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Tuesday, Dec. 25, 2007
A treasure trove
Cartier seeks to reclaim jewelry from its historic collection
By MARTIN WEBB
Special to The Japan Times
"Cartier is unique in terms of the size of our archives," says Bernard Fornas, the president and CEO of the prestigious jewelry brand Cartier. "Since the very beginning we have kept in our archives virtually everything that has been designed."
Thus begins the implacable Frenchman, who visited Japan to unveil an exhibition of more than 40 artifacts from the luxury maison's illustrious past that are being displayed around the refitted store. Comfortably seated in the VIP room of the newly refurbished Cartier flagship store in Tokyo's gilded Ginza district, Fornas discusses how the house has meticulously cataloged every one of its creations since 1906.
"But even this was not enough," he says. "We thought we should also have a private collection that shows not only the creativity of Cartier, but also the history of jewelry and of changing aesthetic movements, of Art Deco and so on."
Hence the Cartier management implemented a program to buy back many of its most historically significant pieces. The priceless collection now comprises some 40,000 photographs and 1,300 pieces of fine jewelry.
The creations on show in Ginza, where they can be viewed until Dec. 30, serve as a fascinating documentation of the previous century's evolving tastes. Ruby-studded powder cases, engraved lighters and cigarette cases, a brooch belonging to Sir Elton John and a wrist watch purchased by Dame Elizabeth Taylor are among the treasures that afford intriguing insights into the follies of the rich and famous of current and bygone eras.
According to Fornas, many museums around the world have expressed interest in staging exhibitions of the collection.
"For example, we were at the Moscow Kremlin museum, the first time a brand was there," he says. "We were invited because the archive shows more than just Cartier, it is the history of jewelry and of culture, too."
Exhibitions of the archive have also been held in Beijing's Forbidden City and at the Daigoji Temple in Kyoto.
"This collection definitely gives us a competitive advantage over other brands," Fornas boasts. "We have the most important pieces of jewelry ever made," citing the legendary Taylor-Burton Diamond that more than 6,000 people flocked to see the day it was displayed in Cartier's New York store window; the Patiala necklace, which Cartier crafted with 2,930 diamonds for a maharajah in 1928; and the panther brooch made for the Duchess of Windsor in the 1930s.
Many of these pieces have stories behind their creation that are as intriguing as the jewelry themselves. One of Fornas' favorites is about a piece created in 1975 for the late Mexican actress Maria Felix.
"She came to our flagship 13 rue de la Paix (store) with a glass jar containing two baby crocodiles," he says. "She said she wanted a necklace crafted in their image, but that we should hurry because they were growing. The finished product is amazing — everything is articulated so they move like real reptiles."
As for more recent acquisitions for the archive, Fornas says that the house prides itself on its strict confidentiality — but, he says, Cartier "continues to have stories like this every day. There are regularly auction sales where we buy symbolic pieces, and sometimes people come to us directly — it's a living collection."
He is also keen to stress the affinity that Japan has with the brand.
"The Japanese are very fond of Cartier. The people here who love 'high jewelry' come to Cartier first because there is a lot of creativity," he states. "They are very sophisticated and have a great knowledge of culture, and I think that is why there is a love story between Cartier and the Japanese people."
Over the years the Fondation Cartier, the house's contemporary art museum in Paris, has supported many Japanese artists.
"Quite a few of the pieces in our collections are by Japanese artists. We've done several exhibitions of Japanese artists, too," says Fornas. "Takashi Murakami, for example — we were the first to bring him to Europe in 2001. He was almost unknown then. Also Issey Miyake, and the photographers Rinko Kawauchi and Hiroshi Sugimoto have had exhibitions at the Fondation."
A retrospective of its activities was held at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo last year and drew record crowds.
Last year Cartier staged an event in conjunction with online fashion retail site Girl's Walker, which runs the Tokyo Girls Collection. The event attracts more than 20,000 young Japanese women who watch models showing off clothes that they can then buy via their cell phones. Later in the year a rival brand teamed up with the same company to stage a similar event. But Fornas is sanguine about it.
"We're always first. As a rule, we never do something that others have done before us," he says. "In fact, I've never had to turn a proposal down because somebody else had done it first. We're inspiring other people, other brands. We've always been pioneers — in the 1900s, the Cartier brothers were traveling with their jewelry in their luggage, going to the palaces of maharajahs. These days, we are also like merchants, going around the world showing off our creativity, always trying to surprise people."