Since the 1920s, Cartier has produced a great number of Chinese-inspired pieces that are decorated with dragons and chimaeras. So strong has this admiration been that Cartier organised of several exhibitions of its collection in China since the late 1990s.
This year the French jewellery and watch Maison has returned to the Palace Museum in Beijing with its latest exhibition, “Beyond Boundaries: Cartier and the Palace Museum” which opened at the end of May and is set to run until 31 July.
Boasting an impressive collection of more than 800 pieces gathered from Cartier’s own collection and the museum, the exhibition aims to reveal and explore mediums that demonstrate the intercultural connections between the East and West.
To house this massive collection, the Palace Museum has opened three large halls that equate to 30,000 square feet of floor space. Each of the halls represents different themes such as Chinese Inspirations (West Wing), Symbols of Power (Central Wing) and Time Memories (East Wing).
With so much to see, it can be a little overwhelming for first-time visitors. Fortunately, we have compiled a comprehensive list of pieces in each wing that are must-sees.
WEST WING: CHINESE INSPIRATIONS
At the turn of the 20th century, China was opening its doors and European jewellers like Cartier have been mesmerised by the wonder of China. Similarly, European jewellers like Cartier took inspiration from Chinese culture and resulted in Louis Cartier’s Chinese collection. In fact, Cartier’s designers incorporated materials like lacquer, coral, jade and even added motifs such as Chinese characters or divinities.
According to Chinese Art Specialist Estelle Niklès Van Osselt these exchanges tell the fabulous tale of meeting between the West and the Far-East as it aroused a legitimate curiosity to learn about each other. Indeed, through these creations visitors can see the discovery of two cultures coming together and offering the very best of their savoir-faire.
One such piece was the Carp clock with retrograde hand was made of a piece of carved ancient jade depicting two fish swimming in the waves. In China, the carp was appreciated for its courage and tenacity, allowing it to swim upstream and change into a dragon.
Created in 1925, the Maison used lacquer plaques inlaid with mother-of-pearl – known under the name of laque burgauté and imported from the Far East – that were transformed to decorate vanity cases, powder cases or for vases in graphic lines, underlined in gold.
Although this clock is, strictly speaking, not a mystery clock, it is the third in a series of 13 clocks featuring animals or figurines, made between 1922 and 1931, partly inspired by Louis XV and
Louis XVI clocks in which the clock was set on the back of an animal. Today the Cartier Collection boasts 4 of these wonders.
Another striking creation by Cartier is the Chinese vanity case that features the image of a Chinese woman sitting in a garden. Created in 1928, the case was made from materials such as gold, platinum, mother-of-pearl, coral, jade and emeralds.
The inlaid plaque was made by the Cartier workshop based on a Chinese plate of famille-verte porcelain from the Kangxi period (1662–1722), which was part of Louis Cartier’s personal collection.
Today, this vanity case is presented alongside a plate with similar decor from the Palace Museum collections. Other creations mixing materials from China are also highlighted, like the dial of a desk clock adorned with kingfisher feathers.
From symbols of beauty and wealth, Cartier’s collection was no stranger to objects that took inspiration from the supernatural and celestial beings of Chinese lore. The most notable of these is the Bird brooch which symbolises the phoenix, a symbol of goodness, peace and prosperity.
Made as a special order in 1948, this piece is remarkable for its scale and the sheer virtuosity for setting the various cut diamonds. You can find this marvellous brooch on an imperial robe from the Palace Museum collections.
CENTRAL WING: SYMBOLS OF POWER
The Maison Cartier has a long history of crafting jewellery for those in the corridors of power. In this respect, the exhibition includes treasures such as the Scroll tiara, that was created by Cartier in 1910 for Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians. Another tiara you should not miss is the Indian tiara. Made in 1923 for Princess Marie-Louise, granddaughter of Queen Victoria. It was worn during the coronation of King George VI in 1937 and of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.
Moving away from tiaras, Cartier has made a number of necklaces for high profile individuals. This includes the Hindu necklace, that was made on special order for French socialite Mrs Daisy Fellowes back in 1936. It was originally made in the Indian style with platinum, white gold, diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, rubies and with a black cord fastening from the back but has since been remounted upon the request of the client in 1963.
There is also the Bib necklace, an elegant gold and platinum necklace adorned with diamonds, amethysts and turquoises. Made in 1947 it was a special order for the Duchess of Windsor at the time, Wallis Simpson, after her marriage to Edward Duke of Windsor, once Edward VIII of England who abdicated the throne in 1936.
It is clear that the pieces in this collection hold a lot of history. In fact, the common theme of savoir-faire which runs throughout the exhibition is expressed by its permanence as well as its evolution, revealing both expertise and a sense of shared passion. In a space dedicated to this subject, we find an authentic jeweller’s workbench and tools, set up to present the different stages involved in the making of jewellery.
EAST WING: TIME MEMORIES
The act of watchmaking serves as a dialogue between the inspiration, technique and designs of both East and West. Nowhere is this more evident that the two clocks with a 19th Century Inclined plane gravity clock from France courtesy of the Palace Museum and a Gravity clock from Cartier’s Collection.
The latter was made by Cartier in 1920 and just like the clock in the Palace Museum’s collection, it utilises a clock that slowly rolls down an inclined base, largely driven by gravity. Upon reaching the end of the incline, that denotes that it is Saturday and must be reset by moving it back to the top by hand.
Another interesting clock on display is the Large Screen clock by Cartier. Made in 1926, the clock has a dial is set without any glass and is made of ancient white jade with a Chinese scene in front and a landscape at the back.
With that said, there should be sufficient reason for you to visit the exhibition if you should find yourself in Beijing. Do take note that while entry to the exhibit is free, visitors are still required to buy the entry ticket to the Palace Museum at 60RMB.