The panther motif in the jewelry world is associated exclusively with the house of Cartier. Moreover, this connection is so strong that any attempt to depict a big cat by another jeweler is automatically equated with plagiarism. It all began in 1914 with a watercolor illustration by Georges Barbier, painted by the order of Louis Cartier. A fashionable Parisian artist depicted a mysterious woman dressed in Poiret, with a black panther resting aside her feet. Originally, the illustration was created to decorate the invitations to the jewelry exhibition in the salon on Rue de la Paix, but soon it was used in the company’s advertising materials. The same year, in collaboration with the designer Charles Jacqueau, the Cartier house created a women’s wristwatch, with a diamond and onyx décor, imitating a panther’s skin. Next, in 1915, a watch brooch with a similar pattern appeared.
At the turn of the 19th-20th centuries the “lady with panther” motif was in vogue, as an expression of a strong, confident, sexy and free woman. This was promoted by the growing interest of Europeans in Egyptian culture, in which the cat had a special, almost divine role. A real predator lived in the apartment of French actress, Sarah Bernhardt; the Italian Marchesa Luisa Casati shocked Parisians with a regular walk with two cheetahs on diamond-encrusted leads, and the American designer Elsie de Wolfe used the animal’s fur to decorate the interiors. The legendary Cartier director Jeanne Toussaint, faithful friend and muse of Louis Cartier, followed a fashion trend and sported a fur coat from the skin of a leopard.
Toussaint joined the company in 1917, headed the accessories department and designed a vanity case with the first figurative appearance of a panther in the form of an onyx bas-relief. There is an opinion that this experiment was inspired by a stuffed big cat, standing in one of the rooms of the rose-marble palace of Marchesa Casati near Paris. According to another version, Toussaint was imbued with the energy of the panther after she became an eyewitness of the persecution of prey by predator during an African safari. It is interesting to note that before the Second World War assortment panthers were not often seen in the Cartier collection. In 1933, Jeanne Toussaint headed the department of Haute Joaillerie, but started actively developing the cat’s theme was only a decade and a half later.
A great contribution to the creation of the icon was made by the designer Peter Lemarchand, who joined the firm in 1927. He spent days observing the life of a panther in one of the Parisian zoos, sketched the predators in various poses that were familiar to them, and then transformed the ideas into jewelry drawings. In 1948, by the order of the Duke of Windsor, Cartier created a brooch in which the first three-dimensional yellow-gold cat was placed on a 90-carat light green beryl. A year later, Jeanne Toussaint designed another brooch, in which the diamond Panther sat on a 152-carats cabochon-cut Kashmir sapphire. This piece also joined the collection of the Duchess of Windsor and is still considered one of the most significant “cat’s” works of Cartier. During her long life with the renounced King of Great Britain, Wallis Simpson assembled an impressive collection of Cartier predators, but was by no means the only fan of the animalistic direction of the brand. Mexican actress Maria Felix, socialites Barbara Hatton and Daisy Fellowes, and the once former princess Aga Khan Nina Dyer were also adepts of the brand’s cat kingdom and contributed to the formation of its jewelry icon.
In 2014, the Cartier’s Panther celebrated its centennial. For a hundred years, the big cat has undergone significant changes: the illustration of Georges Barbier gave birth to a precious miniature sculpture, the “fur” pattern on the watch opened the doors for a full figurative appearance of the predator in the brand’s jewelry, the flat forms became three-dimensional, the panther kingdom was filled with tigers, and the cats themselves have been made in all kinds of techniques, including laborious Venetian mosaics and gold granulation. To reproduce the texture of the animal’s fur, the jewelers even invented a “fur” setting, complicating and modifying the classical full pavé setting. All we would need is the predator to come alive and start moving in the space around us. And you never know; maybe it will happen soon as progress moves really fast.