, skill and the vision it takes to create an object. That it may happen to be created using rare and expensive materials that few can afford is not the point. Craft is a major art form. So there is no place better suited to staging one of the first ever public gallery exhibitions of fine jewellery than the Grand Palais in Paris.
The decision to create an entire show dedicated to the art of Cartier - Cartier: Style and History - may have been met with raised eyebrows by some, perplexed by the notion of treating a commercial brand as a significant creative force. Yet, as the French jeweller was asked to take part in the show, the subtitle, 'Style and History', is by no means a sponsored corporate swagger. It is simply that, like all great art, Cartier's visionary use of metal and stone, reflects our own history, a conceptual reflection of the changing times.
To sway accusations of corporate collusion, the exhibition stops short of showing contemporary pieces (which is a shame, as Cartier's recent high jewellery foray into Africa suggests that Cartier heirlooms of the future will be no less prized than the best-known pieces today), but I doubt anyone will visit this exhibition and not leave with a new view on what jewellery design says about us.
The exhibition installation is as traditional as you might expect of a grand institution - a more contemporary set design would serve the idea of jewellery as art far better and had Cartier had a hand in the telling of its own story, this would have undoubtedly been the case. Also, not all the pieces on show are successful - the brand's Egypt period is most certainly not its finest, according to this show. But the changing projections of jewels across the expansive vaulted ceiling and high walls of the building are a grandiose visual touch reflecting the rare beauty of the stones on show.
There are many things other than jewels to ponder, however, and the objets - a pavé ebony lighter, a glossy silver and gold cigarette box, sunburst enamel travel clocks, lacquer picture frames and wristwatches - are worth seeing in themselves. They encapsulate what is at the heart of Cartier and the real value of luxury - heightening the aesthetic of functional items so that they become wonderfully pleasurable to look at too. Cartier all but created the first luxury packaging for make-up, for instance.
The jewels are, of course, exceptional. Whether personal commissions for early 20th century Maharajas or avant-garde creations dreamed up by house creative director Jeanne Toussaint, known affectionately as 'the Panthere', the sheer scale of pieces on show here serves to weave a shimmering path through changing tastes and eras.
But it is the design vision of Louis Cartier, who with his two brothers set up his eponymous jewellery business as a force in its own right in the late 1800s, that really intrigues. His tendency towards classicism created a solid design framework that offered his creative teams the freedom to do almost whatever they wanted, without ever straying from the Cartier identity. The house was untouched by the Art Nouveau movement, for instance, Louis Cartier instead preferring the geometric Japanese design sensibility that was a precursor to Art Deco.
His ability to stick to his own design viewpoint regardless of what was in favour with society at large, also meant that the house was never a slave to fashion. And that is just one of the reasons that Cartier's creations are being celebrated as fine art today.
Cartier: Style and History is on until the 16 February, 2014 at Paris' Grand Palais
Grand Palais 21 Avenue Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 75008 Paris, France