Perhaps more than any other flower genus, orchids captivate with their countless forms and enticing color spectrum. The origins of orchids date back 120 million years, though humans first encountered them in Asia 3,000 to 4,000 years ago. In medieval Europe, the erotically shaped plants were used to concoct aphrodisiacs as well as fertility potions. To the Greeks, they symbolized virility. When orchids appear in dreams, they supposedly represent subliminal desires for delicacy and romance in personal relationships.
“The orchid is the most phenomenal flower that exists,” says Bernard Fornas, president and CEO of Cartier. “It has a strong personality. There are as many as 5,000 varieties, and many symbols are linked to the orchid.” This potent combination of versatility, sensual beauty, romance, and symbolism made the orchid an ideal motif for the next major Cartier collection of jewels: Caresse d’orchidées par Cartier, a prolific line that is expected to have a life cycle of several years.
Last fall, New York City hosted the collection’s international launch, which traditionally opens with a big bang—in this case, 38 high-jewelry pieces dripping with diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and rubellites. The premiere included seven one-of-a-kind creations, some of which required as long as two years to fabricate. “Only a few artists are capable of making such miracles,” says Fornas, who notes that the unique pieces were sold by the following day. “We cannot make 100 of these pieces. They require golden hands, and golden hands do not fall from the sky.” Just as in fashion, Cartier propagates the parade of couture designs into more moderate and basic production pieces that it ships to its 245 boutiques worldwide.
The stones drive the designs of extremely limited high-jewelry pieces, explains Fornas. As Cartier acquires extraordinary gems, it creates jewelry to showcase them. “We are running all over the world for exceptional stones all the time,” he says. “We are now buying stones for pieces that will be in the market two or three years from now.”
Indeed, a single stone was the genesis of Caresse d’orchidées, says Jacqueline Karachi-Langane, the high-jewelry atelier’s creative director, who came upon a pink sapphire that reminded her of a flower. “Generally the stone—the color, form, spirit—is the first inspiration,” she says. “The spirit of the stones gives spirit to the jewelry.” She decided to create a floral ring, but she wanted to present a special flower, something very feminine; she chose an orchid, a form that had long been in Cartier’s repertoire. Karachi-Langane and company executives immediately recognized that the ring could be the basis for an entire collection.
At Cartier, each piece of high jewelry starts with a drawing or a three-dimensional wax model that the designer translates onto paper. The sketches, which specify the selected stones, then go to the workshop, where Xavier Gargat and his team evaluate them for feasibility and cost. Gargat oversees the atelier, where 60 craftsmen work primarily on unique pieces, prototypes, and special orders. Once an executive committee approves a piece, the manufacturing process begins.
First the sketch is drafted onto graph paper and marked with specific dimensions and specs for spaces that will hold the gems. “Here, people must work with their heads before they start working with their hands,” says Gargat. Throughout the process, the jewelers may encounter problems with the designer’s initial concept, requiring a back-and-forth exchange to resolve the issues.
The design for one orchid brooch, for example, dictated large batches of gems of the same hue, as well as varying shades of that color, to create the tonal gradation of the flower’s intricate pavé pattern. Assembling such a cache of stones proved difficult. The other challenge was making the piece appear light and blossomlike despite its large size. “The technical difficulty and the aesthetics are integrated, so major teamwork is required to achieve success,” says Gargat.
Using manual tools, the jewelers start with raw pieces of precious metal, which they cut and drill holes into to form the design’s skeletal components. Before a piece is appointed with gems, a craftsman uses a cotton cloth to polish the back of the form and each individual hole that will hold a stone. This process enhances the light refraction through the gems. One of the firm’s five setters then fixes the gems into the metal form, securing each stone with six prongs. A six-prong setting takes longer to make, but it is stronger than other settings, and the metal is less visible. Once the stones are in place and the piece has been thoroughly polished, a jeweler assembles the finished product.
Quality assessment is ongoing throughout the process. Ultimately, quality controllers in Cartier headquarters examine each finished piece for flaws. “There is zero tolerance for defects,” says Gargat. “This is probably the most demanding workshop in the world. This is a corporate culture, an attitude that is distinctly Cartier.”
Masterful artisans are rare assets, so Cartier invests in educational programs, such as its own polishing school, to train the next generation of golden hands. “It’s not easy to find talent,” says Gargat. “Many people will want to learn, but few will persevere. It’s a very demanding job that requires time to earn a decent living. Very few get to the point where they become experts.”
Cartier trains apprentices, but then encourages them to work elsewhere. “Ideally, it would work like the old guilds,” he explains. “They train here, then travel to open their minds, and come back with enriched skill and know-how.”
While producing the Caresse d’orchidées collection, Gargat’s team also has spent the past year developing a high-jewelry collection to commemorate December’s reopening of the historic Paris flagship at 13 rue de la Paix.
The Rue de la Paix collection comprises pieces that evoke the historical flavor of such iconic Cartier collections as Tutti Frutti from the Art Deco era. One piece, reveals Karachi-Langane, features a historic pink diamond, the 128.48-carat Star of the South. “It is very interesting to work with stones like that, because they have a history and you feel very humble before them,” she says. “It’s not a matter of making a nice design, but of creating something that will not take away from the personality of the stone.”
Rue de la Paix, where kings and Cartier’s most famous clients once came to commission their jewelry, also will be the new address of the company’s high-jewelry workshops. “The jewelers are very excited to move to rue de la Paix,” says Gargat. “It is like Mecca for them. They feel greatly rewarded to be able to work in such a mythical place.”
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