Design guru Ettore Sottsass meets high-jewelry powerhouse Cartier

MILAN – Is high jewelry aimed at the few? Not in this city, where a beautiful exhibition of precious gems and metals is currently on display at the Palazzo Reale. While it might be the mighty, rich and strong who can afford it, jewelry has the ability to stir powerful emotions – just by looking at it – and «Cartier Design Viewed by Ettore Sottsass,» an exhibition of 200 exceptional pieces proves the point. A theoretical designer with a guiding passion for modernism, Sottsass’s aim was to revive memories of Cartier’s creations – using the exquisite pieces from the Art de Cartier collection – and focusing on quality, rather than quantity, with pieces selected for their design, gem quality and craftsmanship, as well as their historical context. What is the design guru trying to convey? Nothing more than emotion, history, science and technical skill. In an attempt to display each precious piece as if it were the only one showcased, Sottsass has created small, dark temples where items are placed with great precision. Making a pivotal impression is the lighting, at times in flickering rays that fill the display cases, while in others, focusing exclusively on the pieces. Stage direction would be meaningless without the actors, and the leading players here are the jewels – and Sottsass had a lot to choose from. Spanning a 155-year history, the house of Cartier has an impressive collection of styles to show, ranging from garland style to linear Art Deco, in elements of the neoclassical to colorful Oriental, not to mention designer flora and fauna. Established in 1983, the Art of Cartier collection includes tiaras, brooches, watches, vanity cases and necklaces, and its director Eric Nussbaum travels the world to acquire them – reacquire, that is, from Cartier’s clients. Take the Tutti-Frutti necklace, for instance: Once adorning the stylish, long neck of Singer heiress Daisy Fellowes, this piece of cascading sapphires, rubies and emeralds (on display in Milan) became a piece of contention between Cartier and competitors in 1988. With 1,200 pieces in the collection today, there are still a number of key items secreted around the world, among them five masterpieces, whose owners are fiercely hanging on to them. For Sottsass, whose initial relationship with high-class jewelry was rather distant and who generally believed that it was created for wealthy folk, his subsequent involvement with the exhibition proved enlightening, for the great master discovered that the history of the craft reflects society. Perhaps this was one of the reasons why he chose to start the exhibition with a series of photos and paintings. They show a heavily adorned Queen Anne of France in a 1498 painting; a colorful Ladakhi woman displaying her beads in the Himalayas; Princess Paley, clad in a Worth gown and diamonds; Queen Elizabeth of Belgium, wearing a Cartier tiara in 1910, not to mention a sophisticated Gloria Swanson wearing her platinum, rock crystal and diamond bracelets (a piece also on display at the show). Yet the jewel in the crown of this collection of portraits is a photo of Evalyn Walsh McLean. Resting on her head is the Etoile de l’Est, a sparkling 94.80 carat diamond, while the Blue Hope, the legendary 45.52 blue diamond is the centerpiece of her necklace. Both exceptional gems were sold by Cartier. Three striking, exceptional pieces set the tone at the start of the jewelry exhibition. In contrast to the darkness created by the black display cases, sit two tiaras and a choker. These are a regal tiara set in platinum with diamonds and pearls from 1908, a timeless choker necklace – in today’s world, it would be a perfectly affordable accessory in crystal or rhinestone, only this one dates to 1906 and is platinum and set with countless diamonds (one of its owners was Mrs Randolph Hearst), and a dream-like 1902 tiara, featuring waves of diamonds and platinum, which once belonged to Lila Vanderbilt Field. And there is more, including a collection of ingenious mystery clocks in which time is ticking via an invisible mechanism. (The lapis lazuli piece was one of Barbara Hutton’s precious favorites, while the pale green carved jade elephant belonged to the Maharaja of Nawanagar.) Further on, Sottsass seems to be inviting us to the opera, as one display features all the necessary items for a night out: an evening bag (1924) with a platinum, onyx and diamond clasp; a black enamel, platinum, gold and diamond buckle; not to mention the «Tom Pouce» binoculars (Cartier Paris, 1912), complete with black enameled metal, platinum and diamonds. Old-fashioned glamour awaits visitors at a stand dedicated to the striking bracelets that graced the arms of Hollywood legend Gloria Swanson, while the «Bib» necklace, like a precious collar, features gold, platinum, and faceted amethysts, turquoises and diamonds. This one here belonged to the Duchess of Windsor, who also enjoyed the «Panther» brooch, which was offered to her by the Duke of Windsor in 1949. The «Panther» is one of the most recognizable pieces of the Art of Cartier collection, the centerpiece exhibit is a spherical «Kashmir» sapphire of approximately 152.35 carats. In keeping with broader inspiration from the animal kingdom are Barbara Hutton’s «Tiger» pendant earrings and brooch (1961 and 1957 respectively), while the show ends with Mexican actress Maria Felix’s splendid «Crocodile» necklace, made by Cartier in 1975. With each crocodile worn separately as a clip-brooch, this piece of jewelry is made of gold, 1,023 brilliant-cut yellow diamonds and 1,060 circular-cut emeralds – the eyes are made of cabochon rubies and emeralds. Linking each display case with the next with partial enlargements of the jewelry’s original sketches and drawings, Sottsass attempts an «intellectual link» between the original idea and the handmade, finished product, creating a chiaroscuro effect. For the designer who thinks that museums should have separate rooms for major paintings – which visitors should enter to spend 10, obligatory minutes observing – the Cartier exhibition was an exciting challenge, though he knew the result from the start: If anything can redeem us, it is beauty. «Cartier Design Viewed by Ettore Sottsass,» at Milan’s Palazzo Reale. To January 12, 2003. From the Valentine to Memphis Born in Innsbruck, Austria in 1917, Ettore Sottsass graduated in architecture at the Turin Polytechnic in 1939 and opened his own office in Milan in 1947. Recognized for his role in renewing design just before and after World War II, Sottsass began a particularly fruitful collaboration with Olivetti in 1958, for whom he designed, among other things, the first Italian electronic calculator and the Valentine typewriter (now part of the MoMA permanent collection). In 1981, along with friends and collaborators, he set up the Memphis Group, the highly influential «new design» movement.

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