DENVER (AP) — In one corner of the gallery, Grace Kelly polishes her engagement ring on screen in the 1956 musical “High Society.” In a case just steps away sits a dazzling 10.5-carat Cartier emerald-cut diamond given to her by her real-life fiance, which she wore in that final film role just before becoming Princess Grace of Monaco.
It’s one of over 250 jewels, timepieces and other luxury accessories crafted by the Paris-based jeweler, some of them rarely seen by the public, that’s been assembled from Cartier’s own collection and private owners for an exclusive show at the Denver Art Museum starting Sunday. “Brilliant: Cartier in the 20th Century” shows how Cartier’s creations both mirrored changes in society and helped pioneer styles through wars, the growing independence of women and interest in designs from beyond the West.
Princess Grace’s ring, a 64-carat diamond necklace, and an example of the yellow gold jewelry she favored in private — a brooch of a mother bird atop a nest of pearl eggs — appear in the show’s finale focused women who embraced Cartier during the last century.
They include Elizabeth Taylor, whose ruby-and-diamond necklace from second husband Mike Todd is on display. It can conveniently be converted into a tiara with the addition of a frame. There are also two large gold three-dimensional crocodiles, one encrusted with more than 1,000 emeralds, the other with 1,000 yellow diamonds, which can be formed into a necklace that belonged to Mexican film actress Maria Felix.
“She had style and she wasn’t afraid to flaunt it,” show curator Margaret Young-Sanchez said of Felix.
From the Duchess of Windsor — the former Wallis Simpson — there’s a bracelet and brooch featuring a jeweled panther sitting on top of a sapphire cabochon, among other items. The panther became both a symbol of the brand and also of the greater boldness of women’s style by the middle of the century, said Pierre Rainero, who oversees Cartier’s efforts to buy back and preserve its pieces.
“It was very daring. Until that moment, it was only linked to women outside of society,” Rainero said of the panther.
The diamond necklace with the enormous emerald used in the show’s promotional materials was made in 1932 for Lady Granard, the daughter of American financier Ogden Mills, who married an earl. She wore such over-the-top jewels into her old age, leading one diarist at the time to remark that the woman could barely walk because of their weight, Young-Sanchez said.
The exhibit also shows how the influence of the Ballet Russes dance company, which had foreign-themed costumes and sets designed by artists like Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, helped create a demand for jewelry influenced by Egyptian, Islamic and Indian styles. After World War I, that gave Cartier the freedom to use new materials and designs beyond the traditional diamond and gem creations that had been sought in conservative society. One of the most famous results of this was the “tutti frutti” designs in which multi-colored jewels, some engraved to resemble flowers and leaves, are pieced together in a mosaic, an influence from India.
Some of eastern-inspired designs echo the chunky bib costume necklaces worn today, albeit without the precious jewels.
Objects made for men aren’t overlooked but there’s much less bling. They include Cartier’s famous and much copied wristwatches, favored by Juan Peron, Cary Grant and Andy Warhol. Louis Cartier began working on streamlined watches for men to wear around their wrists instead of in their pockets in 1904, about 25 years before they became popular. There are also the cigarette cases, cuff links and even a pocket knife.
Besides the iconic watches, the brand’s influence stretches beyond those rich enough to own pieces of their own.
One of its enduring and copied styles is the Trinity ring — a trio of bands of yellow, rose and white gold. Cartier was also a pioneer in using platinum as a setting to show off the sparkle of diamonds, an approach now common in engagement rings. At the turn of the century, the strong metal was mainly used in industry, not jewelry, but Cartier developed a way to shape it and hold diamonds, Young-Sanchez said. Previously, jewelry makers had overlaid silver on top of gold to boost the appearance of diamonds but the softer silver required frequent polishing.
The show runs through March 15.