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Cartier Title

By Eitaroh Arakawa

lettrineONDON, 11 February 1998 - Cartier: a word that evokes luxury, and also images of beautiful people hurrying down the streets with classic handbags slung over their shoulders, or burgundy wallets in their pockets. An exhibition of Cartier designs at the British Museum - which has already been shown in New York, Paris and Tokyo - goes back to the early part of this century (1900-1939). The list of exquisite jewelry is endless: small, well-formed necklaces encrusted with diamonds and emeralds on a base of platinum; cigarette holders and cases so sophisticated that giving up smoking is no longer an option; timepieces so detailed and compact that you might even look forward to being asked the time. Particularly striking is the solid, engraved and enamelled gold visiting card and envelope that was postmarked after being sent through the U.S. mail on Alfred Cartier's first visit to the U.S.A.


The exhibition covers the work of Alfred Cartier and his three sons with their workshops in New York, Paris and London. The myriad of influences channelled into these objets d'art is astonishing. There are Egyptian, Persian, Indian and oriental flavours. A Russian style evokes the opulence of the Tsars, for example, while Japanese and Chinese flavours form an original blend of distinctive jewelry. One mantlepiece clock, however, is a bit worrisome, with its evocations of dodgy Disney films from the seventies featuring "evil" Orientals played by dolled-up sub-Madame Butterfly Westerners. Fortunately, this is more an after-effect rather than a design shortcoming.

Necessaire - Vanity Case

Although opulent is a word that readily springs to mind when wandering around the exhibition, ostentation is never present. The intricate detail of the works is never "in your face", and so is very subtle. The effect is maximised by the generally diminutive size of the pieces. Cartier's meticulous archives have recorded the splendour of the design process in all its glory, thus preserving the genius of these works for future generations. This is the first time these life-size sketches and plaster casts have been put on public display.

One over-riding thought is the sense of proportion and balance embodied in a way that makes geometry a beautiful proposition - for example, interlinked Ls on vanity cases interspersed with diamonds,. Other pieces include original colour combinations that make a mix of jades, onyxes, diamonds and emeralds look like a visual treat.

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Despite the varied influences, the creators have retained a style that gently whispers "Cartier" into your ear, and makes them the true "musts". It is interesting to note that almost no logos are visible.

If there were such a thing as a time machine, it would be tempting to go back in time to hob-nob with the glitterati of the times (European royalty, Indian Maharajas, American millionaires), solely, of course, to be a consumer of these objets d'art. They are perfectly well-formed artefacts that will, no doubt, remain a significant contribution to the art of making haute joaillerie. The creators are artists, without a shadow of a doubt.

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