“My Love Affair with Jewelry” -- that’s how Elizabeth Taylor summed up her life in the book she wrote instead of an autobiography.
Fortunately for her, her numerous boyfriends and husbands were rich enough to satisfy her extravagant taste.
The most expensive piece in her collection was a pear-shaped diamond weighing 69.42 carats, a gift from fellow actor Richard Burton whom she married twice. She later sold it for $5 million.
The diamond appears only on a photograph in “Cartier: Le Style et l’Histoire,” the huge exhibition at Paris’s Grand Palais. Instead, you can admire a gift from her third husband, the producer Mike Todd, in the original -- a necklace with diamonds and rubies.
The Grand Palais has amassed more than 600 pieces of jewelry, precious objects, watches and clocks mainly from Cartier’s own collection. Since 1983, the company has systematically bought back outstanding specimens of its production.
They are complemented by hundreds of preparatory drawings, archival documents, engravings, advertising photographs and even some dresses and accessories.
The treasures are sumptuously presented in the newly restored Salon d’Honneur of the Grand Palais.
Shortly after the opening of his first store in Paris, in 1847, Louis-Francois Cartier attracted the attention of the imperial court. Princess Mathilde, niece of Napoleon I, and Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, became regular customers.
After the opening of the London branch, in 1902, Pierre Cartier, nephew of the founder, was appointed official supplier to the Court of St. James.
The royals have remained loyal to this day. The show includes, on loan from the Royal Collection in Windsor, the “Halo Diadem” that the Duke of York, later King George VI, bought in 1936 for his wife. Kate Middleton, a photograph tells us, wore it at Westminster Abbey when she married Prince William in 2011.
The Duchess of Windsor, too, was a fan. It was for her that Cartier created the first piece of jewelry with the famous panther emblem.
U.S. ladies were no less wild about Cartier’s baubles. Marjorie Merriweather Post, founder of General Foods Inc., and Barbara Hutton, heiress to the Woolworth fortune, were regulars at the store on New York’s Fifth Avenue which opened in 1909. Hutton preferred tigers to panthers.
Nor was Elizabeth Taylor the only Hollywood star infatuated with Cartier.
Grace Kelly posed for her official portrait as Princess of Monaco bedecked in various items from Cartier’s workshop. They are all on view at the Grand Palais as are the diamond-cum-rock crystal bracelets Gloria Swanson wore in “Sunset Boulevard.”
The exhibition does its best to present the history of the house of Cartier as part of the general history of art. That doesn’t really work out.
Too often, customers had their own, very peculiar taste. In 1925, the Maharaja of Patiala deposited thousands of stones to be set according to Indian tradition.
Daisy Fellowes, who inherited the fortune of her grandfather Isaac Singer, inventor of the sewing machine, had a weakness for the wildly colorful tutti-frutti style which was quite different from the graceful simplicity typical of Cartier.
The house style, if there was one, was inspired by the neo-classicism of the Louis XVI period with its straight lines, geometric forms and sober ornaments.
No wonder the equally sober Art Deco style that became fashionable in the 1920s was enthusiastically embraced by Cartier, as demonstrated by the elegant cigarette cases, powder compacts, letter openers and lorgnettes in the show -- not to mention the wrist watches, a novelty Cartier had introduced back in 1904.
The most amazing items in the show may be the 15 “mystery clocks,” a Cartier specialty, whose making initially took no less than one year.
Invented by the illusionist Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin, they seem to work without a mechanism. In April, a mystery clock from the Consuelo Vanderbilt estate sold for the record price of $515,000 at Doyle’s in New York.
If you can’t afford the originals, the sumptuous catalog (45 euros) will go a long way to console you.
“Cartier: Le Style et l’Histoire” runs through Feb. 16, 2014. Information: http://www.grandpalais.fr.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this review: Jorg von Uthmann in Paris at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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