The Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding tiara and Elizabeth Taylor’s ruby necklace are among the priceless pieces on show. The elegant woman from the world-famous jewellers looked momentarily puzzled: “The Halo diadem? … Ah, you mean Kate’s tiara.” She led the way through the Salon d’Honneur at the Grand Palais in Paris to a velvet-lined display case containing a platinum and diamond tiara fit for a princess.
To ensure its significance did not go unremarked, there was a framed photograph of Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, wearing the Halo diadem – “something borrowed” from the Queen – at her wedding to Prince William in 2011. Visitors gathered around the tiara – made in 1936 for Princess Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother, and relatively understated for a diamond-encrusted headband designed for royal use. “It’s quite simple, quite modest,” one noted with surprise.
In its current company at a new show, Cartier: the Style and the History, which opens in Paris on Wednesday, “Kate’s tiara” might well appear a model of restraint. The display spans more than a century from the French maison’s birth in 1847, via its description by Edward VII as “the jeweller of kings, and the king of jewellers”, up until the 1970s. It is a social and artistic statement of the times.
Undaunted by wars, economic depression and upheaval, the exhibition reveals that when the going gets tough, the world’s royals, heiresses, socialites, bankers’ wives, celebrities and even maharajas get shopping for sparklers.
Among the exhibits is a ruby necklace given to Elizabeth Taylor by her third husband, Mike Todd. A short film shows her wearing the piece and matching earrings at a swimming pool in St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat on the French Riviera in 1957.
A hand-drawn design for a necklace incorporating the historicLa Peregrina pearl, given to Taylor by Richard Burton, is also on display, alongside a handful of elegant jewels commissioned for Princess Grace of Monaco.
There is also the23.6ct Williamson diamond, considered to be the finest pink diamond ever found, set in a flower brooch on loan from Queen Elizabeth II.
Even that, however, pales in comparison with the sheer ostentation of jewels commissioned by the would-be royal Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor.
True to her mantra that “if you can afford it then there’s no pleasure buying it”, Simpson – exiled to Paris with little apparent source of income – set about making what the curators describe as “particularly extravagant orders”: a three-dimensional diamond-encrusted panther atop a perfectly round sapphire larger than a hazelnut; a glittering, multi-gem flamingo brooch; a necklace sporting diamonds, turquoise and 27 amethysts including one cut in the form of a heart and a gold perfume spray.
The exhibition, which features 600 jewels as well as sketches, paintings and clothes – the majority from Cartier’s own archives – has raised questions over its blurred distinction between history and state-sponsored advertising.
The joint curator Laure Dalon, employed by the French national museums authority, said Cartier had approached the Grand Palais to suggest organising the exhibition, which she insisted is of genuine cultural and historic interest.
“Cartier is one of France’s iconic companies and is a part of France’s tradition and heritage. Of course, it would be naive of me to deny that it is very good publicity for the company, but we’ve done this very seriously.
“It’s a new subject for us, but we have approached it as a history of art, in this case jewellery. The exhibition has been independently curated and the company did not interfere at all.”
She added: “We also stopped at 1970 to make a clear boundary between the historical aspect and the contemporary company. This exhibition has nothing to do with what Cartier is doing today.”
Asked to put a value on the collection, Dalon shook her head.
“Impossible to say. It’s not just the actual monetary value of the pieces but their social history, their owners and their place in the history of decorative arts.” She added: “That makes them priceless, really.”