Fascinated by the chimera of Greek mythology, Louis Cartier—a scion of the French jewelry house—commissioned in 1922 a jeweled bangle carved from coral in the shape of a two-headed version of the imaginary beast. Several more pieces on the same theme followed. These contemporary depictions of ancient, exotic figures helped to lay the foundation for a design movement that celebrated such sculptural jewelry pieces as objets d’art in their own right, and greatly influenced the house’s legendary Art Deco creations, which debuted at the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs.
Fittingly, the chimera has been revived as the cornerstone of Cartier High Jewelry’s 2009 collection, which was scheduled to debut at the Biennale des Antiquaires at Paris’ Grand Palais in September. Along with Chanel Fine Jewelry—also among the jewelers invited to present at the Biennale—Cartier harks back to the glory days of Parisian design in the 1920s and ’30s with its grand high jewelry that references historic motifs. Each of the 2009 high-jewelry lines from Cartier and Chanel features lavish, one-of-a-kind pieces and serves as the keynote for its creator’s comprehensive 2009 jewelry collection.
"We are revisiting the mythological theme in a contemporary way, showing chimeras along with plumed serpents and wild dragons, in entirely new designs," explains Pierre Rainero, Cartier’s director of image, style, and heritage. "These figures are symbolic; they’re deeply inscribed in every culture and in the human imagination."
The timing was propitious when, two years ago, Rainero’s team discovered a cache of fiery-orange padparadscha sapphires that came from the mines of Sri Lanka. These exceptionally rare gems, whose name comes from a Sanskrit phrase meaning "lotus flower," were combined with various stones to represent the blazes of fire-breathing dragons in an elaborate torsade. "The orange-pink color creates a feeling of warmth and heat," notes Rainero. "People respond to their color; it creates emotion."
Also among Cartier’s newly created high-jewelry designs are three padparadscha rings, each with a grape-size center stone valued at more than $1 million. The rings are especially unusual finds considering the rarity of their center stones, particularly in larger sizes.
Vintage designs in Cartier’s high-jewelry line include a restored diamond collar that was made in 1928 for Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala. After acquiring the collar, Cartier spent more than eight months restoring the damaged platinum setting and replacing missing diamonds with old-cut diamonds that blend seamlessly with the piece’s original stones.
The standout of Chanel Fine Jewelry’s high-jewelry collection—a camellia brooch—was inspired by a single rare stone: a 38-carat, blue-green Paraiba tourmaline, which in the brooch is encircled by diamonds and sea-blue enamel. "We don’t usually design around a stone," says Benjamin Comar, global director of Chanel Fine Jewelry. "We typically start with a design, then source the stones. But we loved the color and purity of this gem. It’s like the Caribbean sea; you want to dive into it."
All of the newly created pieces in Chanel’s high-jewelry ensemble are influenced by Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel’s only diamond jewelry collection, which was presented in Paris in 1932 and included examples of her favored motifs: camellias, bows, comets, and stars. The jewelry house’s 2009 collection "represents the modern version of what Mademoiselle Chanel created in 1932," says Comar.
The camellia also appears in delicate yet voluminous diamond necklaces, watches, and rings—all large yet surprisingly light and open in their lines. The jewelry is handmade at a series of small Parisian ateliers, each of which contributes its own proprietary techniques to the execution of the house’s designs. One of the ateliers, for example, specializes in hand-applied enamels so delicate and translucent that, according to Comar, they resemble stained-glass church windows.
"There is an historical patrimony and historical eye on jewelry at this fair," Comar says of the Biennale. "It underscores the cultural and artistic significance of jewelry over time."