The 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamun ignited a craze for all things Egyptian, including a line of jewels designed by Cartier, to come to auction in New York this December.
NEW YORK - The deities must have brought them together: this season, nestled in Sotheby’s New York sale of Magnificent Jewels is a cluster of spectacular, rare Egyptian revival jewels, including a highly important fan-shaped brooch, joined by the fates with four jewels of the same genre and period, formerly in the collection of Russian-born socialite Lady Abdy. Unique masterpieces of the Art Deco period, these powerful jewels, all made by Cartier in the 1920s, turn a spotlight on the 1920s high demand for Egyptian-inspired pieces.
Cartier began to design and make Egyptian style jewels as early as 1910, and continued the theme into the 1930s. Their earlier jewels, designed by Charles Jacqueau in Paris, under Louis Cartier’s inspired direction, incorporated motifs like the lotus and the pylon – the temple gateway – as in the brooch in this collection. The geometry and stylisation of Egyptian art and ornament were perfectly in tune with the linear, two-dimensionality of the emerging Art Deco style.
After 1922, the year of the momentous discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, Cartier began to incorporate antiquities into their Egyptian-style jewels, and this second stage of Egyptian revival designs continued into the mid- to late 1920s, producing a spectacular series of one-of-a-kind masterpieces, believed to number 150 in total. Cerebrally beautiful and with strikingly original compositions, these pieces capture the mystical amuletic quality of ancient Egyptian ornaments.
Egyptologist Howard Carter and the sarcophagus of King Tutankhamun in 1922.
Louis Cartier was an avid collector of Egyptian antiquities. In 1914 he purchased a collection of glazed faience figures, from the Paris dealer Kalebdjian, which was most likely the inspiration and starting point for these unique jewels. The theatrical fan-shaped brooch, made in 1923, in the form of the flabellum, the Egyptian fan, is designed around a faience figure, Late Period, 716-30BC, depicting the warrior goddess Sekhmet as a lioness, bearing a solar disc and Uraeus on her head. The faience fragment is set into a lapis semi-circle, creating a night sky studded with diamond stars, framed in an enamel and stylised diamond lotus blossom border, set onto a single large stylised lotus blossom mounted in gold and platinum. The brooch is one of only two similar designs made by Cartier London and was one of a group of Egyptian-inspired jewels illustrated in a 1924 Cartier advertisement in the Illustrated London News, showing “The Tutankhamun Influence in Modern Jewellery.” Below the image, the article explains “Women interested in Egyptology, who desire to be in the Tutankhamun fashion, can now wear real ancient gems in modern settings as personal ornaments.”
Rare and important Egyptian-revival faience and jeweled brooch, Cartier, London, circa 1923.
Also illustrated in this advertisement are two of the jewels that belonged to Lady Abdy, the pylon-shaped brooch and the Isis pin. The pylon brooch is set with a glazed faience plaque, New Kingdom, 1540-1075 BC, framed in gemstones, at the top with a row of calibrated coloured gems, and below with diamonds, plus a later addition of more coloured gems. The first wife of English ship-owner Sir Robert Henry Edward Abdy, she was born Iya Grigorievna de Gay in St. Petersburg and escaped with her family to Finland during the Russian Revolution, before moving to Paris. A striking blonde beauty, over six feet tall (Cecil Beaton said she ‘invented size’), Lady Abdy was a leader of Parisian society, and photographed by Man Ray, Cecil Beaton and George Hoyningen Huene. A 1928 issue of Vogue features a photograph of Lady Abdy, her hands held in front of her bodice to which is pinned the pylon brooch. The photo-feature is headed “A Jewel Song from Paris: The Wearing of the Gem is an Ancient Art to which the Parisienne Brings Modern Interpretations.”
(left) Rare and important 18 karat gold, platinum, faience, diamond, coloured stone and enamel ‘Sekhmet’ brooch, Cartier, Paris, circa 1925. (right) Platinum, gold, diamond, coloured stone and faience ‘Pylon’ brooch, Cartier, London, circa 1923.
The Isis stickpin, also in the advertisement, is composed around a faience figure of the goddess Isis, Ptolemaic; 305-30 BC; the top replaced with a square-faceted coral bead. The rectangular pendant from Lady Abdy’s collection frames a faience plaque engraved with three rows of ducks enamelled with Egyptian-style stripes and a zig-zag frieze on the back. The case is topped by a stylised lotus blossom inset with immaculately cut petals of jade, lapis and coral, which perfectly fuse Egyptian influence with Art Deco exuberance.
The spectacular figural brooch in Lady Abdy’s collection is composed around a faience figure of Sekhmet, dating to the 21st-22nd Dynasty (1075-716 BC). She holds a papyrus sceptre and the sun disc, her attributed symbol, behind her head, gleaming with diamonds, coloured gems and black enamel. It seems likely that these designs were made for Lady Abdy, who clearly chose a different setting entirely, one that showed Sekhmet complete with her sun disc, and, as befits a goddess, lavishly bejewelled.
Vivienne Becker is a jewellery historian, contributing editor for FT’s How to Spend It and author of Assouline’s Impossible Collection of Jewellery.
This selection of Egypt-inspired jewels will be offered in the New York sale of Magnificent Jewels.
Photography by Nigel Cox