No other animal figure is more emblematic of a jewelry brand than Cartier’s panther. The iconic cat pounced its way into the French Maison’s designs in the early 20th century, at a time when animal skins were all the rage in the fashionable world.
Up until the First World War, the panther and its likeness rarely appeared in medieval and Renaissance Europe. Panther skins during the sixteenth and seventeenth century were prized items in curiosity cabinets, a valuable hunting animal revered for its exquisitely patterned fur. As Europe explored and colonized the world, European painters depicted the new colonies and their ‘noble savages’ wearing primitive swaths of leopard skin.
By 1900, ‘Lady with Panther’ became a favorite motif in European art, much like the Virgin and the Unicorn theme during the medieval era. The subtly erotic and infernal nature of the combination was beguiling. The Lady-Panther subject was most notably rendered by Belgian artist Walter Sauer in ‘Femme devenue panthère’ in 1919 and fellow Belgian symbolist Khnopff in ‘La Caresse’.
During the early 19th century, the panther’s image as a motif was quite palpable, its rise in popularity partially credited to the stylish interiors decorated by Elsie de Wolfe. The New York native and amateur actress, also known as Lady Mendl, made her mark on society not on the stage but in her exceptional talents in interior décor. In 1907, de Wolfe was commissioned for the interior design of the newly built Colony Club, the premier women’s social club in New York whose building was designed by famed architect Stanford White. The rave reviews of her work launched her career as the preferred interior decorator of international society. More importantly, de Wolfe pioneered the use of exotic animal skins in interior design, examples of which could be seen at her Villa Trianon in Versailles.
Cartier Panter Diamond and Onyx Earrings (Click photo to enlarge).
As the rest of the fashionable world followed suit in incorporating panther skins into their work, designers at Cartier found the panther skin ripe with inspiration, its modish print re-imagined in onyx and diamond. The first panther-pattern appeared on a wrist-watch in 1914, with its second appearance seen just a year later on a pendant watch.
Interestingly, the first image of a panther at the French firm appeared not in jeweled form but in a drawing by the great French illustrator George Barbier. In 1914, Louis Cartier commissioned the picture ‘Lady with Panther’ from Barbier to be used as an exhibition card. So striking was the illustration, which shows a lady wearing a Poiret gown with a black panther laying at her feet in between two columns, that Cartier later used it for advertising. However, Cartier had yet to create a reproduction of the panther figure in full.
Presumably made around 1917, a vanity case owned by Jeanne Toussaint, a close friend of Louis Cartier’s at the time and later the firm’s Creative Director, featured the first representation of the entire animal. Fondly known as ‘Panther’, Toussaint’s affinity for the exotic could be seen in the number of animal furs she owned, as well as the panther carpets that adorned her apartment in Paris.
Not too surprisingly, the design of her onyx panther vanity case proved quite fitting. It was the first in a series with animal decorations in miniature, based largely on Barbier’s 1914 drawing. In similarity to the illustration, the decorations on the vanity case depict a stalking panther in diamonds situated in between two carved emerald cypress trees instead of ionic columns. Other versions in the series include dogs at play and a leaping gazelle.
Though the abstract dot-pattern derived from the panther pelt would speckle a handful of Cartier’s designs from 1922 to 1927, it would be years before a three-dimensional version of the panther would emerge. That momentous event occurred in 1948 when the Duke of Windsor placed a special order for a panther brooch as a present for the Duchess of Windsor. The resulting jewel is a powerful yet simple composition: atop a 116.74-carat emerald rests a proud outstretched gold panther flecked with black enamel. One year later, the Duchess of Windsor added a second panther jewel to her collection, this time in the form of a pavé diamond panther with sapphire spots crouching around a stunning 152.35-carat cabochon sapphire. The third, and most exceptional, jewel in the Duchess’s suite of panthers was ordered in 1952: a beautifully articulated bracelet of an outstretched panther in diamond and onyx with emerald eyes. Even more cats would later be added to the Duchess’s collection.
The Duchess of Windsor’s suite of Cartier Panther Jewels (Click photo’s to enlarge)
It wasn’t long before society’s most stylish doyennes wanted panthers of their own. In 1950, Daisy Fellowes commissioned a panther brooch of sapphire and diamond, the design of which is clearly modeled after the pendant of the Order of the Golden Fleece.
Princess Nina Aga Khan’s appetite for Cartier’s panther jewels began in 1957 with a jabot-pin featuring an outstretched panther much like that of the Duchess of Windsor’s. Within a few years, the Princess would acquire the most extensive suite of panther jewelry from Cartier. Her impressive parure included an articulated panther pendant of the Golden Fleece design, an open panther-head bangle of similar design to ancient Mediterranean animal-head styles, a second fluted gold bangle with panther-head terminals that could also be worn as earclips, and a ring with a crouching tiger. She didn’t only love panther Jewels, she commisioned also accessoiries, a bag, watch and picture frames.
The third most notable collector of Cartier’s cats was Barbara Hutton, who opted for the firm’s tiger variations. She commissioned a brooch of canary-yellow diamonds striped with onyx along with a pair of matching earclips, all of which are in the likeness of the Golden Fleece, as well as a spectacular gold and black enamel tiger bracelet and an evening bag featuring an enameled tiger ornament.
Today, the panther remains Cartier’s most favorite designs. The older covetable cats continue to achieve astronomical prices at auction while newer versions are available from Cartier in a range of styles and prices, from the firm’s one-of-a-kind High Jewelry creations to more simplified varieties in the Panthère de Cartier collection.
Cartier Panther new designs (Click photos to enlarge).