The Good Life

A legacy in legends

Cartier’s jewellery is well-known — but the stories of some of its patrons deserve to be even better known

A hundred and sixty-five years is a long time in the history of any brand, but houses that deal in luxury are likely to have more than their share of stories of splendour and intrigue.

When the maharajas were at the height of their spending power, it was natural for Van Cleef & Arpels, or Baccarat, or Rolls-Royce to have their representatives in India.

And now, the house of Cartier has commissioned a film that looks at some of the high points, experiences and inspirations in a film directed by Bruno Aveillan, shot on various locations.

At the heart of the film is the panther, inspired by the real-life Jeanne Toussaint, a Parisian socialite in the giddy-thirties, nicknamed La Panthere for her sleek style. That she was a connoisseur and patron of jewels was offset by her role as creative director of Cartier, giving rise to a legend that has survived almost a century later.

Sadly, in the film, India is represented by a palace that was recreated from a model, instead of being filmed on location. The maharajas were some of the most important of Cartier’s clients.

By the turn of the last century, their fabulous wealth in rare gemstones were converted into cascades of fine jewellery and ceremonial necklaces by the famed team in Paris.

Interestingly, the countries that provided the business then — Europe, the screen princesses of Hollywood, but also Russia, China and India — are the ones that still retain the capacity for commissioned jewellery, though we will never know if the Ambanis are its clients.

None of us have forgotten the magnificent (though slightly gaudy) Tutti Frutti necklace especially commissioned for the maharaja of Patiala. Not that the Tutti Frutti design was particular to the maharaja. It was a style that found a popular following in the 1930s — at least one similar piece was made for Daisy Fellowes, the daughter of the heiress of the popular Singer sewing machines, who was heralded as a “maker of fashions” by Harper’s Bazaar.

No matter how highly Cartier prized the Patiala prince, its largest Indian commissions came from the jam sahib of Nawanagar, a princely state in Gujarat. Its first patron was Sir Ranjitsinhji — the cricket-playing Ranji — who wanted a ceremonial necklace for himself (in India, it was the maharajas who had the most magnificent jewellery designed for themselves, while the maharanis played second fiddle) designed around a 70-carat emerald (the size of a walnut), which came from the collection of the sultans of Turkey. Cartier designed the emerald as a pyramid-shaped pendant, surrounded by 16 other emeralds and mounted on a heavy chain of diamonds.

Five years later, Ranji dropped the 136-carat Queen of Holland diamond on Jacques Cartier’s leather desk, and asked for it to be mounted on another necklace for himself. This time, Cartier played off the exceptional brilliance of the diamond by surrounding it with a cascade of coloured diamonds.

Both necklaces disappeared over time, but a third, designed for Ranji’s heir Digvijaisinhji, consisting of 116 rubies from the Burmese mines, though dismantled in the 1960s, was traced and re-assembled for its current owner, an American billionairess.

The film looks at some of these glittering stories, when jewels, glamour and smuggling of wealth and secrets was part of another world. Cartier has its famous clients even today — including in India — but they no longer capture the headiness of those times when the people who wore them were as important as their jewels.