It was among the first of the 20th-century brand icons, and certainly the fiercest and most fabulously unforgettable: for a hundred years, the panther has made its way, proud and provocative, through Cartier’s great theatre of design and through the story of 20th-century jewellery. It is almost inconceivable that this enigmatic creature, who seems so timelessly and effortlessly modern, made its first appearance as a stylised suggestion of its luxuriant pelt on a bracelet watch in Cartier’s early design books in 1914. From that moment, the panther became an integral part of the Cartier legend. It has been the leader of the pack in the jeweller’s famed menagerie, the symbol of bold, determined, fearless femininity and the epitome of high-octane glamour. The panther became the badge of belonging for an elite group of style-leaders, led by the Duchess of Windsor, Daisy Fellowes, Nina Dyer, Barbara Hutton and Mexican actress María Félix, who had commissioned an immense panther jewel from Cartier before adopting the crocodile necklace as her personal style signature. In 1987, when Sotheby’s sold the Duchess of Windsor’s collection, her panther jewels were amongst the most talked-about and fiercely fought-over treasures.
MODEL EDITHA DUSSLER WEARING A PANTHER HEADBAND, MADE OF A TWO PANTHER-HEAD
BROOCH ON A TRIPLE DIAMOND LINE, 1967. © CARTIER M. GÉRARD, COLLECTION CARTIER
As a new book charting the story of the Cartier panther shows (Cartier Panthère, Assouline), there is virtually no decade, era or style in which the panther doesn’t make a dazzling appearance, always lithely adapting to the social and cultural climate. When Cartier’s talented designer Charles Jacqueau anticipated Art Deco in 1914 by translating the panther’s skin into a pattern of diamonds flecked with onyx, he picked up on the prevailing fascination with this creature, an erotic and exotic symbol of colonialism, and like the new female, fast, free and unfettered. The cats were the perfect expression of sophisticated barbarism: the Marchesa Casati, naked under her fur coat, paraded her two pet cheetahs, while Josephine Baker’s pet panther watched her perform from a stage box.
Through the decades, the concept of the panther evolved, first into a full representation of the animal, on a series of vanity cases, the first of which was owned by Louis Cartier’s lover Jeanne Toussaint, whom he nicknamed Panthère. Mentored by Cartier, who spotted her innate talent and nurtured her natural taste and aesthetic sensibility, Toussaint became Cartier’s Creative Director of Jewellery in 1933 and went on to mould the panther into one of the most evocative and iconic jewels of the 20th century. Under her direction, the panther came to life. Sculptural, sensual, pulsating with vitality, in voluptuous yellow gold, flecked with black enamel, the panther channelled contemporary femininity.
In 1948, the first fully three-dimensional panther jewel was made, using this gold and black combination for a special commission by the Duke of Windsor for his wife, both of whom were close friends of Toussaint. The panther lazed on top of a monumental cabochon emerald of 116.74 carats; the brooch was so successful that in 1949 it was followed by an even more arresting depiction of the noble creature sculpted in platinum, paved in diamonds with little square-cut sapphires as spots, alert and looking out from the top of a colossal cabochon sapphire of 152.35 carats (previous page). In 1952, Toussaint dreamt up the first fully-articulated panther, a slinky bracelet, also for the Duchess of Windsor, and more big cat jewels followed. These creations captured the prevailing mania for the panther and leopard and came to define the essence of mid-20th-century jewellery design and influence generations of designers to come.
In her own irreverent style, Daisy Fellowes commissioned a panther brooch in parody of the Order of the Golden Fleece, while the beautiful but tragic Nina Dyer, Princess Sadruddin Aga Khan (who had been given a pair of pet black panthers by her first husband, Baron von Thyssen-Bornemisza) assembled a whole suite of panther jewels: a brooch, necklace, bangle and ring. After Dyer’s suicide in 1965, Cartier managed to buy the jewels back, but they mysteriously disappeared on a flight to Hong Kong, where they were to be exhibited, reappearing ten years later after a worldwide search.
PANTHER NECKLACE OF PLATINUM, DIAMONDS, FINE PEARLS, YELLOW-GREEN SAPPHIRES,
CARVED BLACK JADE, ONYX AND A 121.81-CARAT YELLOW CUSHION-CUT BERYL. CARTIER
PARIS, 2014. © CARTIER N. WELSH, CARTIER COLLECTION © CARTIER.
By the 1970s, the panther was recognised across the world as a Cartier signature – rich in association and emotion, an object of desire – and it reflected the trend for less formal, younger, more vibrantly exciting but still opulently precious jewels. The democratised “boutique” era brought a proliferation of panthers in different guises, poses, materials and combinations. The original pavage was revisited and reinvigorated – the gold-and-black flecked figure was posed on various carved hardstones, contrasting with arresting coral or turquoise. Maria Callas owned one and Toussaint bought four for herself in 1970, the year she retired at age 83.
Under new ownership and the creative direction of Micheline Kanoui in the 1980s, Cartier entered a new era, and the energy and verve of the iconic panther was cleverly distilled into a fluid, gold chain link, suggesting the rippling movement of the animal. A depiction of the panther – always in a different style – is included in each of Cartier’s collections, and today the panther continues to evolve. It is still proud, still provocative, sometimes playful, sometimes predatory and ever more refined and sophisticated, always pushing the barriers of concept and craftsmanship.
A PLATINUM, PINK GOLD AND ONYX WATCH WITH ROSE-CUT DIAMONDS
AND MOIRÉ STRAP. CARTIER PARIS, 1914. © CARTIER N. WELSH,
CARTIER COLLECTION © CARTIER.
In recent years, the creature has appeared in a mood of high drama and connoisseurship, breathtakingly carved in materials such as white opal or petrified wood. In homage to its story, to the inspiration of Louis Cartier and to the genius of Jeanne Toussaint, the special 2014 celebratory Panthère collection reveals every incarnation of the panther and its best-loved poses and expressions, but reworked using the latest skills and state-of-the-art technology. The black-and-white pavage is reimagined as an op-art, laser-cut mosaic, the golden magnificence conjured into a massive ring of chiselled, geometric openwork structure. The precious panther prowls on, into a new age, a new vision of modernity, and a bold, strong femininity. It is far more than a jewel; it is a cultural icon.
Vivienne Becker is a jewellery historian and contributing editor for FT’s How to Spend It.
Cartier Panthère by Bérénice Geoffroy-Schneiter, Vivienne Becker, Joanna Hardy and André Leon Talley ($195, Assouline) will be available in June.