The fantastical world of Cartier watches

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The Cartier Style and History exhibition shows where watches and clocks lie on the jewellery house’s horizons

The Cartier exhibition, Cartier Style And History, at the Grand Palais in Paris is naturally dominated by a parade of fabulous tiaras, visions of the orient realised in precious metals and stones and other wonders (for more on which, see Maria Doulton’s review), but there is plenty of reasons to go for those whose first concern is the watches.

For a start, there are examples of the first Santos, Tonneau and Tank watches, designs that set standards which are still followed today, then there is display of mystery clocks that has never been equalled. But neither of those excellent reasons to travel catches the real value of the Grand Palais exhibition. This is that the show makes it clear that the watches and clocks at Cartier have always been part of a wider horizon, existing within a sometimes fantastical world that encompasses everything from the Maharajah of Patiala’s barely believable jewels, to lacquered lighters and Fosch’s Marshal of France baton.

Cartier WatchCartier began in the late 19th century as a house determined to stand aside from the prevailing fashion (a preference for Marie-Antoinette over art nouveau in particular attracted American and other European clients), but the succeeding generations’ interest in travel and the world beyond Paris helped Cartier to start creating styles that others followed. As both became accepted and demanded in the early 20th century, jewellery techniques and decorative schemes were increasingly applied to more everyday items, even to cigarette cases. It was that sensibility that created both the first wristwatches and, even more so, the mystery clocks.

If the watches on show are not as brilliant and eye-catching as Jeanne Toussaint’s mid-century Panthère designs, they do not suffer from the setting – quite the opposite. The only problem with the watches on show is that they look so familiar, despite being designed a century and more ago, that they seem almost unexceptional (the curators might also have given the watches a little more room to shine, but there you go).

But if you want an insight into how important the past is to Cartier’s future, take a peek at the Rotonde de Cartier Diver. Its details (“codes” in watch design jargon), descend straight from the 1904 Santos (and the later Tonneau), from case design through to the Roman numerals. For those interested, there are several technical refinements to the crown and bezel locks, but both are intended to be invisible and un-noticed by the user, this is, after all, a watch designed for Santos-Dumant’s descendents, following their codes closely. Further away in detail but a contender for the Santos of today is the Tank MC Skeleton, with its ultra-simple design making it recognisable as Cartier from a distance without a logo in sight.

By James Gurney
December 19, 2013

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