How Cartier and Bulgari Transformed an Apex Predator and a Formidable Serpent into Timeless Icons

How Cartier and Bulgari Transformed an Apex Predator and a Formidable Serpent into Timeless Icons

Inspired by exceptional pieces from Important Jewels this July, we delve into the storied history of two of the most enduring motifs in jewellery.
Inspired by exceptional pieces from Important Jewels this July, we delve into the storied history of two of the most enduring motifs in jewellery.

T he glinting emerald eyes of an apex predator. The sleek curves of a formidable reptile. Few brands have achieved the unmistakable recognition of Cartier’s panther and Bulgari’s serpent. A hallmark of heritage and craftsmanship, these iconic motifs encapsulate each brand’s unique essence, captivating the hearts of collectors and enthusiasts with their distinctive silhouettes, reborn year after year, collection after collection.

The panther has been a part of Cartier’s verbiage since the early 1900s, coming to fruition for the first time in 1914 by way of a Cartier timepiece dressed in diamonds and onyx. That same year, a postcard was released with a panther curled around the legs of a fashionably dressed woman, signifying the start of a now-iconic emblem for the brand. Jeanne Touissant had joined the brand a year prior, quickly becoming the director of Cartier Jewelry, and earning the moniker “La Panthère”, a nickname bestowed upon her by none other than Louis Cartier himself. Touissant urged her team to shift towards more tangible, visceral interpretations of the panther. Following its inception, the stately panther lay relatively dormant for 20 years, until, in 1948, the Duchess of Windsor was spotted wearing a glittering three dimensional Cartier Panthère. The first of its kind, but certainly not the last.

So how did it evolve into the enduring icon it is today? Toussaint's fascination with the majestic creature led her to create exquisite panther-inspired jewellery, capturing the grace, strength, and allure of the panther in every unique piece. It quickly found its way back on the wrists of the upper echelon in a multitude of precious metals and jewels. The Panthère bangle, emblazoned with iconic geometric rosettes, has been constantly reinvented throughout the years – the panther’s signature emerald eyes may also be accompanied by the likes of sapphires, diamonds and rubies in glittering feats of extravagance. In Important Jewels this July, Sotheby’s presents two yellow gold panthers, including one double-headed bangle with emerald eyes, and a diamond and emerald encrusted sautoir. Other Cartier designs take the opposite approach, where the panther moves in stealth. Panthère de Cartier, originally introduced in 1984, earns its name from its bracelet. The incredible fluidity of the design reflects the elegant, streamlined stride of the house’s iconic mascot.

The significance of the Cartier panther extends beyond its aesthetic appeal. It represents a spirit of independence and confidence, while its frequent and constant use across designs have seen it grow and evolve with the brand, bringing the house’s vision and DNA through the decades from the early 20th century to today.

Another renowned house motif can be found in Bulgari’s Serpenti, an emblem that, too, has gone through its fair share of evolution and metamorphoses. Almost 35 years after Bulgari began creating jewellery, did they establish their now signature serpent. Nodding to Roman and Greek mythology, the brand was also undoubtedly influenced by the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, who famously donned snake motifs and jewellery throughout her reign. Indeed, legendary actress Elizabeth Taylor played a part in its claim to fame, who was seen wearing the Bulgari Serpent design while filming for Cleopatra in Rome in 1962. Its superstar status was further cemented after it was worn by the likes of Sophia Lore and Anna Magnani. Today, the sultry serpent can be found meandering on the arms and decolletage of house ambassadors Zendaya, Anne Hathaway, Blackpink’s Lisa and Priyanka Chopra, each of whom bring a fresh, dynamic perspective to the brand’s heritage and classic motifs.

Arguably the most recognisable serpent pieces are those that meander up the arm, coiling around the wrist to become one with the wearer. Using a technique called Turbogas, the flexible serpent bracelet wraps around the wrist, with some designs blending the allure of a serpent with the functionality of a timepiece. The serpent's head, adorned with precious gemstones, conceals a hidden watch dial. Among the pieces presented by Sotheby’s this season will be a yellow gold Serpenti necklace emblazoned with diamonds alongside two Serpenti bracelets, one of which is accented with rubies, diamonds and colour-blocked scales, while the other is a coiled snake cuff in contrasting black onyx and yellow gold.

Over the years, Bulgari has continued to explore the serpent motif, with one iconic timepiece, the Twirl, utilising the Turbogas technique to coil around the arm up to seven times. A Serpenti Turbogas Twirl will be on going on the block at Sotheby’s, in a contrasting 18k pink gold and steel design. Bulgari is known for its juxtaposition of metals to create bold designs that very much fall in line with the sophisticated Bulgari grammar and daring house codes.

In today’s world of luxury, there is little that can outweigh the value of exemplary brand heritage. Each Cartier Panthère and Bulgari Serpenti is bedazzled with a story, imbued with tradition, and will each etch its indelible marks in the annals of jewellery history. Two enduring icons, forever unchanged, yet always in flux.


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