LONDON — The history and evolution of Cartier’s Panthère collection, celebrating its 100th birthday this year, was the topic of a conversation between Pierre Rainero, Cartier’s director of image, style and heritage, and jewelry historian Vivienne Becker at the Victoria & Albert Museum on Monday night.
“Cartier’s Panthère is perhaps the most famous jewelry emblem of all time,” said Becker in her introduction to the audience of V&A members. “It is the quintessential symbol of powerful femininity, and was worn by the likes of Daisy Fellowes, Nina Dyer and the Duchess of Windsor.”
The earliest instance of the panther — a diamond pavé and onyx pattern, known as the pavage peau de panthère — first appeared in 1914 as a bracelet watch conceived by Cartier’s designer, Charles Jacqueau, the architect of the company’s Art Deco style. That same year, illustrator George Barbier created a display card for the brand showing a fashionably gowned woman with a black panther at her feet.
Rainero attributed the enduring success of the brand’s iconic big cat to the vision of Jeanne Toussaint, a former model, muse and lover of Louis Cartier, who appointed her head of accessories and leather goods in 1919. Nearly 14 years later, when Cartier retired in 1933, he named Toussaint as his successor as creative director to his collections, deciding against choosing a family member for the role.
“In those years, to be a woman within a jewelry house, you had to be stronger than the men,” explained Rainero, adding that she diplomatically kept ateliers, designers, salespeople and customers happy. Explaining that while having a big cat as a pet — like Sarah Bernhardt, Josephine Baker or the Marchesa Casati — was seen as the height of glamour and sophistication, it wasn’t until after World War II that women began to wear jewelry in the shape of animals.
“It was a very strong statement,” he explained. “Only an actress or a courtesan would wear such pieces but it was not seen as appropriate for women in society.” Before the war, intimations of fauna were limited to birds and insects.
The Duchess of Windsor, a public figure of much scrutiny and controversy, was one of the first women to adopt the panther symbol into her wardrobe. She approached Cartier with a large cabochon emerald and Toussaint proposed that it be made into a brooch with a panther, complete with emerald eyes and snarling teeth, perched atop it.
“It was a very daring piece for a woman to wear,” said Rainero. “And there developed a kind of competition between women in society. If one had a bracelet, another had to have a necklace.”
Rainero continued to entertain the audience with anecdotes from Toussaint’s career and life, including the instance when she stopped Hubert de Givenchy on the Rue De La Paix in Paris and asked him to introduce her to Cristobal Balenciaga. She cooked the two designers paella in honor of Balenciaga’s heritage.
“In the special order department, we have many people asking us to create jeweled versions of their pets,” Rainero told WWD after the talk. “Cats, dogs and some mouses [sic]. We have been asked to create a hippopotamus and once an enormous ring turned out to be for the toe os a very particular gentleman.”
A book on the history of Cartier’s Panthère will be published by Assouline next year.