While most jewellers were engrossed in the Art Nouveau style, Louis Cartier instead looked to eighteenth-century patterns and, leaving aside the natural inspirations of Art Nouveau, turned to simple, original and powerful linear forms.
Lace, passementerie, decorative wrought iron and ornate Islamic doors were his new sources of inspiration, each a pretext to create innovative settings to show diamonds in all their splendour. He began working on lighter, more delicate mounts that would sublimate the fire and sparkle of diamonds and, in a bold move, he made them in platinum. Inalterable and more resistant than the silver and gold used until then, most importantly platinum was a magnet for light.
Platinum made possible mounts and settings that were as delicate as they were solid. Some were so fine as to be almost invisible. Such discretion was rewarded, as platinum revealed diamonds' sparkle in a way that silver and gold never could. As early as the 1860s, Cartier had set a precedent by using platinum which he crafted into virtuoso pieces. Outstanding among these were his "latticework" creations, such as the stunning necklace made in 1903 for the celebrated courtesan, La Belle Otéro. Its inspiration was the imposing "Queen's Necklace" that had sparked the scandal in which Marie-Antoinette herself became embroiled. These light and graceful structures echoed the metal constructions of engineers and architects, the most famous of whom, Gustave Eiffel, caused a sensation when he erected the world's tallest tower for the 1889 World's Fair in Paris. Louis Cartier's favourite word for describing platinum jewellery was "embroidery", which he felt conveyed its delicacy. Indeed, one of its most stunning effects was the impression that the diamonds in Cartier's platinum brooches1 had been sewn to the very fabric of the dress, already richly embroidered and stitched with lace.
There followed a profusion of white flowers, diadems, corsage brooches and necklaces. This head ornament with its scroll patterns2 was created in 1910, while this corsage brooch from 19063 has a motif of lilies, their pistils tipped with tiny diamonds. The two hinged branches on each side of the diamond centrepiece can be set at the desired angle.
The garland style was an important current at Cartier between 1900 and 1914, and its prestige would be instrumental in carrying Cartier's reputation to the four corners of the world4. Thus Louis, with brothers Pierre and Jacques, opened a branch in London in 1902, followed by a second in New York in 1909. In the space of ten years, Cartier acquired a unique reputation, crowned by patents and by the jeweller's appointment as official purveyor to numerous royal households.
1. Bow-knot brooch
Cartier Paris, 1907
Platinum, round old- and rose-cut diamonds. The pin can be unscrewed, probably in order to stitch the brooch onto velvet and wear it as a choker necklace. The diamonds within each pendant hang freely in cascades of increasing size.
2. Scroll Tiara
Cartier Paris, 1910
Platinum, one cushion-shaped diamond, round old-cut diamonds, millegrain setting.
Provenance: Elisabeth, Queen of the Belgians
(4) Elisabeth, Queen of the Belgians (1875-1965)
Queen of the Belgians, wearing a garland style diamond and platinum diadem created for her by Cartier in 1910. She married Prince Albert I who became King in 1909.
3. Lily Stomacher brooch
Cartier Paris, special order, 1906
Platinum, round old- and rose-cut diamonds, millegrain setting.
This garland-style stomacher brooch, or corsage ornament, is masterful in its execution, even down to the tiniest details. The setting of curved surfaces gives the brooch a three-dimensional feel, while the pistils of the flowers are adorned with tiny diamonds in millegrain settings. The two sprays are articulated around the central diamond so that they can be opened more or less wide, as desired.
Provenance: Mary Scott Townsend and Mrs. Donald McElroy (née Thora Ronalds). Mary Scott Townsend was an eminent member of Washington’s high society at the turn of the twentieth century. Her great niece, Thora Ronalds McElroy (1907–1990), was heir to the Scott-Strong coal and railroad fortune.