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Blinded by Starbursts of Cartier in Paris. 'C’est incroyable!' Says Kid

Tiara of Elisabeth, Queen of the Belgians, circa 1912. Photograph courtesy of Cartier. Close

Tiara of Elisabeth, Queen of the Belgians, circa 1912. Photograph courtesy of Cartier.

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Tiara of Elisabeth, Queen of the Belgians, circa 1912. Photograph courtesy of Cartier.

"For Parisians, it's not just Cartier. It's Maison. De. Cartier. It is a very important part of our history," says tour guide Véronique Guichard, on her first mention of the storied jeweler.

This must be Paris.

Welcome to "Cartier: Le Style et L’Histoire," at the Grand Palais. It is the feat of two ambitious art historians, Laure Dalon and Laurent Salomé, who culled Cartier's extensive archives and solicited a network of museums and private owners around the world to unveil the 600 or so pieces in this blinding collection.

"Our goal was to render palpable, intelligible even, a story in which major events, strong personalities and dream-like creations collided to create the very particular world of Cartier," says Salomé. "It is a story that inspires creators to strive for and attain the sublime."

You can say that again. A slow walk among these jewels, watches, clothing and paintings, all carefully placed in a historical narrative, reveals the intimate relationship between power and money, and other poignant verities. Maison de Cartier was, after all, the "jeweler to kings."

As settings go, it's hard to beat the Grand Palais. To enter the Cartier wing, visitors must pass Baroque fountains and climb a cascading marble staircase. Within the cavernous rooms, royal blue walls buttress sparkling ceilings. (Well done, kaleidoscope lighting.) In here, the cosseted life of rich royals seems so extravagantly … tangible.

First, we meet the lonely jeweler Louis-François Cartier, peddling with the rest of them on the back streets of Paris in 1847. Though no one else was making grand, elaborate pieces fit for a king, the determined Cartier had a dream. By 1904 he had become the official jewel supplier of the world’s most powerful dynasties, with the help of his son Alfred and three grandsons, Louis, Pierre and Jacques.

Next, step up to a display of 10 tiaras slowly rotating within the display glass to maximize the sparkle. You can almost touch pieces like Princess Marie Bonaparte’s diamond wedding diadem (1907), designed to resemble an olive branch for her marriage to Prince George of Greece. "This was a refined society who used jewelry and accessories for their intrinsic beauty but also for their social function," says Dalon.

Visit with the Indian maharaja Sir Bhupinder Singh. His $50 million necklace made in the 1920s bristles with about 1,000 gems, more than any other piece in Cartier’s history. His extravagances, epitomized in a 234-carat yellow diamond from De Beers, helped establish Cartier’s lucrative relationship with the Indian elite.

But the crown jewel of this exhibition is the splashy affairs section, where visitors discover that money can buy love. Behold the emerald, sapphire, ruby, gold and diamond flamingo brooch the Duke of Windsor gave to Wallis Simpson. How better to celebrate a messy abdication of the throne? The flamingo was acquired for the collection through Sotheby’s in December 2010 for $2.8 million.

Soon you'll spot Grace Kelly, Princess of Monaco. She’s shopping at Cartier in Paris with Prince Rainier for that massive wedding ring. But in outsize American fashion, Elizabeth Taylor upstages everyone. A wall of her storied gems and streaming video shows her romance with Richard Burton in full bloom. Burton paid more than $1 million for her 69-carat diamond, the most ever paid for a diamond at the time. She wore it to the Oscars in 1970 and then romantically sold it for $5 million.

Kate Middleton has the last word, being alive and all. The Duchess of Cambridge wore her tiara on the day of her wedding to Prince William in 2011. What must it have felt like?

My daydream is interrupted by that of an 8-year-old boy snapping pictures on his iPhone. "Maman, regarde! C’est incroyable! Le panthère est mon préféré!" cries little Vincent, gazing upon the Duchess of Windsor’s brooch. He likes the bright blue globe, on which a regal diamond panther sits. To be well-versed in art is a mark of pride for Parisians. Vincent, like most bon garçons, is simply starting young.

"If you own Cartier jewels it means you are super-rich and know what it is to own real jewelry," says Agnes Perre, a Parisian accountant in Cafe Deux Magots across the street from the Cartier store. "I don't believe having a Cartier jewel is the ultimate goal." Right on. "But having luxury jewels is." Ah.

So how do you buy them? There are no Sotheby's or Christie’s auctions planned for these gems. But well-heeled shoppers can visit an arm of the company called Cartier Tradition that sources and sells historic pieces. When you call, just don't call it Cartier.

"Cartier: Style and History" runs in the Salon d’Honneur at the Grand Palais in Paris through February 16.

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