Panthers, Royals and Tutti Frutti: Inside the House of Cartier

Five legends of the famed French jeweler, which opens its latest atelier today in the brand-new River Oaks District.

By Sarah Rufca Nielsen September 3, 2015

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The new Cartier boutique in River Oaks District.

An haute joaillerie (that's a high-end jeweler, for the non-Francophiles) without its own permanent maison is like a royal banished from court: still full of grandeur, but less impressive without its equally glorious surrounds. 

That's been the situation for Cartier since May 2014, when the jeweler decamped from The Galleria to open a temporary space on Post Oak. Until today, that is, when Cartier opens the doors to its brand-new boutique, the first space to open in the equally fresh River Oaks District.

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Cartier's sleek space, a collection of gold, bronze and beige designed by architect Bruno Moinard, will be the first of an astonishing five ultra-luxe jewelers to call the District home, with Chopard, Patek Philippe at deBoulle, Van Cleef and Arpel and the newly announced Harry Winston to follow.

In honor of Cartier's re-introduction to Houston's rich and blingy, here are five important moments and motifs from the history of the illustrious brand.

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Image: Shutterstock

1. Royals love Cartier

At the turn of the 20th century, the Prince of Wales, soon to be known as King Edward VII, declared Cartier the "jeweler of kings and king of the jewelers." Certainly royals across Europe and beyond had a special affinity for Cartier's work, with the house creating stunning tiaras and other major pieces of jewelry for rulers like Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna of Russia; Elizabeth, Queen of the Belgians; Grace Kelly; and Wallis Simpson, the controversial wife of Edward, the Duke of Windsor. The 'Halo' tiara that Kate Middleton wore at her wedding in 2011 was made by Cartier in 1936 for the future Queen Elizabeth.

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The diamond, platinum and 152-carat cabochon sapphire panther brooch was made by Cartier Paris for Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, in 1949.

2. The iconic Cartier panther was inspired by a real woman

The first time one of Cartier's pieces was inspired by the panther, it was 1914 and referred to an animal-like pattern of black onyx spots on a diamond wristwatch. The Panther did not take on signature status at the brand until the arrival of Jeanne Toussant. Like her erstwhile friend Coco Chanel, Toussant was not born to luxury and had to use her charms and the company of the right men to make her way into high society. The longtime mistress of Louis Cartier, Toussant joined Cartier in 1918 and was named director of haute joaillerie in 1933. It was effortlessly fashionable Toussant, nicknamed La Panthère, who led the brand from the geometric art deco designs into the world of figurative flowers and animals, designing some of the house's most iconic pieces. 

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A Cartier brooch of a lapis and diamond bird escaping its cage, made in 1947, represented the liberation of France from German occupation.

3. Cartier and the liberation of France

During the French occupation of World War II, Cartier Paris continued to produce exquisite pieces of jewelry despite a lack of available resources. The design of a bird made of lapis trapped in a cage was made to symbolize the plight of France, and was followed by a freed bird a few years later. Cartier's London location, however, was the center of the free French movement, and the family gave over the top three floors of their building to Charles de Gaulle to use for the war effort.

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The necklace of sapphires, emeralds, rubies, diamonds, platinum and white gold in the Tutti Frutti style was commissioned by socialite and heiress Daisy Fellowes in 1936.

4. Passport to India

Americans will always think of Cartier as quintessentially French, but the brand has been much inspired by the subcontinent of India from the early years. After Jacques Cartier opened the London branch in 1906, he discovered that the British colony had a wealth of incredible gemstones, a whole new class of ruling maharajas to create for and most importantly its own dazzling aesthetic. From about 1920, Indian-inspired designs featuring colorful emeralds, sapphires and rubies became a signature of the House of Cartier, eventually dubbed the Tutti Frutti style in 1970.

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The Hope Diamond in the American Museum of Natural History

5. Hope springs eternal

The stone that now known as the Hope Diamond traveled from India to the French throne (where it was known as Le Bleu de France) before the French Revolution led to its disappearance. Eventually a smaller, recut version of the famous blue diamond re-emerged, and after a series of owners (who may or may not have had a series of misfortunes befall them), it was bought by Pierre Cartier, who eventually sold it, despite publicity-inducing fears about the stone as a harbinger of bad luck, to Washington D.C. heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean for a reported $300,000.

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