I'm convinced there is something about jewels that illicit an involuntary, biological response in human beings. Maybe you're skeptical -- if you want proof go check out the Cartier and America exhibition at the Legion of Honor, close your eyes and listen for the audible gasps as visitors make their way through a showcase of the French jeweler's best.
The retrospective (which runs through April 18, 2010) is a celebration of Cartier's 100th anniversary in America. The love affair began in 1909 when the jeweler acquired the 5th Avenue mansion that still houses its New York headquarters, in exchange for a particularly exquisite double-stranded pearl necklace.
Every piece in the exhibition is similarly steeped in legend: the diamond cuff bracelets Gloria Swanson wore in the film Sunset Boulevard; the bejeweled flamingo pin that Wallis Simpson wore in her first public appearance after Edward VIII gave up the throne to marry her; the diamond engagement ring Prince Rainier gave to Grace Kelly (to name a few).
Gloria Swanson wearing Cartier bracelets. 1930.
Cartier has been called the "Jeweler of the Kings, King of the Jewelers." The atelier earned the moniker for keeping the royal courts of England, Spain, Portugal, Russia, Siam, Greece, Serbia, Belgium, Romania, Egypt, Albania, and Monaco outfitted in jewels throughout the twentieth century. Minus a monarchy, aristocrats and celebrities assumed the mantle (or maybe I should say tiara) of maintaining the jeweler's presence in America.
In this way, the exhibition is as much a retrospective of American society and Hollywood celebrity in the twentieth century as it is of gorgeous and innovative jewelry design. The effect is a bit like splicing together the History Channel and the E! Network -- there is a gold-plated trowel FDR used to inaugurate a "New Deal" Program and a room devoted just to the personal jewelry of Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly.
Elizabeth Taylor wearing Cartier ruby and diamond necklace. 1958.
Cartier and America is meticulously curated, and breathtaking in scope. It features nearly 300 pieces -- necklaces, bracelets, brooches, pendants, rings, tiaras, cigarette cases, clocks -- made from all manner of materials -- diamonds, emeralds, rubies, sapphires, coral, jade, turquoise, platinum, silver, gold -- crafted between the turn of the century and the 1970s.
And while the blinding 47.69-carat "Star of South Africa" (credited with unleashing the South African diamond rush) is on display, strikingly absent is any mention whatsoever of the political controversy associated with diamonds mined in Africa and used to finance insurgent violence. It's an uncomfortable omission, since in the midst of such auspicious and extravagant wealth one has to wonder about the cost of it all.
Cartier and America is at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco through April 18, 2010. For tickets and information visit famsf.org.